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Easter - the awkward time of year: article for the Daily Telegraph

Saturday 26th March 2005

According to a poll this week, only 48% of Britons know why Christians celebrate Easter. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, explains the importance of a tormented saga about murder and public execution.

Every Easter brings its share of stories about people no longer knowing what Easter is about. The recent Reader's Digest poll made the point again. But why exactly? The Christmas story is still in a general way familiar as the Easter story is not, so that it is not simply a matter of uniform ignorance of the Bible.

The truth is that Easter is awkward. The stories themselves are angular and strange – a tormented saga about a judicial murder and a horrific public execution is followed by a series of events that challenge not only our assumptions about how the natural world works, but also our desire to read a story with a good strong ending. Jesus returns from death, but he is not a ghost or a resuscitated corpse – so what is it we are talking about?

He meets his closest friends and they don't at first recognise him. In the earliest gospel, St Mark, there aren't even any meetings, only a visit to Jesus's grave by some women disciples. The grave is empty, a stranger says, "He is not here", and the women run off in panic.

Even in John's gospel, the end is a sort of fading rather than a climax: a meeting on the lake shore between Jesus and his friends, a couple of enigmatic prophecies, and then the author saying, "I could tell you much more but I'd never finish".

Hardly surprising that the Easter stories drop readily into the Too Difficult file as far as our society in general is concerned. They seem at first to operate too far outside any frame of reference we can cope with.

The contrast with the Christmas stories is clear. There is an accessible, affirming feel to them. There may be miracles happening, angels and stars and so on, but the central images are much more universal and manageable – mothers and children, innocence and new life, warmth in midwinter.

But perhaps it is just the awkwardness of the stories that ought to persuade us to look again. The fact that these are not tidy and satisfying as stories might be a reason for wondering about them rather than writing them off.

One thing likely to strike you when reading the gospels is how they like to illustrate events in Jesus's life with references to texts from the Old Testament. This or that happened so that the prophecies might be fulfilled; this or that fits into the pattern.

It is specially frequent when they tell the story of Jesus' suffering and death. Jesus is betrayed by Judas; doesn't the Old Testament psalm say that "someone who has eaten my bread has turned against me"?

Jesus is stripped naked and the guards throw dice for his clothes; just like another psalm – "They divided my garments between them, they threw lots for my clothing".

Of course, these stories are meant to tell us what happened – but there is a repertoire of images and echoes to draw upon. God's favoured children are regularly the victims of betrayal and contempt; there is an established way of telling this sort of story.

But when they move on to the resurrection, the gospel writers change gear. They stop quoting the Old Testament. Instead of the tightly plotted, fast-moving detail of the passion stories, the impression is more fragmented and the time scale not always easy to decipher.

The women flee from the tomb, and then suddenly run into Jesus, according to Matthew. Luke tells us of an odd encounter on the road out of Jerusalem, when two friends of Jesus get into conversation with a stranger and recognise him as Jesus when he breaks bread with them.

John has the poignant story of Mary Magdalene, alone in tears at the deserted grave hearing her name spoken in a voice she knows. People hurry between the tomb and the city and the Galilean mountains, sharing baffling incidents, sometimes interrupted by Jesus inexplicably being there among them. Finally Jesus is seen no more; what is left is the fellowship of disciples trying to put it all into words.

When someone stumbles and searches for words, especially someone who is otherwise fluent and coherent, you may well conclude that something has happened for which their experience hasn't prepared them.

Shakespeare famously gives Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, a speech of frighteningly disjointed words and phrases when he first suspects his wife of unfaithfulness. Something has crossed his horizon for which nothing beforehand has provided a structure. The new feelings are utterly real, utterly painful and chaotic. The broken and disjointed phrases show how deep they go.

And we know that this is literature reflecting life. We can all think of those times when we feel we have nothing to say that will help or make sense – not because there is literally nothing to say but because there is too much.

Is this part of what's going on in the Easter stories? Even a few decades after the first Easter Sunday, the people in the best position to write about it are still catching up with the experience, not just processing it through a set of conventions.

Some scholars have cast doubt on the historic value of the stories because of their apparent confusion and unclarity and have argued that all we have is a symbolic narrative expressing the fact that the disciples felt their faith miraculously renewed after his death. If that were the case, they made a disastrously bad job of it.

The feel of these texts is far more that of people struggling to make sense of something that has happened outside their heads, not inside, wrestling with an intractable set of experiences and meetings, not finding a helpful metaphor for their emotions.

The untidy character of the stories leaves the reader or listener with work to do. Whatever else this is, it isn't the account of an event happening just to someone else in the past. It tells you that something in the world has opened up; that meeting Jesus of Nazareth is possible, despite his horrendous and very public death and that if you do meet him, there is an influx of some vision and energy that takes you beyond your normal frame of reference.

The resurrection isn't a happy ending to a sad story. It is the beginning of a new story, a new phase in the life of the disciples – potentially a new phase for the reader too.

That seems to be what the abrupt end of Mark's gospel suggests. The women ran away in terror, and... "Well?" we ask impatiently. And the writer lifts his head and says, "Why do you think I'm writing this? And what are you going to do about it? Because nothing is the same now."

So it is natural enough that the Easter stories don't settle as comfortably in the mind and imagination as the Christmas ones. But when someone moistens their lips and looks at us awkwardly and says, "I don't quite know how to tell you this", we are right to suspect that what's coming is not just an interesting bit of information or a mere historical anecdote. And we listen that bit harder.

Faith is not, after all, about getting to the point where everything is clear and settled. It is about stepping into a disorienting new world: the stories you know how to tell about yourself and your world may need to be interrupted and questioned. Familiar things and persons have to be looked at with a new depth of attention.

If Easter is awkward, it is because it is always a shock to be told who we really are and what we really might be.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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