Easter. A time for Christians to consider the life, atoning sacrifice, and miraculous resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. How can we use our knowledge of the Old Testament to deepen our Easter experiences? And how can understanding how other religions approach Easter help us commit to being better Christians and Latter-day Saints.
Easter, a time for Christians to consider the life, atoning sacrifice, and miraculous resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But how can we use our knowledge of the Old Testament to deepen our Easter experiences? And how can understanding how other religions approach Easter commit us to being better Christians and better citizens of the religious world? We’ll discuss that and more in this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart and I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the institute and we’ll be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.
Joseph Stuart: Today we are once again joined by Julia Evans, one of our research assistants who is pursuing a degree in linguistics and is preparing to attend law school. Before joining our research team at the Institute, Julia worked at the MTC as a Norwegian teacher and then as a training supervisor. Currently she is involved in undergrad research in several areas of linguistics and has a strong interest in religion and philosophy. Welcome back, Julia.
Julia Evans: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled to have you here. Now Kristian, we usually have you give an overview of what’s happening the chapters, but we figured that if folks are listening to this podcast they know what Easter is and I wanted you to think about what are some of the encounters that you’ve had with Easter that have helped you to better appreciate it’s miraculous nature but to connect it to yourself as a Christian?
Kristian Heal: I love Easter as a reason to draw deeply from the well of Christian tradition. This is the time when Handel’s Messiah blasts through our house. This is the time when we’re looking at Christian art and we’re thinking about the rich celebration of Easter within the Christian tradition. And my favorite encounters with Easter and the ones which stick in my mind, and fuel and fund my own faith are ones which come from the Christian tradition. One, for example, is with art. I have an Easter encounter just about every day as I look up on my office wall and see Caravaggio’s Deposition. I have a couple of Caravaggio prints in my office. One is Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome which is an image which I particularly love. Saint Jerome was the fourth late, early fifth century translator of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, what became the vulgate. And the image of him that Caravaggio captures is really a model of scholarly diligence. But the other is this print of the Deposition and I’ve always been moved by this ever since first seeing it about twenty years ago. This image of the deposition is so rich. It depicts the moment where Jesus is removed from the cross and laid on the anointing stone outside of the tomb. It’s a scene of devotion and of despair, at least that’s how I read it. The devotion you can see in the movement and the loving gestures of the other figures in the scene. The way that Jesus is being carefully and lovingly laid on the stone for example. But there is despair there too.
Joseph Stuart: That seems important to me because Easter we always focus on the hope of the resurrection but I think that we can sometimes skip over the three days in between where no one knew what was going on or what was going to happen to this burgeoning religious movement.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. I think there is a sense in which despair is the corollary to the hope and joy of the resurrection. And we have to imagine, and I think Caravaggio did, this unexpected death of Jesus. The Messiah was not supposed to die in any narrative Jesus’ disciples would’ve been familiar with, so what we see in the Deposition is this sense of the thing that we hoped for hasn’t come about. Life hasn’t turned out the way that we thought it was going to be. And as I think of the despair captured in this painting, I think of two scriptures from the Book of Mormo. The first is Alma 34:9. This is the moment in Amulek’s sermon where he is trying to explain the necessity of the Atonement. “All are hardened,” he says. “Yea, all are fallen and are lost and must perish except it be through the Atonement which is expedient should be made.” And I think that sense of lostness is captured in Caravaggio’s Deposition. Jesus is dead and this was simply unimaginable to the disciples. The Messiah was supposed to come and triumph gloriously, not die ignominiously. The other passage is Alma’s moment in which he tells his conversion story to his son Helaman. This is familiar to people listening to this podcast, no doubt. He describes this moment but listen to his despair. “I was racked with torment for my soul was harrowed up in the greatest degree, racked with all my sins, yea I did remember all my sins and iniquities for which I was tormented with the pains of hell. Yea, I saw I had rebelled against God and that I had not kept his holy commandments and yea I had murdered many of his children or rather led them away into destruction yea in fine so great had been my iniquities that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressive horror.” It was from this state of greatest despair that a light pierced the darkness, and that light was Jesus, and that light inspired Alma’s Jesus prayer. “Oh Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me who am in the gall of bitterness and having been encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. Oh Jesus!” I think the reason why I am so moved by Caravaggio’s Deposition is that it captures the despair of the believer immediately before the cry for mercy, immediately before the cry, “Oh Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me!” It is the darkness before the breaking of the dawn, the moment of exhaustion before heavens aid helps us continue to press forward that is captured here. It is the feeling of the necessity of feeling lost and hopeless that so many of us feel and have felt before we have called out to Jesus to rescue us.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that, Kristian. It brings to mind an episode in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot where the titular character and the villain are in an art gallery looking at a copy of Holbein’s Dead Christ. And they have this discussion about how this is the most depressing thing, the most antithetical thing to faith that could be produced because it is a picture of Jesus in rigor mortis. Who is upon the anointing stone, but he is left there in the dark. And it’s something that I reflect on when you say that is that if we only knew the Jesus story up until the second day or the first day, then we would miss out on the hope and only capture the despair. It seems that those two aspects are always present in our lives as Christians. Not trying to cling to one and forsaking the other, but trying to hold both things in our hearts in the same way that our Heavenly Parents do as They watch us act in the world.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s beautiful. And we have to. Father Lehi reminded us about the importance of opposition. I think that this contrast of light and darkness, feeling these moments in which we are surrounded by darkness and then the light pierces it. These moments become transformative for us as believers and as people who love the Lord. I saw this enacted liturgically in an Easter service in the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the annunciation in Oxford. I had been invited by a friend to attend and I never attended an Orthodox service before this moment. And so I was not prepared really for the way that the service enacted this darkness into light narrative from the death to the resurrection of Jesus. My experiences have been singing Christmans carols in Anglecan churches where there was lots of light and lovely music and sounds ascending up to the apps. But within an Orthodox church, you’re entering into an older world, a world of incense, a world of deep liturgical action. One of my professors presided as a bishop of Oxford over this, and it was wonderful to see this example of an academic performing a liturgical acts and this moment of highest sacredness in the Christian calendar. And what struck me the most about this encounter was this remembrance on Saturday evening of the moment in Jesus’s death, the darkness of the building, the solemnity of the hymns, and as midnight came, the light was taken from the vigil light, that the priests had, and started to light candles one after another in the church building, with everyone lighting their candles out successively until the whole building was filled with light. And at that point, recognized that something significant had happened in the world. The church representing the world, and Jesus emerging and this light pouring out from this moment in the liturgy. There was a procession around the church, shouts of “Christ has risen!” and the hymn of the resurrection. And the whole ceremony transitioned to the joyful celebration of Easter morning. “Christos anesti, alithos anesti,” is how they greet each other in Greece and in Greek speaking countries. “Christ has risen, indeed he has risen.” This is the Easter greeting between Christians. And at this moment, this whole service became a living metaphor for Easter. An enactment in worship and song of the movement from the darkness of death to the bright, hopeful, life-giving resurrection of Christ.
Joseph Stuart: I’m not sure how to change topics after such a lovely remembrance, Kristian. But because we are studying the Old Testament this year, it seems important we think about Easter in the context of what the ancient Israelites would have expected as well. In connecting the story of Passover to the story of Easter, what did the early Christians have to say about this connection?
Kristian Heal: So the early Christian story of Easter was framed within an Old Testament context. I think by Jesus himself. After the resurrection, as Jesus is walking with his disciples on the Road to Ameas, unknowingly, they didn’t recognize him, they were wondering what had happened and related to him this event. And Jesus said to them, “Oh fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” And he’s going back to what we would call the Old Testament. “All it not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory.” So he’s teaching them that this suffering is a part of the Messianic promise and beginning at Moses, the books of Moses traditionally called the Torah, or the first five books that we have been studying up until this point in our curriculum, and all the prophets, the things we will be studying, “He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Jesus told us that we should expect to find Him in the Old Testament, and we don’t have to look very hard or very far to do that. And in fact, we have spoken about a number of cases already in which Jesus seems clearly depicted, seems clearly modeled in this. One of my favorite early Christian sermons celebrates this connection between the Jewish past of the Christians, and this sort of Christian future. This way in which the Old Testament was taken and reinterpreted through the lens of Christ. Christ becomes the eye in which the Old Testament was seen.
Joseph Staurt: Yeah, that seems important to me because there can be so much in celebrating Easter, at least in my experience growing up, that there can be some sort of scorn for Jewish people or for discounting the Old Testament, and again just to point out that not only was Jesus Jewish, but he is consciously placing himself into the Jewish story for others to understand him as Messiah.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think this is vital especially for Christians and especially in this day and age for us to show us the greatest respect, and in fact the Book of Momrmon tells us very clearly, have you remembered mine ancient covenant people? God has not forgotten the Jews and still remembers them and they are still his covenant people. And as they at the time of Easter, celebrate and remember Passover, the great moment of their deliverance as a people, Christinans are taking this same event and reinterpreting them through this different lens. But I think God is at work in both moments and in both activities and that’s important for us to remember. That this is an interpretive act that allows Christians to read the story of the Exodus as the great model and the great type of the rescue of all humanity. A relatively unknown Christian writer from the second century, this is very early in the Christian tradition, someone who was said to have always lived his life in the holy spirit, a man called Melito from Sardis, wrote a highly artistic sermon in Greek with the title, Peri Pascha, “on the pasch.” And Pascha has no English equivalent really. It’s a Greek form of the aramaic pascha. It can denote the Passover festival, the Passover meal, the Passover lamb, or the Christian feast, Holy Week and Easter, which continues and replaces in the Christian tradition, Passovers. So it means all these things simultaneously. The sermon followed a reading of Exodus 12, this last great act that would end in the deliverance of Egypt, not the passover part of this story where the angel of death passed over the Israelites because of blood that was on their lintels and so forth. It also includes a dramatic retelling of this story. Melito’s objective was to explain how the great story of Israel’s exodus was this sketch, this model or type of the great Christian story of the rescue of all humanity. So speaking of Exodus, this is what Melito says, “Understand therefore beloved how it is new and old, eternal and temporary, perishable and imperishable, mortal and immortal. This mystery of the Pascha old as regards the law, but new as regards the word, temporary as regards the model or type, eternal because of the grace, perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep, imperishable because of the life of the Lord, mortal because of the burial in death, immortal because of the rising of the dead.” You can see here that this is a — this has this sort of flavor of Old Testament poetry, these parallel passages, this provocative language, this sort of parallelism of it is highly evocative and captures this sense of the contrast between these two events. So Passover in Melito’s mind, is a story of Israel’s temporal salvation. But Easter is the story of this great permanent rescue of all humanity. So the sermon lays out here, this salvation history. It’s a different story, we’re not stuck in Egypt and trying to be rescued from it. This is the story of the fall and of humanity’s sin and death.
Joseph Stuart: I like that you know the Old Testament flavor of poetry or style. In thinking about how these early Christians were often Jews, or were aware of the ancient Israelites narratives of salvation. And so in connecting those two things, it seems to me that he’s taking Jewish ideas and making them universal, about how any person can become a chosen person through taking on the name of Jesus Christ through baptism. In short, he shows that everyone needs to be saved and that a Savior has been provided. Something that Melito points out as well is that everyone has fallen. This isn’t a unique thing that only the Israelites have to remember through remembering the Passover and remembering the Exodus, but really that all of humanity needs to remember our fallen state.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We have Amulek’s words ringing in our minds, “All are hardened, all are fallen and lost.” So Melito’s response to that would be, this then is the reason why the mystery of the Pascha has been fulfilled in the body of the Lord. So Jesus is the response to this universal sense of fallenness and lostness. At the end of this sermon, Melito does something really interesting. He gives us an example of a Greek rhetorical technique called proso propea (18:13) or speech in character. And this character who he gives voice to is Jesus. So quoting from Melito again, “The Lord, when he had clothed himself with man and suffered because of him that was suffering and been bound because of him that was held fast and been judged because of him that was condemned, and been buried because of him that was buried, rose from the dead and uttered this cry,” so now we enter into the words of Jesus, “Who takes issue with me? Let him stand up against me.” Here Jesus is quoted from Isaiah 50, verse 8. “I release the condemned. I brought the dead to life, I raise up the buried. Who is there that contradicts me? I am the One,” says the Christ. “I am the One that destroyed death and triumphed over the enemy and trod down Hades and bound the strong one and carried off man to the heights of heaven. I am the One. Come then all you families of men who are compounded with sins and received forgiveness of sins. For I am your forgiveness and I am the passover of salvation, I am the Lamb slain for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your resurrection, I am your King. I will raise you up by my right hand, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. There I will show you to the Father from ages past.” In giving voice to Jesus in this moment, the message of the whole homily becomes immediate and personal. Jesus speaks directly to the congregation. He uses this rhetorical effect of anaphora, this repetition and this builds to a crescendo of Jesus’s promise to all of those who feel lost and despair. “I will raise you up by my right hand. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. There I will show you to the Father from ages past.” This to me is the great message of Easter put so beautifully and profoundly.
Joseph Stuart: I love the sacred imagination that Melito is showing us. That we can imagine conversations, we can imagine things happening. And we can become closer to the Lord by trying to put ourselves in his shoes or understand what it might have felt like to return as the resurrected, triumphant Savior. I think it’s also crucial though to remember that Christians are not the only ones who think about Easter, and that Latter-day Saints are not the only Christians who have thought about how to celebrate Easter. So Julia, before we even begin, you told me earlier that Easter has long been one of your favorite holidays. Why is that?
Julia Evans: I’ve loved Easter for so long and it’s because I think when I was a teenager, I thought really really hard about the question what’s your favorite holiday. Probably over-thought it a little bit just so I could be prepared if anyone asked me about that. So I thought about it and I determined that Easter was my favorite because not only is it the most important holiday to me, you know. But it’s also richest in its symbolism and beauty. I really liked seeing parallels with the world around me. I grew up in Utah and so the weather was super unpredictable. It was winter and cold one day and the next day it was almost summer. So that reminded me of Christ’s life, the bitter-sweetness there of his atonement and his resurrection, those two contrasting themes there. I also thought of music. Dissonance in music, where a chord would have this ugly sound for a second and then just kidding, it would resolve into a beautiful harmony. I also really liked just the symbolism in all of that so that’s why I’ve liked Easter for a long time.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s crucial to remember too, that as Latter-day Saints we have something to offer the world but also that we have a lot to learn from the world around us. How have your perspectives changed on Easter as a scholar and as you served as a missionary?
Julia Evans: I don’t think I even thought about other religions before I went on my mission so I was lucky to serve somewhere that was very diverse religiously. I served in Norway and met a lot of people of different faiths. One of those faiths was the Islamic faith. And so when we would talk and engage with Muslims, they would often tell us what they believed in and I loved frankly, listening to what they had to say. My intent was always was just to understand rather than to argue with them or oppose my beliefs onto them. I always really had these unanswered questions about Judaism. Just growing up reading the Book of Mormon, I would be like okay, what is that? I just had all these questions and those weren’t really answered until after my mission when I took a couple classes at BYU. Dr. Chadwick has an excellent survey of Judaism and Islam class that I really enjoyed here.
Joseph Stuart: So in your classes though, I imagine that you thought of things that may not necessarily come up in Sunday School. Something that seems crucial in understanding Easter as a Latter-day Saint though, is thinking about the historical reality of the resurrection of Jeuss Christ and this isn’t something that’s necessarily accepted or embraced by other Christians or by scholars. How would you approach this as a Latter-day Saint to explain to someone about the literal resurrection of Jesus?
Julia Evans: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And often with historicity we obviously don’t have all the answers, all of them, we can’t necessarily prove something right or wrong, or one way or the other. So a lot of people question is it even worth it to question. Is it even worth it to try to figure out if he is a real person or not? As I was looking into this with the historical Jesus, you mentioned that idea a little bit earlier. I found an interesting quote by Terryl Givens, who is one of our research scholars here at the Maxwell Institute. But he said that he’s heard it said that history as theology is perilless. Because you don’t want, in other words, to found all of your beliefs and hopes and religious values on a historical document that may prove to be spurious, and then he says, “my reply is yes, history as theology is perilous if it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection is a fabrication then Christianity collapses.” So I really love that idea of yes, historicity, and history is perilless right? I think that Christianity really does hinge on whether the resurrection really happened so of course it’s valid to look into that historically.
Joseph Stuart: I’m reminded of something that the great historian and early church leader, B. H. Roberts said that no amount of physical evidence is enough to persuade anyone of the truth. And then followed up by what Elder McConkie said that even with physical proof, it does not matter if it doesn’t help you to build a testimony of the Savior. So how did you go about reconciling historical questions about belief and in thinking not only about the historical Jesus and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teachings, but in thinking about other religions as well?
Julia Evans: For me, it’s taken me a long time to develop a really strong testimony and I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to build slow, learn line upon line right? There’s an analogy that I really liked when I heard last year. I was reading a talk called the Three Most Important Things by one of the law professors at BYU, Brett Sharps. And he outlines the three stages of religious faith and those are from Paul Recour, the French theologian and philosopher. And so Recour outlines that often, not always, but often in faith people experience first a childlike belief and wonder and amazement, and then sometimes it’ll morph into a sort of desert of doubt and questions, when you hear other viewpoints and you’re trying to reconcile those. And then the third stage is what he calls a second naivety and that’s when you have sort of a more mature understanding and you have some of those questions answered and some of them not, but you also retain that sort of childlike wonder. So for me as a teenager and a child, it was Jesus lived again and I’ve looked into historicity and asked those questions honestly. Did Jesus live again? But then after that I think that you — I personally have come to believe that Jesus Christ really is my Savior and the resurrection really happened and Christianity, the claims it makes are true and valid so right now I’m in the “did Jesus really live again?” yes and enjoying that amazement.
Joseph Stuart: I think that much of the conversation in the church about faith crises really can be better framed as a faith deepening process where we can ask questions and receive answers that help us to better appreciate our faith. And in my process of learning more about my own testimony of the restored Gospel, I have found a lot of inspiration in learning from other religious traditions. What do you think the role of learning from the religious traditions of the world offer to Latter-day Saints?
Julia Evans: Yeah. I think it does so much for us. There’s a quote from a professor I took classes from here at BYU, Jeffrey R. Chadwick. He’s a scholar in Islam and also Judaism and he says, “Any time Latter-day Saints reach out and learn something about another people, another religious community, another culture it enriches us by helping us to appreciate what it means for us to be children of God in all places, in all situations.” So I really love that quote and it resonates with me as I’ve experienced it and been able to meet people in conversation and wherever life takes me and learn from them and have this perspective that yes, my faith is very important to me, but so is learning from other people who have a lot to contribute.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end this week. Kristian, Julia, thanks so much. And have a blessed week.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)