For Christians throughout the world the dawn of Easter morning marks the celebration of the triumph of life over death, as we affirm our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Religious faith is easily caricatured these days, dismissed as a failure of nerve before the ambiguities of real life or, more sobering, is identified with a fanaticism that seeks to assert its dominance over nonbelievers. The lessons of Lent remind us of the emptiness of such caricatures.
The annual pilgrimage of Lent is always a renewal of religious memory, as the liturgy leads us through the history of salvation, a story of broken covenants and a God of justice and mercy. It is not a story of easy escapes but of painful exile, of testing in the desert and prophetic denunciations and, finally, of a new covenant sealed in the passion and death of Jesus. On Easter morning, then, Christians do not indulge in a magical but momentary distraction from the raw reality of life and the dangers of our moment in history. On the contrary, our Easter celebration can help us more clearly recognize ourselves and the possibilities of our historical moment.
Christian hope is rooted in Christian realism. Authentic hope is, above all, resilient; it survives the shattering of all expectations. It is capable of confronting a future that can never be clearly predicted and certainly cannot be fully controlled. Easter hope always deals with possibilities rather than guarantees. Hope, when all is said and done, is quite different from security. In our individual lives, as well as in the larger march of history, our Easter faith does not provide any exemption from darkness and danger. But Easter does remind us of the deepest ground of our trust that there is meaning in our world as in our personal lives.
The triumph of Jesus over death assures us that our world will make sense in the long run, even if it sometimes seems to be spinning out of control. The march of history will not end in some cruel joke, even if along the way there are tragic detours. Our personal lives can achieve their full promise, even if our actions sometimes contradict our best intentions. The final word in our personal pilgrimage and in the story of the human family will be a word of light and love.
In the Book of Deuteronomy the people of Israel express their faith that God’s word is uttered in an ever-present now: Today you hear his voice. God’s word is not only a revered memory; it is an enduring challenge. And for the Christian, the passion of Jesus is a contemporaneous experience, renewed in the sacramental remembrance of the liturgy but also present in the scars of the oppressed and the brutalized today, whether in the deserts of Darfur, the violent streets of Baghdad or the forgotten pockets of poverty in affluent Western cities. Whatever you have done to the least of my people, Jesus said, you have done to me. This sense of the continuing passion of Jesus in our world today roots our Easter faith in the actual cries of God’s people.
The religious memories that engage us during Holy Week are fulfilled on Easter morning; but they are, after all, memories of sufferingthe exile of Israel, the passion and death of Jesusand these same memories of suffering and death are the source of a renewed hope. Authentic hope does not blink at the dark realities of life: pain, betrayal, oppression and death. Authentic hope is grounded in the unshakable trust that God will be faithful to his people, and the power of his Spirit can transform darkness into light, rescue love from loneliness and bring life out of death.
Finally, Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus does not only mean that eternal life awaits us after death; we also believe that life can come out of death, that death and resurrection is a pattern that prevails throughout our pilgrimage. If the grain of wheat does not fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. This biblical image (John 12:24) captures a law of our human condition. The life that is not shared is squandered; the life that is given away is richer for the giving. In a world too often darkened by cruelty and violence, we can still recognize triumphs of the human spirit when men and women risk their own lives to save others, on a battlefield or in the less dramatic but daily generosity that holds families together and nourishes children.
The resurrection of Jesus confirms our trust that life comes after death and that life comes out of death. The promise of eternal life awaits us at the end of our pilgrimage, and the promise of new life is present in the daily dying of a life lived in love. The Lord has risen and has gone before us. We need not fear the future.