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Reflection on the Theme of Easter
Having celebrated Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (according to the Gregorian calendar, since the Julian calendar is one week later this year), many Christians have now initiated the solemnity of Holy Week...

14 April   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... This should be a period of intense prayer as we consider the significance upon our own lives of the events that led Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to His Calvary at Golgotha and to the Resurrection that won us eternal salvation.

During this season, we should also consider the deeper fabric of our faith in view of the challenging times we live in today. Do we subscribe to the onerous words of Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem who admonished us, "Do not rejoice in the cross in time of peace only, but hold fast to the same faith in time of persecution also; do not be a friend of Jesus in time of peace only, but also in time of persecution"? Cyril of Jerusalem, a titan figure of the Early Church (315-386 AD) and author of the Catechetical Lectures , laid this challenging responsibility upon all believers baptised into the faith.

This year, however, I am not going to take up the theme of the glory of Easter, nor its social challenges, but reflect instead for the space of two thoughts on the nature of our faith in the context of the Gospels that ought to guide us.

My first fleeting paschal thought is that the Jesus of the Gospels is not solely a great ethical teacher or leading humanitarian character like Socrates. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs - accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, placing last things first. In some sense, he is more of a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than simply a higher Socrates. No politician, or priest, for that matter, is going to tell the lustful they must pluck out their right eye. After all, we cannot do what Jesus did because we are not divine.

Indeed, the Gospels we listen to - though not always hear - every time we go to Church are demanding. No wonder then that people want to tame them, dilute them and transform them into generic support for love, peace and justice alone. After all, if that is all they are, then we might as well make Socrates our redeemer! Throughout his ministry, Jesus was the willing challenger and victim of every institutional authority. He said, "Do not be called Rabbi, since you have only one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, the one in heaven. And do not be called leaders, since you have only one leader, the Messiah" (Mt 23:8-10).

My second thought ponders on the recent public disclosure of the Gospel of Judas in its Coptic 3 rd C translation. For nearly two millennia, most people had assumed that the only sources of tradition about Jesus and his disciples were found in the four gospels of the New Testament. But the discovery of over fifty ancient Christian texts at the Egyptian desert repository of Nag Hammadi in 1945 proved the claim by many church fathers that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are only a selection of gospels from among the dozens that circulated amongst early Christian groups. The Gospel of Judas - like those of Thomas or Mary Magdalene - canonises new perspectives and ideas on familiar gospel stories.

According to the Gospel of Judas, when Judas Iscariot handed Jesus over to the Romans, he was acting on orders from Jesus to carry out a sacred mystery for the sake of human salvation: "Jesus said to Judas, 'Look, you have been told everything. You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me'." The secret account reveals that Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot before he celebrated the Jewish Passover. Jesus said to him, "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."

Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the fathers of the church, qualified scholars reading those Gnostic gospels as 'heretics'. Yet those early Christians had not only received what Jesus preached publicly, but also what he taught his disciples privately. Many regarded these secret gospels not as radical alternatives that altered Church doctrine or cast tendentious uncertainties upon the Synoptic Gospels, but also as higher teaching for those who had received Jesus' basic message. After all, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus entrusted to his disciples alone "the mystery of the Kingdom of God."

Two centuries after Iranaeus' prohibition, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, advocate of the doctrine of the Homoousion, also addressed an Easter letter to Christians in Egypt ordering them to reject those 'secret, illegitimate books'. Yet, the Gospel of Judas has joined other spectacular discoveries in exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity by showing the rich diversity of the early Christian movement. Such discoveries, I believe, should not deter us from our faith. The Gospel of Judas might startle some Christians since it amplifies hints long read in the Gospels of Mark or John that Jesus knew and even instigated the events of his passion, seeing them as part of a divine plan.

Indeed, those attending Divine Liturgy this Easter Sunday to welcome Jesus anew into their lives may well find that their paschal reflections could become more Christocentric if they opened up freely to the ineffable mysteries of faith. After all, we profess at Easter that He is not here: for He is risen, as He said (Matt 28:6[a]). Or do we?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   14 April


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