Thinking Anew: The Easter hope we celebrate is difficult to hold on to at times

It is a hope given by God in Jesus Christ, a new dimension of life promised, all of it quite beyond human understanding

Henriette Nanette “Jetty” Paerl, the first artist to perform at the inaugural Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, was born in the Netherlands of Jewish ancestry. Early in the second World War, however, she fled to England to escape the Nazis where she continued a singing career on a Dutch language radio service, broadcasting to occupied Netherlands. After the war, she recalled an incident after one of her wartime concerts when two young men in the audience who had just escaped from the Netherlands to join the Allied forces approached her at the end of her performance. Was she really the woman they had listened to secretly back home? They couldn’t believe their eyes. She recalled that one of them even asked if he could touch her to make sure she was real.

That is not unlike what happened to Mary on the first Easter Day. She goes to the burial place of Jesus to anoint his dead body, but the tomb is empty. She assumes that the body has been taken away “and I know not where they have laid him”. Then she sees a figure she presumes to be a gardener until Jesus speaks. Even then she is uncertain: were her eyes deceiving her? She too wants to touch him, just to be sure, but is told that is not possible; instead, she should tell the disciples what happened. The biblical accounts of the first Easter consistently report disbelief among the disciples, not something to be proud of. After all, they had witnessed the events that ended in crucifixion and were afraid the Romans would come after them. Yet they changed, and many went on to suffer rather than deny what they had seen and heard.

The cross represents the hope that no matter what awful things come our way they are never final

Some Christians prefer to display a plain empty cross rather than a crucifix bearing the image of the body of Jesus. This in their view emphasises the fact of the resurrection. The empty cross connects well with the empty tomb, a continuum of emptiness yet full of possibility and meaning. The cross represents the hope that no matter what awful things come our way they are never final – that the beyond dimension of human experience is filled with promise – that “God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who spent many years in the gulag in Siberia, bears witness to the power of the cross. Like other prisoners, his days were filled with back-breaking labour. He saw no reason to continue living and decided to give up. He stopped working and sat down expecting that this would provoke a brutal response from the guards, possibly even his death. But as he waited, he felt a presence. He lifted his eyes and saw a skinny old prisoner squat next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick across the ground at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, tracing the sign of the cross. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the cross, his entire perspective changed. In that moment he knew that there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented in that simple cross.

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The Easter hope we celebrate is difficult to hold on to at times but perhaps it is a mark of the true Easter people that we question and wonder because the hope on offer is not in our gift. It is a hope given by God in Jesus Christ, a new dimension of life promised, all of it quite beyond human understanding. But according to former Archbishop of York John Sentamu we must hold on and try to spread this news because “there is nothing more needed by humanity today than the recovery of a sense of beyondness – that dimension of life and love which assures us that God is truly in control”.

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