DIOCESE OF THE EASTERN UNITED STATES
Bishop William Bower's Eastertide Letter
9 April 2023
Peace be with you.
Beloved we have now left Lent and entered into the time of the Sacred Triduum, those three days when the Church calls us to be mindful of the events of Christ’s passion and death. The Church does this precisely because it wants us to enter into those real-life tragic activities that proceed the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus. This is not so with many Christian faith traditions which skip over the darkness and simply celebrate the joy of Easter. For many, the experience of Easter is like that of a chocolate Easter bunny which is sweet but is often hollow. Unfortunately, the bad effect of not making this journey from darkness to light, sin to forgiveness, utter sadness to joy, and from tragic defeat to ultimate victory, is that many come to relegate the Resurrection of Christ, Easter, as being a myth.
Certainly, our society has many thoughts about death and the afterlife. So too did the Jews during the earthly time of Jesus. First century Judaism had several different sects – each with their own understanding of the afterlife. Some believed that whenever you died, that was it, you were dead, and they had no belief in the afterlife. Others believed that you went to a place of still and shadowy darkness in the underworld called Sheol when you died. Still others thought that the souls of the just were in the hand of God, similar to the Hellenistic view that the soul escapes the body. And others thought that only the righteous of God would rise, body and soul, together.
Now think about this for a moment… we have all of these thoughts about the afterlife in our society today. Even some Christians have been influenced by secular opinions on death because they lack an understanding of the Gospels (or simply haven’t progressed beyond the basic salvific understanding of the faith). And because people don’t understand the Church’s teaching on death, they do not fully comprehend the Easter message.
Note that none of the sacred authors of the Gospels utilized the popular frameworks present in first century Judaism. They don’t talk about Jesus going to Sheol, or that His soul escaped from His body, or that He was a righteous man and that with all the righteous He will arise. What they do write about is their real-life experience with Yeshua of Nazareth, whom they saw work miracles, witnessed His scourging, and horrible crucifixion. They specifically talk about Jesus being dead and buried, and on the third day, being made alive again by the power of God. In so doing, they reject the bland spiritual generalities of what happens after death and point out that this event really, and truly, took place. Jesus rose from the dead, and they could see Him, touch Him, and be with Him, in a real and physical way. This reality of the resurrected Christ changed everything we thought that we knew about death.
Since the Age of Enlightenment to the present time, there has been an attempt by so-called biblical scholars to think of the resurrection in terms of mythology. However, that term “myth” has changed its meaning from “mythos” which indicates a “a story concerning the early history of a people, a natural or social phenomenon, and involving supernatural beings or events” to, in our modern usage, a “false belief or idea”. C. S. Lewis rejects the attempt by modern scholars to describe Christ in the terms of fables. Utilizing the older and more scholarly interpretation of the term “myth”, C. S. Lewis describes the resurrection as being the “true myth” in his essay “Myth Became Fact”.
Lewis writes in “God in the Docks”, “…this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”
Simply put, the resurrection of Christ is both mythic in that it conveys a deeper theological and supernatural understanding, and entirely factual as it really did take place. In addition to the Gospel texts, we know that other non-Christian writings of the period mention Christ including the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Virtually all known scholars of antiquity said that Jesus existed, and even other religions acknowledge His existence. We know historically about Pontius Pilate and even have coins that were minted with his image. There is physical evidence in the artifacts such as remnants of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Veil of Veronica, and other relics.
Dr. Eric Meyers, professor emeritus in Judaic studies at Duke University writes, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus, the details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure.”
The birth, life, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate reality, and it causes us to have to rethink our understanding of life after death. Jesus rises from the dead completely, totally, and ascends to be with His Father in heaven. He has taken death captive and defeated it utterly.
In his famous Paschal Sermon, Saint John Chrysostom, expounds on the Scriptures whenever he writes,
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”
The joy of Easter is both the reality of the resurrection of Christ, and the anticipation of our own resurrection through Christ. It is an explosive feast of the Church in that it breaks through our mental and spiritual limitations to give us a glimpse into the mind of God. God is so loving that He does something that doesn’t happen in any other ancient myth or religion – God becomes a man, and suffers and dies for humankind, rises from the dead, and gives us hope for life eternal with Him. God didn’t give up on His creation! God doesn’t give up on you!
I pray that this time of Holy Week, and the Sacred Triduum, will bless your understanding of the unending love and mercy of God, and that you will enter into the true joy of Easter.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!
The Right Reverend William Bower, SSC
Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of the Eastern United States (DEUS)
Bishop, Vicar General - US Military Chaplain
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