Happy Easter, Everyone !

Having said that, I realize that  Easter means different things to different people.  As a child, Easter meant Easter Baskets and brightly colored eggs.  For others, it’s a celebration of Nature and the return of Spring after a long and cold winter.

For many Christians, Easter is all about the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after dying on the cross.  It’s the cornerstone of Christianity’s belief in salvation and eternal life.

For some Christians, however, a literal interpretation of the story is a stumbling block. They believe in many of the teachings of Jesus but feel that the supernatural narrative simply defies science and logic.

In addition to supernaturalism,  the emphasis that conservative theology  places on suffering and the necessary death of Christ creates a problem for many.  The notion that humans are inherently evil and deserving of eternal damnation unless a blood sacrifice is offered for their redemption is incomprehensible and does not fit with the belief in a loving and gracious God.

Blessings for those who find meaning in the traditional story. But for those who see it as an obstacle to their faith, I suggest that a literal understanding is not the only way the Easter story can inspire or have meaning. So I offer these thoughts today.

What’s in a Name ?

The word Easter is not a biblical or Christian word. Interestingly, the word Easter comes from the ancient Germanic deity Eostre. She was the goddess of Spring, fertility and crops. By the eighth century, the church took over the pagan tradition and name Easter,  In doing so, the church purged most of the elements of nature and sex.  That said , they could not quash the popularity of such things as the Easter Bunny and egg hunts.  Ēostre – Wikipedia

Throughout history, Christianity has co-opted popular pagan religious beliefs and festivals and woven them into the fabric of Christian beliefs. How Christians co-opted the winter solstice – Big Think

Using Psychology to Unlock the Meaning of Easter

Viewing the death and resurrection of Jesus through a psychological lens renders a powerful, non-literal interpretation of Easter.  The good news message: Hope for new meaning and life that follows tragic loss and death.

Interpreting Easter as a symbolic tale reveals a lived psychological/existential reality rather than a supernatural speculation.  Its message is one of hope and reassurance. Suffering, meaninglessness and death are not the destiny of life. New purpose and life can surprisingly emerge in the wake of great loss.

A psychological outlook considers the events of Jesus’ life and death not from a theological or divine point of view, but an existential one. An existential view examines how the story impacts human emotions, fears, and hopes.

When viewed symbolically, the resurrection story expresses the psychological longing of every human soul that unredeemed loss and death are not the final meaning of life.      Easter as Psychological Metaphor: The Resurrection of Hope and Meaning. | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)

To fully grasp Easter from this perspective, it’s helpful to step back and view the events of Holy Week historically.

— Palm Sunday

The Easter story begins on a high.  Jesus is received triumphantly as he enters Jerusalem (Mt 21.9)  Jesus’ impact on the crowds that came to hear him preach was profound. Many called him the son of David.

They hoped that he would be the one to kick the Romans out of their land and reestablish a 2nd Davidic kingdom. This rumor alarmed Roman officials and put him under suspicion.

Jesus’ message, however, was aimed not so much at the Romans but at the Pharisees and their corrupt financial practices in the temple. Thus, his explosive overturning of the money changers’ tables angered Jewish leaders and panicked Roman officials.

— Good Friday

It’s ironic but psychologically accurate to see how fast a crowd’s cries can turn from Hosanahs to “crucify him”.  Such is the emotional power of disappointed expectations.

Although shocking to the faithful, when seen from a neutral vantage point, the rapid events of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution appear inevitable. The people he disappointed were devastated when they realized that Jesus was not going to be their political messiah.

In addition to disappointing the crowds by not being their savior, Jesus posed a serious threat to both religious and political leaders. He had to be eliminated, Although Jesus was charged with blasphemy by Jewish leaders, the Roman charge of sedition was what resulted in his cruel torture and death by crucifixion.

— Saturday

One of the great omissions in the Easter story was how his disciples dealt with  Jesus’ death.  Psychologically, this story overlooks and leaves us in the dark about how they struggled with their loss and grief.

— Easter Sunday

We all know the conclusion of the Easter story : Christ being raised from the dead. The actual texts from the Gospels, however, aren’t that clear.  Mark, the oldest and most reliable Gospel, doesn’t include it. He only speaks of the three women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  There they encounter a stranger in a white robe who says that “he has been raised”.

According to Mark, the women never saw Jesus and were neither credulous nor comforted by his words. In fact, Mark concludes that they were afraid and didn’t tell anyone. (Mark 16.8)

The other gospels differ in the specifics of the event and no one recognizes Jesus when they first encounter him.  Noting that the first writings about Jesus’ teachings and life were not written until 45 years after his death, one can understand the murkiness of the details.

Further, Jesus did not hang around or present himself to the world.  John writes that he left the earth ascending into the air.  (John 20.17-31) Note Bene  John was the most distant of the biblical accounts and was not written until 90-100 CE.

 Message of  Easter:

To be clear, the ultimate meaning of Easter emerges from what happened after Easter. Initially, the disciples were shocked and confused.

However, their discouragement gave way to new faith and hope when they discovered that Jesus’ spirit had not died.  Even though Jesus was no longer around physically, his spirit was still alive in the minds and hearts of his disciples, albeit in a way that was unexpected. The renewed energy and direction that sprung from Easter is the same spirit that created the Christian religion that millions of believers have followed throughout the centuries.

Easter, like all great stories, survives and continues to resonate with people because it expresses the deepest longing within the human soul.

Rather than a supernatural tale, the story of Holy Week and the Resurrection can be understood as a powerful affirmation that life has meaning beyond death.  Just as Spring follows Winter and new life springs from the ground, new meaning and purpose arise in the wake of loss and death .

Indeed, we all have or will experience loss and disappointment.  Whether financial or relationships, health or injury, life can be painful. Tragedy can push us to doubt the very meaning or reason for living. Easter’s message is that meaninglessness and death are not life’s final verdict.

Indeed, despite these grim realities, the Easter Story shines as a brilliant affirmation of the goodness of life that dispels existential despair. With this background in view, may this Easter be a time of unexpected discovery and renewal for you and yours. May the joy of the season inspire and fill your hearts with love.

The Meaning of Easter: A Message for Positive Psychology » International Network on Personal Meaning

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC. Fellow AAPC   3/31/2024