When I was growing up, Easter meant two things: one, a custom-made scavenger hunt for Easter egg clues, with a big pastel Easter basket full of plastic grass and goodies waiting at the end, and two, reciting my “piece” in our church Easter program.
I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know that Easter was equal parts mourning the death of and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Frankly, I never questioned the Easter Bunny’s role in this, so long as he continued to deliver eggs and chocolate each year. He was a sideline. Easter was about Jesus — everyone knew that.
Even as I write this, shame heats my face as I admit my life hasn’t mirrored my childhood faith. As a child, life was all Sunday School and bedtime prayers, but then I grew up. I joined the workforce and the real world. Disappointments and disillusionment gave way to rebellion and rejection of Christians who never seemed able to live up to their own standards.
Not that I gave up on God — I didn’t. I knew He was not to blame for the failures of His people. But the longer I walked apart from Him, the more I feared He had given up on me. And I allowed life to distract me from making Him a priority, from living my faith in a way that transformed me and those around me.
I had outgrown the scavenger hunts and Easter baskets, and no one cared to hear my piece any longer. Most of the time, I didn’t even make it to church on Easter because every time I listened to the too-familiar story, I heard in my head the jarring metal clang of hammer on nail as everything I’d ever done wrong fixed my bloody, beaten Savior to a cross in my place.
Hollywood and evocative preachers have portrayed the crucifixion with staggering realism, captivating the senses. The thorny crown driven harshly into Jesus’ scalp. The cat-of-nine-tails ripping flesh off of His back and legs. The sour taste of vinegar-soaked sponge. The exhaustion that drove Him to His knees under the weight of the cross. And that hammer hitting those nails over and over. Clang. Clang. Clang. Struggling for breath. A last glance at family. “Woman, behold, thy son.”
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
In my guilt and my rebellion and my sin, Easter meant beating myself up over the crucifixion of Jesus, who never deserved any of it. The guilt, the suffering, the loss … the price Jesus paid for me. For all of us. It hurts to think about. Maybe that’s why so many of us try not to.
Then last year, my husband and I visited Israel. I took my camera and my journal and my guilt to the place of the Skull. I took in the stations of the cross, I crawled inside a tomb. I took communion and remembered the broken body and the blood. I scanned frescos and sculptures, and craned my neck to see a piece of Golgotha encased in glass, under a bigger-than-life crucifix.
We walked the Via Dolorosa in reverse, and every downhill step I took reminded me of the Savior’s brutal uphill climb that day. Market vendors crowded both sides of the street, and I wondered how much of a crowd lined it when Jesus was crawling up the center.
Hymns from my childhood echoed in my memory, mingled with the sounds of the city and the chatter of our tour group.
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.
Then we left the city of Jerusalem, crossed the Valley of Kidron and walked up to the Garden of Gethsemane, nestled on the side of the Mount of Olives. Jesus had a custom of coming there to pray. And on the night he was betrayed, he brought his closest friends there with Him, to pray and fortify themselves for the temptation to come.
It was nearing sunset as we arrived, and I was immersed in the scene I’d heard and thought and cried about. Olive trees more than a thousand years old stood gnarled and thick amid bronze plaques with embossed scenes of Jesus’ betrayal. Bright red poppies sprouted here and there amid the green grass of the garden, like the great drops of blood that mingled with Jesus’ sweat. Debris and litter lay crumpled among the stone walls. I stepped over it and looked out over the valley to the scene Jesus took in every time He prayed in that garden: the city of Jerusalem, high on a hill — the city of His chosen people, who were so blind that they couldn’t see, so deaf that they couldn’t hear.
Jesus cried over this city as He entered it on Palm Sunday. He died for that city — and so, so much more — a week later. Because all most of them would see was the crucifixion. Kind of like I’d been feeling — but amid all I’d seen that day of icons and statues and paintings of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, one thing was notably absent: the dead body of Christ Himself.
Because it’s not there. Instead, there are dozens of eyewitness accounts that He rose again, and none that disprove it. There are accounts of His life, His death, His resurrection that have remained intact and remarkably consistent over thousands of years and thousands of hand-copied transcriptions.
Even in this post-Christian era, all the evidence points to Jesus’ resurrection after death.
I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
The voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.
He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.
As I sat in the Garden of Gethsemane watching the sun go down over Jerusalem, I prayed to a God I know is listening. He was there with me, and my guilt at the thought of the events of Easter gave way to hope. I was looking out at the place where crucifixion gave way to resurrection. Where the Savior who defeated sin and death rose again to make a way for me to live in freedom. He was not punished against His will because I am a sinner. He gave Himself to save me because He loves me that much. It’s not about my sin, or my guilt or my anything at all. It’s about his sacrifice and his love and his victory.
I’m not sure I’ll ever see that particular Friday in history as “Good,” but this year I’m more eager than usual to celebrate the Son Rise on Sunday.