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The Tomb of the Unknown Christ

[I stumbled across the text for my 2015 Easter Sermon, and decided it might be of use to someone.]

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)

As some of you know, I have a troubled relationship with Easter. Most of us in the Church of Christ do. On the one hand, my rational mind knows that eggs and rabbits not only have little to do with each other, but have even less to do with my Lord. I know that some of that is very much a carry-over from Western civilization’s pagan past. On the other hand, I also know that I love to drive down a street in the spring in this secularized society of ours and see a sign that reads, “He is risen.” I enjoy the irony of atheists buying calendars marked by the publisher with the holiday of Easter.

As a member of the Church of Christ, it is in my DNA to want to practice those things that are found in the pages of my New Testament. Easter as a word or holy day is not there, but certainly, my life is forever changed by the Resurrection of Jesus that is remembered today.

For many of us, Easter is an untethered occasion. Skeptics and Christians alike hide the eggs and eat the chocolate rabbits, but few spend much time pondering beyond that to see what it means that this day is still on our calendars. It reminds me very much of Paul’s trip to Athens. There, in the center of the intellectual world, Paul made his way speak to the philosophically trained elite of the city. On the way, he passed an altar which was inscribed, “To the unknown god.” Paul saw it and realized the irony of the altar. It was a desire to acknowledge what was lacking in Greek religion and philosophy. It was an altar of devotion with no one to worship. It was a part of the social life of Athens which existed, but was untethered to any substance. Like eggs and rabbits on Easter, it had the resemblance of meaning, but nothing to fill it out.

The story of how the Easter celebration came about is a curious tale that begins with the Jewish roots of the church. The Jewish festivals like Passover and Pentecost remained important events in the life of the early church. The Gospels mention four Passovers in the life of Jesus and notable events that occur on them (Luke 2:41-52; John 2:13-25; John 6; Matthew 26:17-19, 26-29; John 13:1). John’s Gospel in particular emphasizes the Passover as the event in which Christ died. The book of Acts begins with Pentecost (Acts 2), and it seems common for Paul to observe Pentecost in some way (Acts 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8).

However, as the years passed, it must have also seemed very apparent to the Christians that Passover had taken on a new significance. It was no longer a day commemorating only the Exodus from Egypt 1500 years earlier. It was now also the weekend when Jesus died and then was raised from the dead. Instead of the day focused on the death of the firstborn in Egypt, it now brought to mind the victory over death of Jesus, the son of God. Paul seems to be making exactly this connection in his epistle to the Corinthian churches, “For Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). The Passover continued, but not as it had.

In the centuries that followed, the church became increasingly more Gentile and less Jewish. The social attachment to the old festivals of Judaism became even more a distant memory, though it lingered. Even today, in many countries, the name for Easter is not our word “Easter,” derived from the Germanic tradition, but “Pasch,” the same word used to identify the Passover in Scripture. The traditions of the church came to an impasse in about 190 AD, when some noticed that the churches of Asia where still celebrating the Passover on the 14th day of Nissan on the Jewish calendar which might fall on any day of the week. Other churches recognized that it didn’t make sense to celebrate the Resurrection, which was now remembered on the Passover, on any day but Sunday. It was eventually determined by the churches, after many years of controversy about how Jesus kept the Passover in Scripture, that “the mystery of our Lord’s resurrection should be celebrated on no other day than the Lord’s-day; and that on this day alone we should observe the close of the paschal fasts” (Eusebius, Church History V.23). Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp who had kept the Passover as a student of the apostle John, helped to mediate the compromise. The controversy stemmed from the tradition of the apostles of keeping the Jewish feasts being in conflict with the understanding that the Resurrection of Jesus had now redefined everything that had come before it. It is a great example of the early church trying to figure out what to keep and what to change from the traditions that they had received. Passover had become for the church much like the altar to the unknown god in Athens. They knew it was important, because they could read about Passover in their Scriptures and their tradition. They also knew that something was different, because they weren’t Jewish any more.

The same thing seems to happen to the churches in the later centuries in the Western church. From their pagan backgrounds, they had a feast occurring in the Spring. When they became Christians, they came to appreciate the Christian tradition (itself the amended Jewish tradition) of remembering the resurrection around Passover. On the one hand, they had a tradition of an “Easter” festival including pagan symbols of spring, like rabbits and eggs, and they knew these pagan symbols could no longer carry the meaning they once had. On the other hand, they had a Passover tradition meaning essentially nothing to them, as they had no connection at all to Judaism. The church at that time seem to have made the same decision Paul made in Acts 17. Paul looked at the altar which stood and Athens, and used it to preach Christ crucified. Likewise, the European churches took these festivals which already existed and made use of them to tell the story of Christ. Like the Jewish Passover had become a memorial to Christ, so now the pagan Easter became a celebration of Christ. They threw out the old gods but kept the Easter eggs. The altar to the unknown god became an altar to the true and living God, once again.

Today, I see us having the same difficulty with Easter these ancient Christian’s had. We are distantly removed from the Jewish Passover, though we see it celebrated in the Old and New Testament. We are also distantly removed from any Germanic Easter feast or pagan gods. Instead, we have this hodgepodge of traditions inherited from our past. Worse still, as our culture becomes increasingly secular and post-Christian, even the Christian traditions of Easter have faded into distant memory. Preachers used to complain about Easter-only Christians who filled their churches once a year. Now we wish people showed up at all. Like another altar to an unknown god, America keeps an Easter of an unknown Christ.

So on this day, let us return to the apostle Paul and take our cue from his trip to Athens. Look at what is here, and use it to point to the tomb of Christ. Bring on the eggs. Bring on the chocolate rabbits. Bring on the children with their Sunday best. Bring on Easter joy.

Eat your peeps, for he is risen.

Today we take what we have on the calendar and we submit it to the victorious Christ.

Like the nameless altar in Athens, there was once a new tomb in Jerusalem. It was a new tomb, never used, empty of corpses or the stench of death. It was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, and he took it and offered it as a resting place for his teacher’s crucified body (John 19:38-42). They placed him there hurriedly on the day of preparation for the Passover Sabbath, and on that Sabbath, the Lord’s body rested in that tomb. Jewish people throughout the land kept the feast and remembered the lambs slaughtered in Egypt to spare their firstborn sons, while in that tomb lay the firstborn of God who was slain to spare his sheep.

The Passover passed and the sun rose up early on Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene approached the tomb in grief, met two angels in shock, and then found her Lord with joy (John 20). “I have seen the Lord,” she told the disciples (John 20:18), and later so would they.

That day marked a change in the history of God’s creation. The world which had known only death was invaded by life. In Matthew 23, Jesus had accused the religious leaders of his day of being a product of that world of death. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous.” “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Jesus would show them another way. The decorated tombs of the prophets and their dead bones would be replaced by the forgotten tomb of Jesus, emptied of its purpose and its only tenant.

Today we remember the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some will remember it with eggs and rabbits. Others will remember with church services and homilies. Above all, I hope you remember it as baptized people, who have reenacted the sacrificial death, solemn burial, and victorious resurrection of Jesus in your own life. Let us not be tombs of an unknown Christ, but altars of devotion to a risen Lord.

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