Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mercy There Is Great

Jesus releasing souls from Hell.
The first Christians knew nothing about Easter and would not have recognized the word we associate with the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The use of the word "Easter" did not become commonplace until the mid-second century, and is found in scripture once.  In the King James Version translation in Acts 12:4, Dr. Luke writes that Herod planned to put Peter on trial after "Easter".  In Luke's Greek version of this scripture, though, he says the trial would be after Passover, actually, "pascha" in the Greek, derived from the Hebrew "pesach".  It makes sense to me that the Elizabethan translation would use the Anglicized "Easter" which most Christians of that time would understand and accept.

Biblical scholars vary in their theories about the origins of the word Easter.  The Venerable Bede writes in De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre. She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe.  Also named as a suspect is the Teutonic goddess of dawn (Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, derived from the word for spring), as well as the Chaldean goddess, Ishtar.  Since I'm not a Bible scholar and have no way of knowing which of these is correct, I'm going to move on.

I've often thought of what it was like for those closest to Jesus to see him brutalized and then crucified.  From the time he was arrested, fear and panic reigned among his disciples and family. Some disciples ran, hid from the authorities, some denied they even knew Jesus.  Some followed him all the way to the cross, where he was killed by the Romans as an example to any who dared to think of crossing them.   

When Mel Gibson produced the film , The Passion of the Christ, in 2004, I didn't go to see the film.  I did try to watch it when it was shown on television, but it was so graphic that I just couldn't watch the entire movie.  If I couldn't watch an actor portray the death of Christ, what must it have been like for Jesus' mother to watch this unfold before her eyes?  What was it like for John to watch Jesus drip blood from the thorns on his head, the whip marks on his back, and the nails that held him to the cross?  It was horror.  It was grief.  It was shock. 

After Jesus was taken from the cross and placed in a tomb, I feel quite certain that no one slept that night, the beginning of the Sabbath.  It's a rare person who has not experienced a death in his family.  The first few days pass in what most hope to be only an illusion, but as time passes, it is clear that the loss is reality.  Mary, Jesus' mother, must have felt that something so grisly and hideous as a crucifixion must have been a horrible nightmare.  But it was real.  It was as real as the plopping sound the blood of her son made as it fell in the dry dirt beneath the cross.

The Saturday after the crucifixion was spent with swollen, painful eyes.  No sleep after witnessing the monstrosity of a crucifixion, knowing that the mutilated body of your son, friend, teacher, brother lay in a stone tomb.  There was no hope on that Saturday, only weeping.  No one was able to eat in that hopeless grief.  The women made it through the day by gathering the items they would take to the tomb on Sunday morning to cleanse the body of Jesus.

Fear and terror obliterated the words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples; they did not remember his telling them about raising the temple up in three days.  All was lost.  Their only thoughts were about escaping the ghastly death Jesus had suffered the day before, so they hid in locked rooms with the windows shut even in the daytime heat, not daring to step outside the door.  Sobbing broke through the dark, stuffy silence. 

We've all been there after the wake, that time when the reality hits that your loved one is not coming back.  He didn't come laughing through the door, saying it was only a joke, looking for someone to make him a sandwich.  He didn't miss those lost shoes that you found behind the chair.  He didn't ask for his favorite dessert.  It didn't make any difference.  Your crying calms enough so that you begin to think about practical things, things like going to the tomb to clean the body and apply fragrant oils.  Since you haven't slept for three days, it's easy to be ready before sunrise to begin the walk out to the tomb. 

And then the unbelievable happened.  Mary saw Jesus standing in the garden.  The tomb had been opened.  There was an angel standing where the body should have been.  Some of the women started to cry again; they were speechless, but some were already on their way back to the room to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard.  Women were the first to preach the resurrection.

That weekend stretched the emotional cords of those who witnessed both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  And the reason for all of this?  Because God could not give any of us away to death and destruction.  He redeemed us with the blood that fell from the cross.  It doesn't matter what your sin is, "mercy there is great" because the blood of Jesus redeems every sin.

Mercy there was great
And grace was free,
Pardon there was multiplied to me,
There my burdened soul
Found liberty,
At Calvary.