What is Easter?

Easter Sunday this year falls on April Fools’ Day. A tradition exists about “Christ the Fool.” It probably originates from when Pilate sent Christ to see Herod. Herod was anxious to see him. See him do what? See him perform. He had heard much about this man and his miracles. So naturally the king wanted to see what Christ could do; he wanted a private show to entertain the court. In response, Christ was simply silent. Herod promptly sent him back to Pilate.

The Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, wrote of Christ the Jester. The famous “juggler of God” story was about the poor juggler who could do nothing much for the Lord as far as he knew. So in the quiet of a church, he did his act before the tabernacle as his offering to Christ. It was the best thing he could do. It was enough. To the wise Greeks, as St. Paul tells us, the whole aura around Christ’s death and resurrection seemed to be “foolishness.” And it is foolishness unless considerable evidence is found showing that something astonishing was in fact going on. This evidence is basically the testimony of the women and men who attested to the fact that Christ did rise again. This is the same Christ whose death on the Cross they had witnessed a few days before.

Easter was a surprise to the Apostles. Even though Christ had indicated to them that he would rise again on the third day, they still did not understand. Who can blame them? While there are some stories in Scripture about characters sent to heaven, to deny the reality of the Resurrection seems natural. Yet, no resurrection is possible unless a death has first taken place. Resurrection does not mean the “creation” of a new being from nothing, but the restoration of life to one who already had existed in this world. The Resurrection is depicted both as a final ending in death and as the beginning of eternal life. Indeed, what is most curious about the Resurrection is not so much its happening as thinking about how it happens.

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This approach does not mean that the fact was not the initial impetus to the thinking. It does mean that such an event must be accounted for, must be made sense of. This “making sense” is where the thinking comes in. We are aware that, in the history of our civilization since Christ’s death and Resurrection in the days of Tiberius Caesar, an enormous amount of energy—popular, scientific, political, historical, and psychological—has gone into efforts to prove that this event either did not take place, or did not mean what Christians say it means, namely, that Christ, true God and true man, did live, die, and rise again.

Yet, the event makes sense. It contains a certain logic. Everyone would grant that, if Christ were not who he said he was, namely, the Son sent into the world at the behest of his Father, it would be senseless to take the Resurrection seriously. But everything follows if Christ is who he said he was. We are dealing here with something unique, something that is going to happen only once in our actual history. However, it does imply that this same resurrection is to happen to all human beings, good or bad, since that was the intention for them at their initial creation. The Resurrection of the body thus has about it something that connects each existing human person with the purpose of his own existence.

Why was Christ, the Word, sent by the Father? It was so that we might repent of our sins. Do we have sins to “repent”? This is a question of some importance. Generally speaking, the Greek discussions of virtue and vice combined with the Ten Commandments gave us a pretty good understanding of human frailty. Human beings before they reach their final intended glory are asked to indicate where they stand on these issues of virtues and commandments. During our lives, we are given second, third, and many chances to see the rightness or wrongness of what we in fact do.

This is why the Incarnation is viewed as a salvation or redemption. It recognizes that anyone can acknowledge sins and vices, but it is not easy. Moreover, such sins and vices do not involve only ourselves. Such is our importance and dignity that what we do concerns even the Godhead. After all, someone must forgive us. In effect, this designation of how sins were to be forgiven is the manifest purpose of the Incarnation. We were created to participate in the inner life of the Trinity. We live in a world in which all our sins concern others. Every day, we experience the consequences brought about by the disobedience of our first parents.

The Incarnation was designed to re-establish this initial relationship to God and the purpose of our individual creation. But there was one hitch. No one could be in God’s presence, could be his friend, who did not choose to be. It is the very nature of our being for us to choose what we shall be for eternity. By contemplating the meaning of Easter, we are addressing the truth that explains what we are and what we are doing in this life. The Easter event makes sense because we now know or realize just who this Christ is. He is who he claimed to be. The rise and fall of nations, however dramatic or fascinating, is not the purpose of our individual existence in any of these nations, rising or falling. What is important is how we live our lives, whenever or wherever we live. How do we live? What do we hold to be true?

In this light, Easter explains our destiny. Each one of us, whether good or bad, is to die and be restored to eternal life. What kind of eternal life we will rise to depends upon us, upon what we make of the “why” of our redemption. We sometimes think that it does not matter how we answer these questions. The fact is that it makes all the difference. We are given minds and graces to know the right answers. Not accepting the truth of our being, of our existence, is possible for us because we are free to reject what is true. We live in a time when we are asked, almost forced, to affirm intellectually, personally, and politically that many of our sins and vices are virtues and laws. We must take a stand against this trend.

What is Easter? It is the reminder that Christ is who he said he was. The reasons he was killed are the same reasons we are asked to affirm as true beliefs and practices that run counter to the virtues and the commandments. All things are not relative. We are still, more than ever, called fools for affirming the wisdom of the Cross and the Resurrection. So be it.

Every effort is made today to prevent us from considering the central truth that Christ is who he said he was, that what he taught was what he intended to teach. He taught not only that the truth alone will set us free, but also that the truth abides in those who are disciples of Christ. The Roman governor, having received him back from his new friend Herod, once asked this man about to be crucified “What is truth?” When April Fools’ Day and Easter Sunday coincide, it is well to sort out just who is the fool, the man who was crucified but rose again or the Roman governor and those who sent this man to him.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Resurrection of Christ” painted by Raffaellino del Garbo in 1505.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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