More than one billion people will celebrate Easter this year in overcrowded cathedrals and refugee camps, in lonely hospital rooms and simple mud brick churches, at home and outside under the sun and stars. They will observe the occasion with silence, elaborate ancient rituals and simple Bible study, with Gregorian chant and rock music, in huge crowds and alone. They will gather in middle-class suburbs and in places where Christianity is illegal and actively persecuted. They will do this out of a sense of deep gratitude to God, for the sake of appearances, out of guilt, joy, a love for music or tradition, or simply to please someone they love.
The whole idea of resurrection may seem difficult for nonreligious people to understand. It is not so easy for Christians either. Although Christians hold a number of conflicting views on Easter, including the date on which it should be celebrated, they also share much in common.
Since 2014, astronomers have hypothesized a planet with a mass of 10 times Earth exists about 50 billion miles away. Although Planet Nine has not been exactly located, scientists infer its existence from the behavior of nearby objects. In an analogous way, Christians believe in the influence of what is invisible on the visible world.
The philosopher and atheist Kenneth Taylor feels it is deeply important to teach his first-year Stanford University students that there is more to life than what he calls “getting and spending.” The word he uses for this is transcendence. He would probably not put it in quite these terms, but we are more than merely physical beings. Our lives are constantly shaped by story, myth and dreams. We cannot seem to make contact with the world as it is in itself, independent of human meaning. We experience desire, awe and mystery.
For Christians, this basic human experience of longing is connected to Jesus, a man who taught and healed people in first-century Galilee. He was especially known for welcoming outcasts and helping the poor. At his last meal with his friends, he washed their feet and told them the highest calling in human life involves serving others. This week, Christian leaders remembered Jesus’ compelling vision of love and justice as they washed the feet of immigrants on the steps of city hall in San Francisco.
According to the New Testament, no one saw Jesus come to life again. That first Easter Sunday was initially characterized mostly by confusion and chaos, as his friends struggled over what to believe. The idea of resurrection did not at first make sense to them.
Resurrection is not a fancy word for life after death, or the persistence of an eternal soul. It means the restoration of physical bodies and the world by God. It refers to a trust that God can make even the most appalling injustices right, that death is not the end of the story of God’s connection to us. Ultimately resurrection is not a theory based on an idea of nature or who we think human beings are but a conclusion that comes from an experience of God.
The appearance of Jesus to those first disciples has fundamentally changed the world. Christians opposed the brutality of the Roman Empire with people killed for sport by wild animals in massive arenas, with hundreds crucified along roadways, with its infanticide, slavery, endless wars and everyday cruelty.
Slavery, war and evil are still with us. But the human family regards these as horrors and not as the natural prerogative of the strong against the weak. We may not yet act as if every person is truly equal as a child of God but we are on the way to realizing Jesus’ simple vision. At its heart, this experience of the invisible, of transcendence, is the Easter dream.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral, a position he began in September 2015. He has an economics degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate of theology from Harvard University. Young and his wife Heidi Ho, a USF School of Law professor, are the parents of two teenagers.