Is Easter simply a relic from the past and a chance for a holiday break? Why have the dramatic events of Easter been so significant in our cultures, and why is Easter still so central to Christian belief?
Many of us struggle to understand the significance of Easter, the crucifixion of Jesus, followed by reports of his appearances afterwards, and the growing belief in his Resurrection. Thousands of books have been written probing these basic Christian beliefs.
Part of the difficulty for us today stems from some crude notions of Redemption and atonement: that God the Father sends his son Jesus to endure this horrible torture and death to atone for our sins. Full stop.
But how could a father will, indeed command, such suffering on a beloved only son? In our mind’s eye, the Father can seem like a spectator, distant and even cruel. What can we make of this?
God with an Aboriginal face?
A light was shone on this for me when I saw a striking new painting of the Resurrection by the Queensland Aboriginal artist, John Dunn, in the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Melbourne. The risen Jesus is depicted as an Aboriginal man with a full black beard, with tiny Aboriginal figures standing below on the ground. I had never seen Jesus depicted as an Aboriginal since he is usually painted as a western European.
But then I was confused whether the face was meant to be that of God the Father rather than that of Jesus. Puzzled, I began to realise that it need not be either/or, but in a profound sense, it is both.
For Jesus insisted that what he does is only what he sees the Father doing. He is like a living mirror of his Father, but using words, stories, signs and actions that we can understand. As the early disciples quickly came to believe after the Resurrection, the Jesus they knew so well was not simply a human being, but embodied the divine in an altogether singular way. After Jesus ascended to heaven, they experienced the Holy Spirit ensuring God’s continued solidarity with them and commitment in their human journey.
We get tripped up in our language here. We tend to think of the Father and the Son as separate persons in the modern sense of persons, with individual consciousness and being. But like all Jews, they believed strongly there is only one God. How then do they explain the divinity of Jesus and their experience of the Holy Spirit? They adopted the Latin word for ‘mask’, persona, to try to explain how the one Godhead could involve God as Father, Son and Spirit.
The Father is thus not a spectator in the events of Easter. The Father is deeply united with his Word enfleshed in Jesus, though the Father did not suffer in the same way as Jesus in his human being.
Hence the ambiguity in the painting of God as an Aboriginal, about whether the figure is of Jesus risen or of the Father, in my mind captured the saving action of God as involving both Father and Son.
The fundamental Christian belief in the Trinity, so shocking to orthodox Jewish belief at the time, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Mystery the New Testament writes about, and we struggle with still.
Some people die helping others
An elderly gentleman told me recently that he was very troubled by the idea that God the Father could order his Son to undergo such suffering. He asked what father could do that. But then he thought of the instance of a young man dashing into a burning building to save someone, but dying in the attempt. As a father himself this elderly man said he would have been proud of a son willing to give his life for another. He added that this example helped him understand how the Father could ask Jesus to lay down his life in such a searing way. It was all about rescuing humanity, about redemption.
Presumably, God could have redeemed humanity in a less horrid way. But as the early Christian writers believed, God goes to such extremes to convince us how intensely God loves us, and cares for everyone, without exception.
Yet God does not take suffering away in this confrontation with the powers of darkness. Easter highlights that God is not indifferent to suffering and distress, and that the Holy Spirit remains as comforter and companion whispering in our hearts, especially in times of distress.
Fr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who teaches history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union, a college of Melbourne’s University of Divinity.