16 APRIL 2006
THE MEANING OF EASTER
ARCHBISHOP SEÁN BRADY
Last weekend, golf fans and others watched one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments
– the Masters – draw to its exciting climax in Augusta, Florida. The scene at Augusta
reminded me of a remark attributed to a previous winner, Bernard Langer. It was Easter
Sunday, some years ago, and the interviewer wanted to get the reaction of the newly
crowned victor. “This must be a great day for you Bernard?” he asked. “It certainly
is,” Langer replied, “especially as this is the day My Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ,
rose from the dead.” He had captured the meaning of Easter perfectly in that one
The Resurrection is the crowning truth of Christian faith. It is the reason Christians
believe that life and love do not come to an end in death. It is why we believe that
violence, evil and death will never have the final word in human affairs. Love is stronger
than evil. Life is stronger than death. This is why the word that dominates the Christian
celebration of Easter more than any other is – joy!
The violent death of Jesus was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence
of circumstances but part of the mystery of God’s plan to save humankind. The Old
Testament has revealed this divine plan. In particular the saving death of Jesus had
been foretold by the prophet Isaiah, eight centuries earlier, when he wrote these
Harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly,
he never opened his mouth,
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter-house,
like a sheep that is dumb before it shearers,
never opening its mouth.
By force and by law he was taken;
would anyone plead his cause?
Yes, he was torn away from the land of the living;
for our faults struck down in death.
So God allowed his own Son to be given up to death so that all might be reconciled to
God by that death – reconciled to God from whom humankind had been alienated by sin.
The Italian painter, Caravaggio, painted a marvellous picture of Jesus being buried in
the tomb. In it Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are holding the limp and lifeless
body of Jesus, lovingly and reverently. Mary, the mother of Jesus, gazes intently on
her Son, her right hand stretched out towards him, as if in a last fond farewell. She
is determined to accompany him, with a mother’s love, to the end. John, the beloved
disciple, has his eyes and hands raised to Heaven as if to ask: ‘Heavenly Father what
exactly is going on? What is the meaning of all this?’ Well, the meaning of it all
was soon to become apparent. It wasn’t, as they expected, the final farewell. Even
in the midst of disaster and confusion, Caravaggio communicates the sense that God is
about to act and that life and love will be proven to be greater than evil and death.
On Easter Sunday morning the disciples of Jesus returned to find the tomb empty. Some
have argued that the disciples may have stolen the body. But the tomb had been guarded
by Roman Soldiers. The disciples had been too frightened and confused by the death of
Jesus to have arranged the removal and concealment of a well known body. It would have
been easier to go home than to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming their conviction
of Easter morning ‘He is not here – He is risen!’ This proclamation brought them only
ridicule and death. In the end they endured martyrdom rather than deny what they knew
to be true.
Part of the joy of the disciples in proclaiming the Easter message was in knowing that
what they had seen and spoken to was the same Jesus who only days before had been brutally
and unjustly nailed to the cross. It was the same body, bearing the same wounds, that
had risen, been transformed and which appeared to many, not some new body or ghostly
spirit. The significance of this for a people who were uncertain about the existence of
eternal life was immense. There was no more need to be afraid of death. There was no
more need to grieve without hope when someone died. What Jesus had revealed through
the resurrection was that life and love do not come to an end in death. We are not
condemned to a life without meaning. This life, the only one we will have, is full of
eternal significance. As we say in the Preface we sometimes use at a funeral Mass;
In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord,
for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our
earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.
Many older Russian icons have a beautiful way of portraying this great truth, revealed
in the Resurrection. They show Jesus bending down over an old man to take him by the
right hand and lift him up. The old man is Adam – the human race, you and me. In the
resurrection we are raised beyond the limit of our anxieties to new horizons of possibility
and hope. And, in the words of St. Paul, ‘this hope is not confounded’ because the love
of God has been poured into our hearts through Christ Jesus our Lord. Easter is a time
to look beyond all our fear and prejudices and to prepare a place in the garden of our
hearts for the resurrection of hope and joy. By dying he destroyed our death. By rising
he restored our life. This is the joyful significance of Easter.
+ Seán Brady,
Archbishop of Armagh.
16 April 2006