Perhaps more than any other Biblical narrative, the story Christ's death and resurrection arouses profound uneasiness as well as hopes. Some may feel qualms about a holiday that has been associated with Christianity's most virulent anti-Semitic outbursts. Others may be turned off by the idea that a man "just like us" supposedly rose from the dead. Still others may be disturbed by the Easter story's unflattering picture of the human condition. It is no wonder that people try to trivialize this event by turning it into a matter of bunnies and eggs! Although it could be worse: this spring I saw a card with a group of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, their weapons blazing, urging us to "have a blast" on Easter.
No matter how uncomfortable the Easter story may make us, and no matter how hard we try to avoid its message, it cannot be denied that the death and resurrection of Christ is crucial to an understanding of Christianity and also to the way of early Friends. Sooner or later we have to confront the meaning of the Crucifixion the way we must confront the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
Like a Zen koan, the Easter story challenges us to reflect on questions beyond the reach of conventional thinking. Why did a man who called himself the Prince of Peace go into Jerusalem and deliberately provoke the authorities? If there is "that of God" in every one, why did religious leaders and their followers want Jesus to be crucified? Finally, what do we make of the fact that Jesus' followers not only believed that Christ rose from the dead, but were willing to stake their lives on this conviction?
These tough questions deserve serious reflection because they challenge our customary beliefs and practices. Do we have the courage to face our inner demons, as Jesus did? Are we willing to take on those whom psychologist Scott Peck calls "people of the lie"? How do we respond to the reality of torture, genocide, and other unspeakable evils that plague our world? And what meaning do the death and resurrection of Christ have for our lives today?
Over the past couple of years, I have made it a practice to reflect on these questions during the forty days preceding Easter. I should point out that, like most Quakers, I am not an orthodox Christian (though I happen to have been baptized one). I draw insights from Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Native people. For me, true religion is not about dogma; it's a way of life and an inner awareness that is available to people of all faiths.
The Way is beyond words and names. Any attempt to define or to chart it is bound to be inadequate. But if we keep in mind Hiyakawa's observation that "the map is not the territory," we can learn from observing those who have walked the path before us. We can view the Easter story not only as an historical event, but also as a kind of spiritual map with signposts pointing us in the direction of Truth. Sometimes called the Way of the Cross, this journey can be broken down into four distinct stages:
1) The temptation in the desert. Confronting one's inner demons. The Lenten experience.
2) Entering Jerusalem. Professing one's inner truth, no matter what the price. "Speaking truth to power."
3) The crucifixion. Dying to self-will.
4) The resurrection. Experiencing the new creation and new life of the Spirit.
In the first part of these reflections, I will use examples from the historical experience of Friends to describe the way of the Cross as it was imaged and experienced in the seventeenth century. In the second part, I will use examples drawn from my own experience and that of contemporary Friends, some of whom may not consider themselves Christian, but whose spiritual journey has embodied similar stages.