As we begin Holy Week, I’ve been reflecting on this time within the church year and what it means to me today. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church where Easter wasn’t a season but a day. I got an Easter basket with candy in the morning, put on a new dress and shiny new shoes, and went to church. The church service wasn’t that much different than any other week, as the music and the sermon emphasized Jesus dying on the cross for my sins so that I could go to heaven when I died. The resurrection was secondary but essential because that was how Jesus proved he was God’s son. I didn’t know there was any other way to think about Easter.
Many years later, married and Presbyterian, I celebrated Easter with my own little girl. I definitely kept the candy and pretty dress tradition going, but there was more to it at church. Lent was a whole thing before Easter emphasizing giving up something to participate in Jesus’ suffering. In our church, it was a pretty casual thing, except for no happy songs and hanging the cross with purple.
And then Easter week was a big deal. I sang in the choir, and we went all out. Palm Sunday was a two-service commitment for the combination of adult, youth, and children’s choirs, everybody processing into the church and the children waving palm branches. We would sing at a service on Maundy Thursday that was very solemn and sad. One year we had an oboe that had me weeping from the very first note.
And then, Easter Sunday was a choir blowout—a significant jubilant musical piece or pieces at two services with a brass ensemble. There was always breakfast shared on the lawn, weather permitting. Afternoons were big family dinners. A group of us that didn’t have family around joined together for a big afternoon of food and conversation; the kids ramped up on candy and excitement. Our music director amused us one year by wearing my daughter’s bunny ears at lunch.
The symbols and activities were different, but the main deal was still that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead so we could have a relationship with God.
Does any of this feel similar to what you experienced at Easter? Now or in the past?
Years later, when I was in seminary, we explored the entire gamut of church traditions. At the same time, I began to learn about variations of belief about why Jesus died and the purpose and practices some churches associated with it. I discovered that there was a name for the beliefs about the crucifixion that I had been taught, substitutionary atonement. I learned there were other ways to interpret Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which I found more life-giving.
But the effects of believing in substitutionary atonement run very deep. My interpretation built over time was that I was so fatally flawed as a human (along with everybody else), especially as a girl, that I could never be good enough for God. My perception of God was that “he” was demanding and unreasonable and took out his feelings about me on Jesus, who took the punishment for me. It felt scary and arbitrary, spilling over to how I felt about my authoritarian parents or authority figures in general. Now, this didn’t stop me from trying to prove myself worthy. I was in a cycle of constant striving and shame. It didn’t matter how many A’s I received in school or promotions I received in my professional life; any misstep or critique held more weight than the positives. I feared punishment at any moment. Alternatively, I fled from church and tried all the self-help techniques to avoid thinking about it: fight or flight.
Why did Jesus die?
Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’
From Matthew 22, The Message
Even though this scripture was often read, the “web of life” concept was new to me in seminary. I was blown away by conversations about the way everything and everyone is connected to God and each other. It was a new way to think about the kingdom of heaven among us that Jesus talked about. I’ve come to understand the purpose of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a new way. The emphasis throughout Jesus’ teaching and the actions of his life in the Gospels is on showing us how to love God, ourselves, and each other. The implications of belonging to each other can be life-changing.
Not much has changed from Jesus’ day. Whether you call it empire, individualism, or post-modernism, we continue the “endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside it.”  We see the same pattern of two powerful groups, political and religious, telling strategic distortions of reality and promoting conflict and self-interest as the common good in the Gospels we see on the news daily. By refusing to participate in the charade, Jesus showed his solidarity with the suffering of our circumstances. 
Barbara Bondi describes Jesus’ crucifixion as solidarity with all of us who are shamed “and reduced to nothing for simply being who they are” as Jesus was.  She points out that the early church “did not see sin as our hopeless badness,” as I learned it. Sin, to them, was our inability to see the “patterns of seeing, feeling and acting so that we could not love one another or God.” We can now see that we are made in God’s image by seeing Jesus’ suffering and can re-learn how to love. 
From this point of view, we can understand sin and salvation in an entirely new way. Modern psychology tells us that as we grow up, we move away from our childlike wholeness and conform to what we think will be acceptable to those who are in authority over us. We fragment ourselves. The word salvation comes from the Lin “salvus,” which is about “being made whole, uninjured, safe or in good health.” Diana Butler Bass points out this is “the biblical vision of God’s justice and mercy, peace and well-being, comfort and equanimity.”  Bass proposes that Jesus’ death isn’t what saves us but that he had to be stopped because he was already offering salvation. 
I’ve come to believe that Easter resurrection is about waking up, opening our eyes, and having a saving encounter with God, who showed his love for us through Jesus. We can now see that there is a new way to live that brings wholeness and healing to our relationships. We can integrate our body, mind, and spirit and find “oneness” with God and others.
I just finished reading Sebene Selassie’s book, You Belong, where she offered me three concrete practices for living into a transformed life. Embodiment in the present moment, grounding in reality, and responding with compassion and wisdom. We become whole when we can stop comparing and competing to feel worthy and rest in our belonging to God and connectedness with all things.
We can let go of the culture’s messages that let difference and individuality separate us.  From this new perspective, we allow ourselves to notice and listen to how our body feels and the emotions that arise in the present moment. 
We will be grounded in the reality of the present rather than the stories we, and other people, try to get us to believe. We will seek out what is separating us from others. 
When we belong to everything, we can respond with curiosity and kindness.  We can respond from a place of love for God, ourselves, and each other as Jesus did.
Reconciling Theology with Tradition
As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, I’ve been attending an Episcopal church lately. I started going right before Lent and thought this season would be an excellent time to explore how I feel about Easter now. It’s led me to try to reconcile the traditional symbolism with what I believe about the meaning of Easter.
The flow is the same. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. The liturgy, creeds, and scripture readings are the same. But the interpretation, so far, is different. I’m seeking to let the traditions connect me with the long lineage of people following Christ in their time and place.
Invitation Spend some time this week reflecting on what Easter means in your life. How do you relate to the traditions?
 Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, And Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 145.
 Rohr, 147.
 Bondi, Roberta. Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life. Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995, 143.
 Bondi, 136.
 Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence (SAN FRANCISCO, CA: HARPER ONE, 2022),76.
 Bass, 96..
 Selassie, Sebene. You Belong: A Call for Connection, Kindle (New York: Harper One, 2020), 61.
 Selassie, 69.
 Ibid. 45.
 Ibid. 97.
Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash