A man named Jesus had lived among the people. He had a unique capacity to be. His gift was to be whole, free and giving, which in turn seemed to cause those around him to live more fully and more completely. He seemed to have an infinite capacity to love, to forgive and to accept others. He appeared to enhance the personhood of every human being who touched his life. He broke every barrier that humans erected to protect themselves inside their insecure world. Women, Samaritans, gentiles, lepers, those judged unclean felt his touch and were called into a new dignity.
He had the capacity to live in the present moment, to drink from that moment all its wonder, to scale its heights and to plumb its depths, to enable that moment to share in eternity. Stories of healing power gathered around his life. His teaching interpreted this power as a God-Presence, which his followers believed they had met in him. “He taught as one having authority,” it was said of him. People felt that their lives were made whole when they touched him: the blind saw, the deaf heard, the prisoners were freed. All of these were signs among the Jews that the reign of God was breaking into human history (Isaiah 61:1sq). That was their experience with Jesus of Nazareth. Then he was crucified. Darkness descended. The light went out of their world.
His followers lived in that spiritual darkness for a period of time. They sought to make sense out of the God they believed they had met in Jesus as well as the stark reality of his violent execution – one in which God had not intervened, and in which God was even perceived as having forsaken him. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” they described him as pleading. They searched their ancient scriptures seeking to resolve this conflict, to life the darkness, to ease their sense of loss, of defeat.
At some point in this process the light dawned. I do not know what that point was, but I believe it was real. At some point the darkness of their minds lifted, the scales fell from their eyes, and they were able to stare into the reality of God; Jesus was included in that reality. They saw him alive. They saw him in the very heart and life of God. Please do not minimize or trivialize that “seeing.” It was not of a resuscitated body emerging from a tomb, though that was the only way they could narrate their conviction that death could not contain him. It was not in ghost-like appearances in an upper room or in the village of Emmaus; but that was the only way they could narrate their conviction that “we have seen the Lord!”
Something about this Jesus, some powerful reality that they identified with him, caused his disciples at some point after his death to apply to him all the symbols reserved in their mythology for the Messiah. He was atoning sacrifice, Son of Man, paschal lamb, Suffering Servant of the Lord, the life in which the world came to an end, the life through whom the dawn of the reign of God was to enter human history.
So it was that the darkness of Armageddon, the three-day symbol and the first day of the reign of God – apocalyptic images all – came to be applied to the story through which they began to understand the events that brought his earthly life to an end. Some tremendous and powerful moment it must have been to force all of these symbols to gather around this life. Whatever it was, that became the moment in which the power of Easter exploded in the human consciousness.