The True Myth: Easter as the Greatest Story Ever Told
Human beings have always been story-tellers. Since the earliest days, we have striven to express our new-found ability to understand reality and interact more fully with the world around us. We alone among Creation were given that sublime combination of intelligence and emotions to enable us to seek out the truth and knowingly revel in it. We have been called a strange blend of animal and angel; we are primates still, and yet our destiny has been raised and image transformed by a Hand not our own. From out of the dust, a breath stirred…and the Word of Life was uttered.
And so, with our newly developed vocal chords, we spoke and sang of the mysteries of nature, and the virtues of the spirit. We used our hands to paint images upon the walls of caves and chisel the first words into stone. We beat drums in unison with the vibrations of the earth, and our own heart-beats. We built monuments to the movements of the sun, and the turning of the seasons. We remembered our adventures, honored our heroes, and sought out the meaning of the universe.
We sought out the source of all being and wove our many mythologies. We realized that our world was governed by an “ancient magic”, both in the laws of nature and in natural law. There is a universal order, with each law built upon a deeper one. This is the interwoven essence of reality, making all of nature an enchanted realm. We saw in the nature the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and put flowers of life on the graves of the dead, clinging to the hope that their spirit remained whole and unbroken. Mere materialism was unthinkable, as was the close-minded view that this plane of reality was the only one to be sought after.
Each culture that developed had its own way of emphasizing their belief in the beyond. For the Celts, it was nature-based mysticism; for the Greeks, it was logic-based philosophy, for the Romans, order-based civilization; for the Jews, it was the divinely-inspired Law. There are countless other manifestations, but all appeal to a seeking after Divine communion and the fitness of all things.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of these multi-faceted longings, and indeed, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, He can be seen as the synthesis of all that is good and true and beautiful in other mythologies as well. He is the real Green Man of the Wood who the Celts heralded as the essence of life and rebirth; He is the real Warrior of the Rainbow who Native Americans prophesied would band together all peoples in brotherhood and justice; He is the real Baccus, who the Greeks toasted for His blessings of wine and mirth.
But in the most literal sense, He is Elohim, the God of Israel who spoke the words “I AM” from the Burning Bush, who promised his Chosen People the coming of a savior for all mankind, entrapped by the snare of their sinful nature. Indeed, for the foundation of our faith, we owe the greatest debt to the Jewish Race. The paradoxes of the prophesies they received are numerous, and tend to unwind like the workings of nature, ordered to a purpose, yet in ways we do not expect. But that is the only thing we should be able to expect, since Christ is the ultimate paradox of history, and the story of His Life, Death, and Resurrection follows suit.
The Great Magician who formulated the rhyme and reason behind time and space penetrates His creation in the form of a tiny infant, born in a stable when we would expect a palace, of a commoner when we would expect a queen. He is worshipped by shepherds, the lowliest of the low, and raised in a town often disparaged: “What good ever came out of Nazareth?” And yet it is his mother who acknowledges that that God “puts down the mighty from their thrones, and exalts the humble.” Just as when David the shepherd boy, also born in Bethlehem “House of Bread”, was called to be king of Israel over his robust soldier brothers, God judges the heart.
And so the Messiah will come to a conquered nation that expects an earthly messiah who will ride forth as a glorious conqueror, and restore the earthly power of their fathers. And yet when they are offered a savior more profound than any temporal champion, penetrating the heart of spiritual realities and extending salvation to all the nations, His own people reject him like the proverbial corner stone, and transform him into the Man of Sorrows, tortured and disfigured as the sacrificial offering for a sinful humanity.
It is the greatest of all human mistakes, of all human tragedies. And yet it had to happen. The ancient prophesies were fulfilled by people with free will, granted them from the beginning, and yet with the foreknowledge that all these things would come to pass. It is the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, yet now the tables are turned, and it is God who sacrifices His Son, an integral part of His very Self.
Though containing all the elements of the greatest stories, the Passion narratives transcends any mythology and stands apart from them. It is what J.R.R. Tolkien would call the one and only “True Myth”, shot through with a striking realism yet possessed of that ingredient of Eucatastrophe that links it to all other. This story is profoundly human, in the sense that we cannot deny, for we have all experienced aspect of it in our own lives. It is no fantasy; it is no game; it rings with painful reality that pierces the soul. It is indeed worthy of history, factual belief.
The Last Supper is taught with Christ’s own bitter realization that His hour has come, and yet He still takes the time to reassert the core of His mission after hearing his apostles squabbling over who was the greatest. He tells them that the greatest among them should serve, and then puts his words into action by washing their feet. He tells them that the Great Commandment is to love one another as He loved them, even as he knows that one of them will deliver Him up to His enemies.
Then He eats Paschal lamb which He is bound to become, and then speaks as the bread and wine as His Body and Blood, and urges his followers to continue this sacred act in remembrance of Him. As at the moment of creation, these words create a new reality: The first act of Transubstantiation. The sacramental imagination, instilled within Jewish practice, passes on in new forms to cement the New Covenant.
At Gethsemane, the Garden of the Olive Press, The Son of Man pleads to be spared the horror that is to come, in the depth of his humanity. But the Evil One cannot be denied his blood claim according to the rights of an ancient magic, which gives him possession of a rebellious humanity strangled by their own twisted ways. And so the Son of the Blessed One sheds sweat like blood, while his apostles drift asleep, unable to keep watch and pray with Him.
Christ is sold out for a bag of silver by one in his own inner circle, betrayed with a kiss of friendship, and God is condemned by his own priests who could not recognize Him. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Simon Peter, denies him three times, and swears he had no effect upon his life. He does so out of fear, not malice, which makes him all the more pathetic as he weeps in bitter shame after hearing the cock crow thrice and seeing the bruised and battered face of his master.
Pontius Pilate, too, is a man, not a monster. He knows Jesus has done nothing deserving of death, and does not want innocent blood on his hands. But he plays the part of the ultimate cynic and queries “What is truth?” before weakening before the crowd and crucifying this guiltless man. Barabbas, meaning “the son of the father”, is released in his place, symbolizing us all.
And so Christ is scourged beyond recognition and mockingly crowned with thorns before He goes off down the Via Dolorosa, as the scapegoat, bearing the cross upon his shoulders, to die at the place of the skull. All of nature recoils as humanity commits deicide. As the Good Friday hymn relates: “Let the wind blow/Let the waters know/Tell the earth, the stars, the sun/Blessed Jesus, born to save us all/The appointed hour has come.”
The world turns its back on God, and lets him die alone. But Christ is still Himself, through all the suffering, still proclaiming the same message He spread throughout His life of Love in the face of Hate: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” And He would offer the world life-giving waters cries out, “I thirst!”, and they give him bitter vinegar for his parched lips as we do, every day. And in the depth of his humanity, he quotes the prophet-king David of Israel: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And then He sees his Mother Mary, the New Eve, broken to pieces inside as any mother would be, and gives her into the care of John the Beloved Disciple, and to us all.
And yet evil does not have the last word. The greatest paradox of all unfolds, for, as Chesterton says, “By God’s death, the stars shall shine/And small apples grow.” The earth is redeemed through its greatest crime, and we sing of the “happy fault” of Adam which earned us so great a Redeemer. The curtain of the Temple separating God and Man is torn down the center, and the stone table is shattered. Death is turned to Life, just as Winter turns to Spring. The butterfly comes forth from the chrysalis. The empty tomb saves Man from emptiness.
I have always found comfort in Newton’s law that every power has an equal one loosed against it, meaning that no matter how impregnable evil may seem, there is always a way it can be beaten. But the Resurrection of Christ goes beyond that. Goodness is not merely equal, but always more mighty than Evil, for the latter is merely a corruption of the former. And so we live in the Age of Grace, knowing that the King has already come among us in disguise and conquered our Sin and Death, and will someday come again, in all His Glory.
In the spirit of Pascal’s Wager, I must put forth this query as devil’s advocate as one judging a story on its own merits: If the skeptics are right and Christianity is an illusion, is it not the most wonderful illusion ever experienced by man? If it is a myth, is it not the crowning Myth of Myths to address to the human condition? If is an interwoven series of paradoxes, is it not therein that the power of it lies?
What God would take the form of a helpless infant, destined to die as a criminal on a cross to save a fallen race? No god of mischief and mayhem. Only a God of Love, the highest summit of all that is true and beautiful. If this is nothing more than a gnawing hope generated by the emptiness of this world, why not embrace it? Man hopes, as he always has. It is the very essence of his being, as much of a necessity as breath. That much can be easily believed by even the staunchest atheist.
And yet what hope are we given by atheism and materialism? That we must die, and all that is truly good in this world is doomed to be swallowed up into nothingness? That reality itself is nothing more than a transient reaction of chemicals? That the pursuit of knowledge and pleasure are the only ways to make a meaningless life barely tolerable? That morality is based solely on individual judgments? No, we have always desired more than this! It is the deepest yearning in the human heart. What put it there? Is it some knowing we cannot explain? Dare we hope for that?
We have no choice. It is automatic. For we love reality, and we yearn for a higher one, a perfected one, where love endures.
All of this inevitably leads to the ultimate choice: to believe in some meaning behind reality, our own personhood, and a definitive morality, or to believe in nothing. Neither position is provable by scientific instruments. But if there really is nothing, it could hardly hurt to hope beyond hope for something more and embrace the innermost longings of the heart, whereas if there is something, it could make all the difference to take that leap of faith.
Do we understand everything, or can we always accurately interpret the realities around us? No! But is it reasonable to believe that we are the sole interpreters, and the pinnacle of intelligibility? I think not.
Considering all the imponderables of life that man can never fathom, I cannot imagine that there is no such thing as an omnipotent and all-seeing being. Reality must be known, growth and change must be initiated, and the inner workings of the heart must be read. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the truth that makes it so complicated to our minds. And yet it is clear that the soul cries out for its Source and is restless until it rests in Him. For humanity is always questing for the ultimate, always yearning to grasp the highest stars, and penetrate the deepest seas.
But perhaps the key to the ultimate has already been granted to us, this day, this Easter, when the things of divinity and humanity are wed in splendor and glory, joined together by the Greatest Story Ever Told. Perhaps it is time to begin our Eternity while we are on Earth.
By Rosaria Marie