Sunday is Easter — the Super Bowl of Christian holy days.
As I’ve pointed out before, Christmas gets a lot more attention in the larger culture, but inside the faith, Christmas ranks a distant second place on the annual calendar to Easter.
In fact, I’d expand on this column’s first sentence. Easter isn’t just the Super Bowl. It’s the Super Bowl, the Fourth of July and your 21st birthday all rolled into one.
It’s beyond big. It’s everything.
This is the day Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Long ago, St. Paul wrote that, without the resurrection, there is no Christianity at all.
Without it, “your faith is worthless,” he said.
An entire world religion hinges on the belief that an obscure Jewish carpenter, healer and amateur rabbi from a backwater town was killed and buried — but, several days afterward, miraculously rose from his grave and, a few weeks after that, ascended into the heavens in full view of his followers.
According to the New Testament, this idea was incredible from the beginning. After all, people who lived in the Middle East 2,000 years ago were no more used to seeing dead men walk out of their tombs than Americans are today.
Jesus’ enemies insisted it was a hoax, that his friends had stolen his body.
In recent centuries, even some Christian scholars have grown skeptical. After all, the resurrection is so nonscientific and counterintuitive.
Almost certainly, Jesus didn’t literally come back from the dead, religious academics have argued. They’ve speculated that the disciples experienced a sort of resurrection “event,” a vision, maybe, in which they thought they saw Jesus alive again, even though he wasn’t.
There’s also a theory that he didn’t really die on the cross — although the Romans were experts at executing people by crucifixion — that instead, he passed out from trauma, was assumed to have died, and later returned from his coma to consciousness.
Here’s the thing, though.
All those closest to Jesus, and many others besides, insisted he’d been bodily resurrected. They’d not only seen him, they said, but in various cases had touched his living flesh, heard him speak, shared meals with him and watched him levitate into the clouds.
The New Testament claims that at least 500 people saw him. It’s one matter for a single witness to see such a supposed miracle, or even a dozen witnesses. But hundreds?
Maybe they all were lying. Or hallucinating. Or victims of wishful thinking. It’s possible.
But the changes these post-crucifixion appearances caused among his disciples are striking.
Before the resurrection, they’d been demoralized, cringing in locked rooms, terrified that they might be discovered as accomplices of an executed criminal.
When they saw him alive again, these men and women transformed into fearless evangelists. They took to the streets proclaiming Jesus as the son of God.
They held fast to their confessions for the rest of their lives despite persecutions, arrests, imprisonments, floggings and, ultimately, their own executions. About this there’s little debate.
As Peter and John told one courtroom, “We cannot stop speaking the things we have seen and heard.”
I believe them. I think they’d seen and heard what they said they’d seen and heard. Do with that as you wish.
Jesus’ resurrection is so vital to the Christian faith for several reasons.
For one thing, if Jesus was raised from his tomb, he wasn’t just another freelance holy man wandering around Israel and causing a minor stir, like many other figures.
If he came back from the grave, Jesus was divine. He was God’s son.
For another thing, if Jesus was resurrected, there’s indeed life after death. The end as we know it isn’t the end at all; it’s barely the beginning.
Finally, if Jesus was resurrected, we mortals have, in him, a new and eternal hope ourselves. Jesus and his apostles taught that, having been raised from his grave, Jesus would someday raise all those who trust in him. The grave, then, is no longer our master any more than it was his.
Now, of course, you don’t have to believe any of this. To each his or her own.
But personally, I believe the story.
Consequently, I love everything about Easter, even the parts that smack of paganism. I love them anyway, simply because they remind me of the resurrection.
I love the sunrise services. I love the bright new clothes people wear. I love the old songs we sing. I love Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts and even the dadgum Easter bunny.
Every year, this day restores me. It reminds me that hope is more compelling than despair and that life is more powerful than the grave.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at email@example.com.