With the lighting of paschal candles and the ancient proclamation “He is risen!” Christians throughout the world today celebrate the central tenet of their faith - the Resurrection of a Jewish holy man they call the Son of God.
But as millions of the faithful observe the holiest day of their liturgical year, the Easter stories come against a backdrop of hopelessness - or misplaced hope - made grotesquely real by the mass suicide of 39 members of a flying saucer cult in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Devotees of the cult, known as Heaven’s Gate, believed that by shedding their earthly “containers” they would take on new glorified bodies and live on another planet as the “Next Level in Human Evolution.”
It was a tormented distortion of the Easter story - one that pastors, priests and ministers said they will be hard pressed to ignore today.
“We’ve all been shaken by this,” said the Rev. Ignacio Castuera of North Glendale United Methodist Church north of downtown Los Angeles. “Here in a technological time we still have people who believe in death as a way to liberate themselves from the body in order to meet some protector from outer space.
“The Resurrection story in the Bible is not that way,” he said. “The Resurrection story in the Bible is much more connected with power to change, or the power to overcome situations here on Earth. It’s not just for the future, not just for outer space. It’s for right here.”
Nevertheless, as members of the clergy see around them skepticism and despair sometimes so dark that whole groups can be driven to suicide, they are confronting anew how to make relevant a 2,000-year-old Easter story of hope that to some is, if not incredulous, at least archaic in its accounts of life after death.
Of course, Christians have been disagreeing since the early church about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. And the Easter stories the faithful will hear today are dramatically different, depending on the church they attend.
In Protestant fundamentalist churches, the faithful will hear the miraculous story of the literal physical resuscitation of Jesus’ crucified body. In Unitarian churches, they are more apt to hear of the Resurrection as metaphor.
In the vast majority of mainstream churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, they will be told that the resurrection of Jesus - the Christ, the promised Messiah - was profoundly “real,” a holy mystery involving nothing less than God’s intervention in human history that still holds power and purpose nearly two millennia later in a world in search of meaning.
In the first 500 years of the Christian church, scholars and theologians say, it was torn between those who believed in a spiritual Resurrection and those who believed in a fleshly or physical one.
The earliest view, influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy, was that Jesus’ resurrection was of a spiritual nature, according to Gregory Riley, associate professor of the New Testament at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif.
Later, he said, the emphasis and creedal statements, particularly in the Western church, began to emphasize a bodily Resurrection.
Today, the creeds proclaim that Jesus was both “very God and very man.” But having said that, Resurrection explanations still diverge. Differences can turn on subtle distinctions and nuance. What is meant by body? What is meant when a theologian or a church says the Resurrection was “real?” Real in what sense?
Riley said many seekers today are more comfortable with an early Christian view of a spiritual resurrection that the Apostle Paul suggested when he used words such as a “spiritual body,” or a body clothed “with immortality.”
“Saying that Jesus was raised as a spiritual being works a great deal better for us,” Riley said. One reason, he said, is intensely personal. We want to know what will happen to us when we die. We want to know what happened to loved ones.
“We can imagine loved ones still being alive in some spiritual state with Jesus … whereas if we’re all waiting around for the resurrection of the very flesh we are carrying there’s no telling where our loved ones might be,” he said.
To emphasize the experiences of others, whether those today who report near death experiences or the experiences of the disciples, is to miss the point, said Father Thomas P. Rausch, chairman of the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
The point, he said, is not what happened to others but to Jesus.
“Roman Catholics take the resurrection of Jesus as the first principle. There’s absolutely no question about it,” Rausch said. “The resurrection of Jesus was a real event that happened to Jesus.”
The problem with “liberal theology,” Rausch said, was that it reduces the Resurrection to the experiences of the disciples. Likewise, the problem with a fundamentalist view, he said, is that it comes close to reducing the Resurrection to “the resuscitation of a corpse” overemphasizing the “physicality.”
The Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch, Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles and a New Testament scholar, although hardly an orthodox theologian, worries about ignoring the physical manifestations of Jesus after the Resurrection.
“If one looks to early resurrection stories found in the Gospels - although one could dispute what kind of body it is - it is a palpable body. There are scars. … There is some way they still recognize Jesus - the sound of his voice, actions in the blessing and breaking of the bread. These are palpable characteristics for which he is known … There was something physical about the earliest experiences.”
By contrast, the deaths of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were seen by Christian ministers as life-denying, not life-fulfilling - a point more than a few planned to make to their congregations in Easter sermons.
That the cult leader who called himself “Do” compared himself to Jesus predictably disturbed or saddened the religious leaders.
“These folks experienced a huddled death in the hope that the huddled death was going to take them to their allies (in a spaceship) behind the Hale-Bopp comet,” Castuera said. “Easter is the story that can help churches or individuals exchange a huddled death - or any kind of death - with a power to change.”
That too is a theme many planned to bring out. Whatever the finely tuned theological interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus, they will do what they have always done - proclaim the Easter story as a story of hope.
“The challenge,” said the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, “is to make the Resurrection existential - to make the word become flesh, to place our depressed personages in the tomb and to realize that there is a third day of revitalization whether we take it metaphorically or spiritually or bodily. Somehow in life there is always a third day.”