Easter is the pivotal day in the Christian calendar. As Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). At the heart of Christian faith is the paschal mystery—Jesus’ life, death and resurrection some 2,000 years ago. But the events we celebrate at Easter do not belong only to the past. Rather, on Easter Sunday the past, present and future come together.
The past dimension of the paschal mystery is summarized in the excerpt from Peter’s speech in Acts 10. There Peter proclaims the basic elements of Christian belief about Jesus. Having been baptized by John, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and went about the land of Israel, proclaiming God’s kingdom and healing to those in need of it. Then he was put to death by crucifixion (“hanging him on a tree”). And yet God raised Jesus from the dead, and he appeared alive again to those who had known him beforehand. He commissioned them to proclaim forgiveness of sins “through his name.” The paschal mystery is rooted in a past event of some 2,000 years ago.
The genesis of Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection is captured in the empty tomb story in John 20. On Easter Sunday morning Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. She had seen Jesus die and knew where he was buried. At her bidding, Peter and the beloved disciple went to the tomb, and they too found it empty. On entering the tomb (a large cave cut out of the limestone that surrounds Jerusalem), they discovered Jesus’ burial cloths neatly arranged but no corpse. And yet the beloved disciple, according to John, “saw and believed.”
What did the beloved disciple see and believe? He saw that Jesus’ tomb was empty and believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This belief did not come easily. While many Jews in Jesus’ time had come to believe in resurrection, they expected it to happen collectively on the last day of history as they knew it, along with the general judgment. Nevertheless, the beloved disciple glimpsed from the “tidy tomb” that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that the new age and new creation had already begun.
The present dimension of the paschal mystery is expressed powerfully in the reading from Colossians 3. It reminds us that in baptism we have died with Christ and that our life is now hidden with Christ in God. Baptism is our participation in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Through baptism we have entered into the paschal mystery, and it can and should shape our life and give us spiritual energy. As we welcome new members into the church and renew our baptismal promises on Easter, we profess the central place of the paschal mystery in our lives and bear witness to Easter as an event in the present.
The future dimension of Easter is noted near the end of Peter’s speech in Acts 10, when he identifies the risen Jesus as the one appointed by God to be the “judge of the living and the dead.” The implication is that we all will be judged on how effectively we have let the paschal mystery shape our lives. Likewise, in Colossians 3 we are told that when Christ our life appears, we too will appear with him in glory, provided that we have lived in accord with the paschal mystery. The future fullness of life with God is the fitting climax to a life lived in conformity with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
On finding the tomb empty, the beloved disciple concluded that Jesus had been raised from the dead. On Easter Sunday—the day that the Lord has made par excellence—we celebrate the victory of life over death. Easter is not merely another spring festival, and it is not simply about Easter eggs and other natural symbols of life (though these may contribute to the message of the day). Rather, Easter means that physical death is not the end of us, that through Christ life has conquered death and that we now enjoy a new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus and so a new way of looking at life.
The empty tomb by itself does not prove the resurrection of Jesus. Skeptics might say that Mary Magdalene went to the wrong tomb or that Jesus’ corpse had been stolen. But Christians believe that the beloved disciple’s instinct was correct and that his belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was well founded. As the Sundays of the Easter season proceed, we will see how Jesus’ first disciples moved from confusion to certainty about what happened to Jesus after he died. We will also see how we are to understand the significance of Easter in the present and future.