Easter: The Story Behind the Story

Well, we certainly find ourselves celebrating Resurrection Sunday like we never have before, that is, from a distance! But are we? Maybe during this COVID-19 pandemic, this Resurrection Sunday has us closer to our Lord and more interested in His story of being raised from the dead than we’ve ever been before. At a time like this, aren’t we especially glad to know His story?

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. I’ve read stories of people who researched their family trees and wished they could forget what they discovered. But the trouble is, when we put unpleasant things in our minds, it’s difficult to erase them. It’s nigh on to impossible to “unknow” something you know. That’s what happened to me about Easter.

As a child, when I heard the word Easter, my mind was filled with images of colorful eggs filled with candy, cuddly bunnies, going to church with lots of beautiful music and amazing stories, and of course those fantastic Easter lunches Mama prepared for the whole family.

Then I grew up and became a preacher. While preparing my sermon for my first Easter as a pastor, I dug into the background of the word Easter, and what I discovered tainted my mind forever. The word Easter comes from the name of the mythical, Bronze Age Canaanite deity Easter (Astar). She was the goddess of sex and fertility to whom people prayed and made sacrifices so she would grant them many babies and plentiful crops. To make matters worse, the original Easter Celebrations were more like national orgies reenacting the mystery of reproduction.

Ever since those early pagan Easter images were embedded in my mind, when the Easter Season comes around each year, I have to work hard at replacing those images with the Biblical images of the death and resurrection of our Lord. And, when someone refers to the day Jesus rose from the dead as Easter Sunday, I take a deep breath, smile, and say to myself, “They’re talking about Resurrection Sunday.”

Our culture has changed from the primitive, pagan culture of the original Easter celebrations, but we still impose some cultural traditions on the Resurrection Story. Now, I’m not an anti-Easter-egg sort of guy, and I’m not going to pray that God will send rain on anybody’s Easter parade. We all need all the comforting bunnies, chocolate Easter eggs, and wholesome fun we can get. And, I’m not even trying to get anyone to stop using the word Easter.

But, like the Bible writers did in their day and Christians of every generation must do, I am encouraging Christians today to keep remembering and retelling the God-story—the life-giving, hope-producing, eternity-making Story behind the stories our culture would tell us and the traditions it would sell us.

This is nothing new to us Christians. Society in general and the media, in particular, have always turned our most holy days into their profit-making holidays. And, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves singing more songs and thinking more thoughts about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny than we do about our Risen Lord and our eternal life with Him.

The world-renowned ethicist and author of the classic, Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr reminds us that every generation must stand up to its anti-Christian culture. He says the great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection must continually be remembered, retold, and “intentionally carried forward into the present as we work into our future. Without it we cannot know who we are, why we are here, or where we can go. Without a common past to live out of, we become aimless and wandering individuals instead of a pilgrim people.” I would say, as Christ-followers, we’re not wandering around lost. We are pilgrims headed somewhere, and we know what that somewhere is.

Last year, when I was at my lowest point in my fight against cancer and did not know if I was going to make it, I didn’t turn to the songs and stories of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny to encourage me and give me hope. I turned to the great songs, and hymns, and stories of Jesus. I pictured the story of Jesus dying for my sins, the story of His being raised from the dead and meeting Mary in the garden, the story about His resurrected body walking into the room through the locked door and giving His frightened disciples hope to carry on. And I would recall the story of Jesus telling His insecure followers that He was going back to His Father to prepare a place for us in heaven so we could join Him there. And I would picture that time in my life when the Story of His resurrection became my personal reality, when I prayed and received the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus into my heart and life.

And you know what happened as I remembered those great stories and had my conversations with Jesus? I was able to look death in the face with a smile and under my breath I told the Lord, “Thank you Jesus, everything is going to be all right no matter what.”

Over the years as a pastor and chaplain, I’ve seen it many times. We and those we love don’t get by in this life without some difficult times and suffering. But I’ve seen the people who face death and hard times demonstrate a deep peace, inner-joy, and unshakeable contentment. These are the people who didn’t depend on themselves or the culture to make sense out of their circumstances. They focused on and depended on the Jesus-story, not all the cultural stories that have grown up around that Story.

So, during this Resurrection Season, popularly called the Easter Season, let’s be thankful for the privilege of living where we can enjoy Easter eggs, cuddly bunnies, delicious homemade meals, safe homes, and our families. But, like ole Niebuhr reminded us, let’s not forget to keep on remembering and retelling the Great Story behind the culturally-popular stories.  With that, I’ll wish you a most blessed Resurrection Sunday.

Author Info

Bill Nichols

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