The First Easter
Guards grabbed him at night in a garden. He was betrayed with a kiss.
Dragged off by soldiers, he was tried on trumped up charges, and deserted by his closest friends. The crowds who had welcomed him to their city only days before, turned on him, demanding his execution. He stayed silent.
A cowardly Roman ruler agreed to execute this innocent man to appease the mob. Soldiers dressed the condemned man in a royal robe, twisted a crown from sharp thorns, set it on his head and mocked him. They beat him. Then they took him outside the city walls to crucify him on a wooden cross. They divided his clothes between them by casting lots in a gambling game. A notice nailed above his head described him as King of the Jews.
Rather than protest his innocence, or threaten revenge, Jesus forgave his torturers, saying: ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’
Two criminals were crucified on either side of him. One hurled insults. The other said these surprising words: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
What did this criminal know about the man hanging next to him? Where was the kingdom he referred to?
Jesus answered with an extraordinary promise: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
Jesus took six hours to die. He was crucified at about nine in the morning. From midday, it became inexplicably dark. He called out from the cross in his own local language Aramaic words which mean ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
About three o’clock in the afternoon, as he died, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’
When the Roman centurion who stood by the cross saw how Jesus died, his conclusion was also remarkable: ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’
What did he mean?
To make sure he was dead one of the soldiers stabbed Jesus’ side with a spear. Eyewitnesses described what appeared to be blood and water coming from the wound; proof that he was dead.
A rich man asked the Roman ruler’s permission to bury Jesus’ body in a tomb cut out from a rock. A huge stone was rolled in front of the burial cave and guards were ordered to watch the grave.
But, by the end of the weekend Jesus was alive again. He was not a phantom or hallucination. He showed he was flesh and blood by eating a meal. More than 500 people saw Jesus alive after his execution.
So who was Jesus? Was he ‘King of the Jews’ or something more? Who was the father he cried out to? Where was his kingdom? And what did he mean when he told the criminal crucified beside him: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’?
A meal to remember
Why is the cross part of Jesus’ story? Why did Jesus have to die? As part of the journey to find answers, it helps to understand some of the imagery.
Like most of us, Jesus enjoyed a meal with his friends and he chose this most ordinary of daily activities to reveal why he came.
The crowds in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion had gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. They were following very precise instructions, believed to be from God, to remember a key point in their history by sharing a meal of roast lamb, bread and wine. The meal reminded them that God had set them free from slavery in ancient Egypt, when the blood of a slaughtered lamb had saved them from death.
Blood sacrifices seem gruesome for those of us who buy our meat from supermarkets in shrink-wrapped packs, but they were common practice in ancient history.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover with his disciples, his every action was profoundly significant and richly symbolic. Scholars through the ages have devoted their lives to exploring the symbolism, its mystery and its meaning. Put simply, Jesus became the slaughtered lamb. His blood poured onto the ground from his broken body on the cross; a sacrifice to save humanity from death once and for all.
Since that first Easter Christians have used bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death and the freedom from death that he achieved on the cross; sharing bread and wine to share in his death and new life; looking forward to his promised return at the end of time.
That’s what makes the cross so significant.
This is an extract from the book ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’ available here