Reflections on Easter

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By 2017-04-16

By Priyangwada Perera
Ceylon Today Features

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song," Pope John Paul II said in 1986. More than 30 years later, it still remains true. Though most people would like to identify Christians with Christmas, there would have been no Christianity if not for Easter. Christianity remains not because Jesus was born but because he defeated death. It is in the resurrection that the triumph lies. Easter reflections are a plenty. Celebrations are everywhere. Yet, less focus is on significance.

Passover and Easter

Ceylon Today spoke to the Colombo Archdiocesan Chaplain for Young Christians' Society (YCS,) Fr. Pradeep Fernando on the relevance of age old practices of Easter to the modern day. "Easter is what we call a Paschal Mystery. This refers back to the Old Testament, long before Jesus was born. The Pasch or Pasche from old French and Pascha from late Latin all referred to the 'Passover.' This was originally the annually celebrated event in Egypt: done in commemoration of the deliverance of the Israelis from the slavery of Pharaoh. It was the historical and adventurous passing of the Israelis led by Moses to reach the Promised Land. Pasch was also the sacrifice of the lamb. The leader of the household would sacrifice the lamb commemorating the Passover. It was a perennial annual remembrance. By the time we come to the New Testament, the Israelis were again under the Roman Empire. They were in hope of a king of their own. Their wait was for a saviour but a majestic, powerful political saviour who could over throw the Roman rulers. The awaited Messiah was to bring them political salvation."

Fr.Pradeep further explained how the latter beautifully replaced the old. "In the modern context, Jesus the Messiah, the true lamb of God is sacrificed to free humankind from sin. What was the 'saving from slavery' became 'saving from sin' which is also a form of slavery. Christ takes the place of the sacrificial lamb," he said. In the Book of Exodus the Israelis were instructed by God to smear the blood of the lamb on the door posts as a sign of identification so that they would not be destroyed as they found liberation from Pharaoh. While in the New Testament, to liberate the people from sin, it is the blood of Jesus that is smeared."

There were many parallels that Fr. Pradeep brought forth. "The new Pasch is Jesus' passion, passing from death to life and resurrection. It is suffering which ends in a glorious leap conquering death and gaining life. Life here is eternal life. Unlike in the Old Testament's sacrifice, here Christ becomes 'sacerdos, altare et agnus' or the priest, altar and lamb of His sacrifice."

Fr.Pradeep further explained. "Easter is the longest liturgical celebration in our Catholic liturgical calendar. The Paschal Mystery is the mother celebration of all Catholic liturgical celebrations. Lent is for 40 days, a period of preparation for the longest celebration. The Paschal Mystery starts with the Maundy Thursday mass and we do not conclude the Holy Mass. We do not put the Sign of the Cross. We continue till Good Friday with holy hours. Then, on Good Friday till the sun goes down we carry on our prayers. Again the service on Saturday and finally, the Easter Sunday. All this is considered as one mass, making it the longest celebration. If this is not followed, Easter will lose its meaning. This is the greatest and the most sacred celebration of Catholics."

Old Testament to now

It was interesting to note the Catholic view of death. "Easter is a celebration of life. The life of Christ present in the Church," said Fr. Pradeep. We might wonder how that is possible. "Easter is the celebration of victory of good over evil. A message of love over hatred, unity over rivalry. It is generosity overcoming selfishness. Peace triumphing over violence. Co-existence above strive and justice over inequality. Where truth defeats falsehood. Easter represents the cycle of the world. For the Catholics it is a journey," he said.

Fr. Pradeep added, " In the Israel context, the Passover to the Promised Land, led by Moses was a representation of a starting a new phase. We know that those people were originally shepherds. In their lives, literally they had to go in search of greener pastures for survival. The same happened with Moses. They were led to the Promised Land. It is like the transition from winter to spring. A change of environment. A leap from frost and snow to life. Our fore-fathers were taken through 40 years in the wilderness. Similarly for us, this is a chance to consciously walk out of the wilderness of our lives which we fail to recognize. We must make it an opportunity for transition. Like their journey, ours is the leap from the dismal to the hopeful, from the sterile to the fertile. "

Season of preparation

"Starting from Ash Wednesday, we have 40 days of preparation," Fr. Pradeep said. In the 'instant culture' why should it drag for so long, asked Ceylon Today. "40 days are quite significant in Christianity. Immediately after Baptism, Jesus is taken to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, where he prepares himself. With the work of the Holy Spirit, even Jesus had to face tests and temptations. It had to be decided whether Jesus could listen to and discern God's will. To start His public ministry and act on it was a mighty task. Especially when Jesus knew what His end would be. It was a journey that ended in a sacrifice on the cross.

The result was salvation for humankind. To do this, Jesus had to make the decision. How did He do so? Through prayer, fasting and abstinence. This is how we should find our mission and commit ourselves to it. We reach Good Friday after a meaningful journey. A journey of conscious decisions."

Fr. Pradeep also referred to his experience as a priest and the many occasions he came across such external and internal change of heart that actually transformed people. "We can prepare by getting rid of something that we are addicted to. There are children who save their pocket-money and offer that at the end of the season. In one of the parishes I served, I had a man coming up to me with a till. He said as his Lenten sacrifice he quit smoking. Offering me a till full of money, he wanted me to use it on two deserving children to help their studies. The till had Rs 7,860 and that is a real Lenten sacrifice." He emphasized that fact that this should be a 'pass-over' in life. "Jesus suffered, died on the cross and was resurrected. What we have to remember is that we don't have to die to resurrect. There are many ways we can rise from death in defeating sin or temptations. That is how Easter becomes timely. "

When questioned on cultural additions to Easter celebrations in Sri Lanka, Fr. Pradeep mentioned the plays which are done on grand scale and also the 'pasan' singing that is done in some parts of the country. "These are the very sad songs, close to the Sri Lankan tradition of woeful poetry sung at funerals in the olden days. Some parishes and certain places of the country continue these things. Even though they are not affiliated with Christianity in a liturgical sense, throughout the years they have been established culturally. They are very sad, thought-provoking songs and plays that definitely intensify the meaning and feelings of the Catholic devotee. As a country, on the whole, cultural adaptations get infused."

"In the present time, we focus mainly on Jesus' way to the cross. The journey is very similar to our journey of life. It is an ample opportunity to reflect on the whole process. The denial, betrayal and temptations that Jesus underwent. He was denied by his closest disciple Peter. He was betrayed by Judas who lived and ate from the same plate for three years with him. Pilot and Herod both knew Jesus was a guiltless man but neither had the strength to stand up for the truth. They were greedy for power and wanted to safe-guard their chairs. Then we also had the unfailing love of Mary and the disciple John, the women of Jerusalem, the brave Veronica who came forward to console Jesus. Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross. They are our examples. Imperfect people with the exception of Mary. We are such people. To make religion timely, our reflection is focused on such things. That is the difference in the way we look at Easter and the preaching of love," Fr. Pradeep concluded. "A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act." Two thousand years later, it was Mahatma Gandhi who said so. Celebrated with cultural differences, the essence of that 'perfect act' remains the same.

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