(Article published in the Apr 15, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today)
There are no ifs and buts about it. A Galilean named Jesus whom his followers after his death called the Christ did die. Some time in the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, on orders of his procurator, Pontius Pilate, probably in the Year 30. On a cross on a hill, called Golgotha, outside the city walls of Jerusalem, itself an insignificant religious dot in a sprawling military empire. Forsaken by his friends and abandoned by his God.
Of his death, there were no official records, no commemorative inscriptions, no court files, nor even a lowly historian’s chronicle. His death should have passed unnoticed, like the deaths of the many others who had died and are still dying in similar, if not the same, ignoble and cruel ways. But somehow, the course of human events has a way of twisting in surprising turns.
A community soon emerged that invoked his name despite his shameful death, led by those who themselves had fled when they saw their dream arrested in the dark of night, on the far side of the Kedron Valley on the Mount of Olives in a garden called Gethsemane. And for some inexplicable reason that community, despite persecutions and prosecutions, notwithstanding apathy and apostasy of generations, expanded way beyond the narrow confines of the area of his operation and, outlasting many an empire, lives on until today.
How come? What did occur
from the Friday evening the great stone was rolled by a discreet sympathizer
named Joseph, a councilor from the Jewish town of Arimathea, to the mouth of
Jesus’ tomb newly hewn from rock to the Sunday morning when the great stone
was found by women already removed?
They call it, for want of a better term, Easter. But since no eye has claimed to have seen nor ear claimed to have heard what did happen, and, besides, since none of the women was a Maan Hontiveros nor a Che Che Lazaro with the appropriate skills to ruthlessly investigate and report unbiased, we have to make do with stories inconsistent, incoherent and incomplete. And even then, the stories are not about Easter itself.
The stories are about believing witnesses, not to the resurrection event, but to its aftermath, stories about how the Crucified one was seen walking about amongst them, and consequently, what they, who saw risen Christ, considered his having been risen to mean.
It is difficult initially, in the face of stories’ inconsistency, incoherence, and incompleteness, to accurately understand what they want to say.
The mind is distracted by the difference on how many women went to Jesus’ grave that first Easter morning to anoint what every one had taken for granted a corpse. Mark says there were three, namely, was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Matthew speaks only of Magdalene and “the other Mary.” Luke has “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women” telling the apostles about the empty tomb. John mentions only Mary Magdalene.
The attempt to verify the feminine tale of an empty tomb, by definition in that time unreliable, is likewise sketchy. Mark and Matthew relate of no verification having been made. Only Peter did, says Luke. No, John seemed to say, the other disciple whom Jesus loved had tagged along.
And in disregard of Filipino expectation, Jesus’s mother, who was reportedly at the foot of the Cross, was not mentioned by the gospel writers as having gone to the burial site, neither with the women, nor with Peter, nor at any time thereafter.
There is also no perfect fit of the places where the Risen one was said to have been sighted: in the country Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem? in a building where the disciples had locked themselves in for fear of Jews? on a mountain in Galilee? by the Sea of Tiberias. All of the above? Or none?
One is also bothered by the randomness of the appearances. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason that puts them in proper sequence: in the morning, in the evening of Easter, eight days later, forty days later. Why such caprice?
But these difficulties however, somehow did not diminish the appeal of the appearance stories. They dissolve in the proffer of evidence made by Paul, writing between 35 to 45 AD from Ephesus in Asia Minor to the church he founded in Corinth:
“…I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared first to Cephas and secondly to the Twelve. Next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died; then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles; and last of all he appeared to me too; it was as though I was born when no one expected it.”
In effect, Paul hurled the challenge to his hearers to verify from his contemporaries who were then still alive. That nobody seemed to have done so, nor any one to have retracted says something.
But so what if this Jesus the Nazaroan, who was, by reason of life work that left everything to his Father, condemned by the state, abandoned by his church, repudiated by his kin and deserted by his friends, actually died and now actually lives?
Then, maybe (if not definitely), he must have been right, after all.
The unlettered and unhonored peasant from the forsaken village was right when he challenged the educated and the esteemed of his time. He was right when he rebelled against death and all its forms. He was not foolish when he sided with weak, the sick, the poor, the underprivileged, the sinners. He knew what he was talking about when he demanded forgiveness, even of one’s enemies, when he demanded that his hearers to help one another, without regard to skin or gene, even at great costs to purse and even person, when he abolished the rest, despite a long tradition of there being ten, and affirmed only one law that he called love. He was right: death is not the last word on human life.
May we somehow sometime in this Easter season and beyond chance upon that Nazaroan who was right and join him fight death and all its present forms. Wherever and whenever we see it, let’s kill it.
Happy Easter to all.