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It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.
The warm glow of anticipation that announces the approach of Christmas changes our outlook on just about everything. We wave benevolently at our fellow humans as they cut us off in the parking lot and drop the odd coin into the Salvation Army bucket. It makes little difference that the irritation we would ordinarily feel is still lurking just below the surface. It’s Christmas, and at least we’re trying. The cloud of glory that attends our celebration of Christ’s nativity casts new light on everything. Even the landscape looks different, causing us to bless the diamond frosted snow, which will look like grey slush to us in a few weeks, and cause us to curse.
Between Crhistmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday
is the favored child of the church calendar.
Easter, on the other hand, creeps in. Its solemn approach is heralded only by mild fasting and a handful of pastel decorations. We don’t throw extravagant parties. There are no presents. A clove-studded ham and a few chocolate eggs are about as grand as we get. Let’s face it. We just don’t seem as excited.
If Christmas is warm, Easter is cold. As it approaches, we don’t seem to know whether to be happy or sad. The Sunday service is a celebration, but the season is somber, more reminiscent of a funeral than a feast. It’s understandable, perhaps, when we look at the symbols that represent it. They are a cross and a tomb. Our ambivalence is a reflection of the guilt we feel over Jesus’ suffering. Yet when Jesus prepared His disciples for these events, although He commanded them to remember, He didn’t tell them to mourn.
Just as there would be no cause for celebrating Christmas without Easter, there would be no reason to rejoice at Easter without the cross. The cross was not a tragedy. It is not an event to be grieved. Nor should we feel guilty about it. The apostle Paul saw the cross as something to boast about (Gal. 6:14). Theologian Thomas F. Torrance speaks of Christ’s suffering on the cross as a moment of triumph. The cross is an emblem of victory. On the cross, Jesus was not only victorious over our sin, liberating us from its power, but He triumphed over all the spiritual powers of evil (Col. 2:15).
One of the last things Jesus said on the cross was, “It is finished” (John 19:30). This was not a cry of despair. “‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” Stanley Hauerwas observes. “‘It is finished’ is not ‘I am done for.'” “It is finished” is Christ’s shout of victory. We know this, Hauerwas explains, because according to Luke 23:46, just before He breathed His last, Jesus also said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The declaration “It is finished” was not the last gasp of someone who is passing into darkness and the unknown. It was a sigh of relief. These were the words of one who knew, as John 19:28 puts it, “that everything had now been finished.” The hardest work was done. What remained was resurrection and restoration. What was true of Jesus His entire life was also true on the cross. He knew where He had come from, and He knew where He was going.
At the same time, to some extent, the ambivalence we feel toward Easter is understandable. When we look upon the symbols of the cross and the tomb, we are reminded of ourselves. We know why Jesus suffered. The pain He felt was His own pain, but He was not its cause. Jesus suffered at the hands of others, put to death “by the hands of lawless men” (as Acts 2:23 literally puts it). Yet the cause of Jesus’ suffering was due to more than generic human brutality. When Peter says, “you put him to death by nailing him to the cross,” we know we are included in this accusation. So is Peter, for that matter.
The cross is an emblem of victory.
But that’s not the whole story. There was another hand at work as well. Acts 2:23 also says that Jesus was handed over “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” What seems like a human tragedy turns out to be something else. In the hands of God, what would otherwise be an injustice turns out to be the ultimate expression of divine justice. The apostle Paul would later capture the essence of this moment by saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It didn’t shock the Father to see His Son on the cross, nor did it grieve Him. As Isaiah 53:10 observes, “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”
A prisoner doesn’t grieve over the turning of the key that will release them from the cell. A patient doesn’t feel sad when the doctor announces that there is a cure. Neither should a Christ mourn the suffering of Christ. After His resurrection, Jesus lovingly chided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who described His suffering with downcast faces. “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus said. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26).
The Methodist preacher William Sangster pointed out that without the cross Christians would have nothing to say to those who suffer. Jesus speaks to them, not only as one who was Himself wounded. He speaks to them by His wounds. “To all those whose minds reel in sorrow; to all those who feel resentful because life has done to them its worst; to all those tempted to believe there is no God in heaven, or at least, no God of love, He comes and He shows them His hands,” Sangster declared. “More eloquently than any words, those pierced hands say, ‘I have suffered.'”
Yet the mere fact that Christ suffered is not enough. What does it matter that Jesus’ suffering outstripped ours if all it means is that He suffered too? If all the gospel has to say is that Christ feels our pain and understands our experience, it is no gospel at all. Hebrews 2:14 gives us the larger context of Christ’s suffering when it says that Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Sympathy was certainly one motive for this but only in part: “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” Hebrews 2:17 goes on to explain, “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” That is the power of the cross and the reason for Christ’s suffering. Christ’s atonement is why Paul saw the cross as a reason for boasting. Without the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus would only be a demonstration of power. It is the cross that makes the resurrection a cause for celebration.
All the gloomy aspects of the Easter story–the tears, the whip, the nails, and the blood–were not intended to lead us into grief. They were meant to provoke a shout of victory. Because our sin became His, Jesus’ suffering has become ours. There is no need for us to fear the reminder of sin that we see in His suffering. We should rejoice when the cross brings to mind the fact that Jesus died for our sins. It is because Christ spoke on our behalf on Good Friday when He said, “It is finished,” that on Easter Sunday we can declare, “Hallelujah. He is risen.” He is risen indeed!
 Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, Robert T. Walker, ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 1.
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