By Valson Thampu
20th April 2019
Easter: first, what it is not. It’s not a religious event. If anything, it cautions us against religion. The spotlight of Easter is on the human condition. Death and its aftermaths are not parochial issues. They are impenetrable mysteries.
Jesus’ mission was to free human beings from enslavement to priest-craft. He was killed because he exposed the blasphemy latent in religion and denounced priestly hypocrisy. Priests need religion; especially priest-centric religion. Human beings need godliness and its attendant sense of fellow humanity. The death of Jesus, like his birth, is wholly free from religious tones. The priest appears in this story as a murderous defender of vested interests. He is a flint-hearted conspirator against God for the sake of God—a prototype of all zealous defenders of gods.
Jesus is not only a discreet individual, but also a symbol of the glorious potential of humankind: in his words, the light hidden in every person. Human beings are capable, he said, of doing not only what he did, but greater things. That happens naturally, if what hinders the expression of the inner light is removed. So long as the inner light remains hidden, darkness reigns supreme. Don’t have to tilt against windmills of darkness; let the light shine, and see darkness flee, as in the Easter event.
For human beings, the ultimate terror is death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ affirms that the light of life can break even out of the darkness of death. The universal relevance of this assertion is obvious. Every human being goes through a phase in which darkness seems to have taken a fateful stranglehold. The proof? Well, why would so many commit suicide; a majority of them in the prime of their lives? Suicide is no casual joke. It seems the option when the last ray of hope dies. One has to be already within a sepulchre of hopelessness before one calls it quits. But suicides are comparatively rare, because there is hope in spite of thunder. Dante’s notice in Divine Comedy at the entrance of hell is, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Easter is a contrary notice at the entrance of a tomb.
The message of Easter is: ‘There’s hope, yet. You think you’re finished? Despair not. Take heart. Get up, and walk out of this dark night of the soul. The door is open.’ No religion can, as religion, render such hope real and credible. God alone has authority over life and death. God has no religion. Religion and priests arise in the wake of the departure of gods.
The Easter event is precipitated by a collusion between religion and politics. The political authority of Rome and the religious hierarchy of Judaism became one in hatching the judicial murder of the innocent. The bare outlines of this monumental miscarriage of justice are in chiaroscuro: tried, found innocent, killed. When religion plays harlot to politics, human beings lose even bottom-line inhibitions and perpetrate atrocities, as Voltaire said, with chilling cheerfulness.
The paradox of the Easter event is that it celebrates life through death. The primary reality is life, not death. The hues of death are borrowed from the brows of life. The less meaningful and dignified the life we lead, the more terrifying and hopeless the death we die. Life, lived well and to the full, takes away the sting of death. It is the vacuity of one’s life-before-death that sharpens the terrifying emptiness of life-after-death. Death, as Maurice Maeterlinck insisted, has no terror of its own. The gloom of the final moments of life spreads to death, shrouding it with scary sombreness.
It makes little sense to prepare oneself to face death, apart from embracing life with zest and determination. Whether Jesus, the individual, rose from the dead or not is immaterial to the wider humanity. Even for Christians, it isn’t a substitute for the discipline of living in a spiritually vibrant and fruitful way. What is universally significant is the affirmation that he who lives his life as Jesus lived—which is a feasible option for everyone who cares to—will not be snuffed out by death forever. We are the light. A lamp may flicker out, not light. Lamps are of different makes; light scorns labels and categories. Hence it is that the Easter event, though situated within a spiritual tradition, is not the exclusive preserve of a religion.
Christians discredit themselves by their inability to understand what Jesus accomplished on the Cross and after. It was the least of Jesus’ concern to ticket individuals to heaven. He was singularly focused on life-before-death. The priority, then, is that human beings recognise their true potential and attain the fullness thereof. In this ‘the other’ is at least as necessary as God himself. The greatest thing in the world is a wholesomely developed human being. It is pathetic, therefore, to live in indifference to what one can well be. The goal common to the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the world until the dawn of modernity is: “Know thyself!” The last priority for priest-ridden religiosity is this spiritual enlightenment.
The Easter event unveils the murder of the prophetic by the priests. Jesus was the Prophet par excellence. It is the High Priest who masterminds his murder. A cloudburst of priestly depravity hits Jesus and kills him. What resurrects is not merely the body of a human being, but the irreducible goodness of life for which ‘light’ is the universal symbol. That is why Easter is awash in light. There is an undying core of light in us. Death is only a temporal infection. It will pass. Easter is an affirmation of life and a re-appropriation of the mysterious goodness of this world that God loves and renews through the historical existence of humankind.
Valson Thampu is Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi