We have five accounts of Easter in the New Testament. Four are usually combined into one and the fifth one, written by St. Paul, is overlooked.
A Greek scribe collected the memories of the Christians in his Greek community about 40 years after the death of Jesus, and wrote them down in what we consider the first gospel. We call it Mark. He describes the crucifixion and death of Jesus and a young man sitting on the empty tomb who says to the women “Jesus has been raised.” The women are scared to death; they run away and tell no one. Period. End of gospel (Mark 15:8).
About 10 years later another scribe, called Matthew, tells practically the same story except it’s an angel sitting on the empty tomb and the women run away, not scared to death but full of joy, and they tell everyone. However, now the story continues with the risen Jesus appearing to the women and then to the 11 apostles. Luke’s gospel’s follows about 10 years later with the same story as Matthew’s, and more appearances by Jesus. John’s gospel is written around the year 100, repeating most of this and adding the tender story of Mary Magdalene jumping up and hugging his neck.
Sometime between the years 70 and 100, somebody went back and added eight more verses of detail to Mark’s gospel. And this is the idea of Easter we celebrate today. But it’s not St. Paul’s idea.
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Paul was writing his letters to the Christian communities in the 50s — decades before the gospels were written. Paul had heard all the stories. Many times. In many different forms. But they weren’t important. For Paul, nothing was important except one thing. “Resurrexit sicut dixit.” (He arose just like he said he would.) All those other details meant nothing.
If you drive up to Conyers today and stay for Compline at the Trappist monastery, you’ll hear the monks chanting a Latin hymn called Regina Caeli. You’ll recognize the triumphant sound of the second verse as the monks reach a crescendo with the words: “Resurrexit sicut dixit!”
It’s been 50 years since I was a monk but I am still moved when I hear the hypnotic beat of the Gregorian chant and those unforgettable words. But what did these words mean to Paul? If he was not interested in all the “gospel details,” what was he interested in?
There is no doubt that faith in the resurrection was a huge part of Paul’s message to his converts. His letter to the Romans makes that clear. But Paul’s idea of the resurrection goes much beyond the excited descriptions that those later Christians wove into the gospels and much beyond just a belief that it happened.
What is important to Paul is what he calls the new creation. He is talking to his converts about the death and resurrection of Jesus and he says, “We have entered into a new creation,” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is what the resurrection is all about for Paul. The old creation had dead people who stayed dead. But we get to live on by living out this new creation of love and service to our fellow man.
Paul describes this new creation in Chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians. Here would have been his chance to repeat his famous “righteousness by faith” that he beat into the heads of his Roman converts. He could have described this new creation with a whole chapter of Nicene Creed-like statements, insisting on the necessity of faith for salvation.
Instead he starts, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but don’t have love – I am a sounding gong or a clanging symbol.” And he ends by saying, “Three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This is St. Paul’s idea of Easter.
Resurrexit sicut dixit.
Dr. Bill Cummings’ blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.