Pearl Swiggum, who wrote the Stump Ridge Farm column for many Wisconsin newspapers, started her column-writing career with the advice to never write about religion or politics.
Readers can assume I never got (or listened to) the second half of that advice, and you will now see I’m about to ignore the first part too, since this column is about the central event of the Christian church, the time from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. (You may also safely conclude I’m not a theologian. And as always, these represent my views, and only my views.)
The Christian church basically is the result of two events that Christians believe took place — the birth of Jesus Christ, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secular culture coopted both Christmas and Easter into giving opportunities with, respectively, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, though clearly the former is more culturally popular than the latter.
In many Christian churches, Palm Sunday featured one version of the Passion, starting with Jesus Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and ending with his crucifixion in a conspiracy of the Jewish authorities and the Romans. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, relates the story of the Last Supper, which simultaneously was a Jewish Passover meal (because they were all Jews) and the first Christian Eucharist. Good Friday relates a different version of the Passion starting after the Last Supper.
Good Friday is followed in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches and some other churches by the Easter Vigil, after sundown of the Sabbath, one day after Joseph of Arimathea found a tomb in which to bury Jesus. Easter morning dawns, and Jesus’ female followers visit the tomb to finish the burial, only to see that there is no body. By Easter evening, the supposedly dead Jesus is appearing to his disciples.
The four versions of the Passion differ on details — was the cock supposed to crow once or twice after Peter denied Jesus three times? — but the essentials can be found in each, and with more commonality than one might expect for an event recorded by four different authors and translated who knows how many times.
One of my favorite parts of the story is chapter 24 of Luke, when two disciples, one named Cleopas, walking to the village of Emmaus, arguing over what they had been told had happened since Good Friday, get a mysterious visitor who asks them what been going on. (Or, to paraphrase the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the visitor asks them to tell him what’s the buzz, tell him what’s happening.)
Cleopas wonders aloud if their visitor is the only person who doesn’t know what had happened in Jerusalem — a man named Jesus from Nazareth who was a prophet, and was condemned to death by the chief priests and crucified by the Romans — three days earlier. Cleopas then tells their visitor that women in their group went to the tomb and found it … empty.
Imagine being the fourth set of ears in that conversation. Of course, the mysterious visitor is able to clear Cleopas’ and his traveling companion’s minds about what they had heard, because, well, he was there for all of it.
After the Gospels comes the Acts of the Apostles, my favorite book of the New Testament, because it shows Christ’s apostles — who, as you know from the Gospels, were not exactly the most prominent or highly thought of members of the culture of the day — so energized by their experiences to form the new Christian church, regardless of the danger of imprisonment (Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, ex-persecutor of Christians) or martyrdom (Stephen and Peter).
The books of the New Testament after the Gospels show that following Jesus Christ was not only unpopular, but dangerous in the years after the Resurrection. Being a Christian is probably not dangerous today, at least in this country, but living a truly Christian life isn’t particularly popular today either, as shown by the downward direction of attendance in most Christian churches.
For one thing, living a truly Christian life means accepting a lifelong assignment, to “go and make disciples, baptizing them” (Matthew 28:18–19) and “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Those who do that are often accused of jamming their religion down the throats of those they are seeking to baptize and preach to. And that responsibility is not to be left in the hands of someone else, including nonprofit organizations or government. (The bad things that happen when government gets directly involved in religion are demonstrated all over the world.) That responsibility is the job of every Christian, individually and collectively. It’s also the job of a Christian to live a virtuous life, not to call out others for (what you think are) their failings when you have failings yourself.
None of that is easy, which I suspect has a lot to do with why churches are shrinking in attendance. (Humans generally and Americans specifically seem to prefer easy and happy to reality.) The Bible does not promise Christians an easy, trouble-free, all-happy-endings life. The message of Christian responsibility isn’t easy to listen to, and it’s even more difficult to do. Humans generally don’t like to be lectured or preached to, which is why I suspect the most effective Christians are those who live their lives as Christians instead of just talking or writing about it.