An Easter Tale
(Not a reader? Take a listen instead ⇓)
Let me tell you a tale.
It starts in a garden, long, long ago.
And what a garden it was – literally, a paradise on earth. A place of grandeur and beauty, filled with trees of every description and with leaves in every shade of green, soaring upwards toward a sky so blue it hurts the eyes.
The sound of a great river can be heard flowing through this garden paradise, a source of life and refreshing for all the living things that call it home. In the still shade of the trees, quiet pools of deep emerald green can be found, surrounded by rocks and ferns. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of animals scuttering through the brush, and, overheard, birds sing joyfully in the trees, lifting a chorus of praise to the One who created them.
A perfect garden; beautiful, unspoiled, glorious.
If the tale had ended here, it would be a short one, perhaps, but satisfying nonetheless.
But this is not the end of the story.
Come a little closer, deeper into the heart of the garden and you will see two trees, shimmering softly in the golden sunlight. Laden with ripe, juicy fruit, they’re the most beautiful trees you’ve ever seen. You watch as a woman, standing underneath the long, slender boughs, reaches out her hand and plucks a piece of fruit from one. She passes it to the man standing beside her. Reaching out again, she takes another and, as they both bite into the fruit, you see movement in the branches as the sinuous form of a serpent winds itself up and away into the leaves of the tree.
Juice trickles down their chins and drips onto their bare feet. You long to join them, sharing in the delicious fruit and in a moment that seems bathed in the golden light of pleasure and contentment.
Yet, you suddenly sense a change in the air. You can see that the two humans can feel it too. Their expressions change and the sudden heaviness you feel is reflected in the set of their shoulders. Emotions chase across their faces. Discovery, understanding, disappointment, shame….
You hear a voice. A question. Even watching from a distance, you feel the need to hide, to shrink, and turn your face away in discomfort.
“What have you done?“
You listen closely as the conversation unfolds.
A punishment; life ending in death.
A promise; death ending in life.
The conversation concludes with words spoken with great love but also great sadness “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
And now, you must leave.”
A sharp metallic scent fills the air, new and unexpected in this place. You turn your gaze and see that a lamb has been slaughtered, its blood soaking into the ground. A mournful cry passes through your body, rising up towards heaven, and, with a deep heaviness, you realise that all of creation is echoing your cry, a keening filled with pain and loss.
Something terrible has happened in this garden. A darkness is falling in Eden. A great evil has entered paradise and Death close on its heels.
The two humans move eastward, clothed in the skin of the lamb, and then pass beyond the borders of the garden, out into wildlands they’ve never seen before. A flaming sword is placed at the entrance to the garden, turning every which way so that it appears to form a fiery cross. Shimmering creatures stand on either side of the sword, guarding the way back to what lies at the heart of the garden; the abundant and eternal life of God.
This is a tragedy too great to bear, a terrible price to pay, and yet you cannot look away. What did the voice mean, life springing from death? Is all lost? Surely there is still hope?
Centuries pass. The darkness only grows deeper and heavier.
The whole world lies under the power of the evil one and the heart of humanity has become hardened and sick. A long silence, nearly 400 years, has passed since anyone has heard even the voice of God. Hope seems lost.
But this is not the end of the story.
Under a star-sprinkled sky in a small middle-eastern town, shepherds are out in the fields watching over their flocks. It’s census time and the town is filled to overflowing with travellers from all over the nation. The fields are the quietest place to be right now, and the shepherds are welcoming the reprieve from the thronging crowds.
Suddenly a great light appears all around them, illuminating the fields for miles in every direction. A voice speaks aloud. “Good news of great joy for all people! Your saviour is born!“
Salvation! Hope! The shepherds know what these words mean. The words of the promise have been passed down, in hallowed whispers, through every generation since the beginning of time itself. One day, the saviour will come. One day, the way back to the garden will be opened again. One day we will go home.
The life and light of humanity was appearing, at long last. Light was piercing the thick gloom, shining in the darkness and now they knew the truth and a promise realised, that the darkness will not overcome.
But when? And how?
The ruler of this world has a foothold in every corner and many are enslaved to his bidding. The child must be kept safe, hidden in plain sight in a small, non-descript town, thought to be of little worth, until the time is right. Not even his own family would know the truth of who he is. Not yet.
Seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. Time passes.
The child is now a man, fully grown, and full of grace and truth. One day soon he will wage war against the kingdoms of this world; one by one they will fall at his feet and he will stand victorious, the triumphant conqueror and saviour of humanity.
And, even now, you think that the moment must surely have arrived. You find yourself standing in another garden, known as “the oil press”, due, most likely, to the presence of the young olive trees growing in abundance all around. The ground is rocky under your feet and the moon bright overhead.
A small band of men lie asleep and, as you come closer, you see that the man is a little way off from the sleeping men, kneeling down with his hands clasped in prayer.
You can sense the great weight and desperate solitude that lies upon him; sorrow is clearly etched across his features and, as you watch, great drops of sweat fall from his brow, soaking into the ground like blood.
The sound of footfalls and the murmur of voices can suddenly be heard floating on the still night air. A crowd of men draws close, some who look to be perhaps priests of the city, others of more humble occupation, all carrying swords and clubs. The man and his friends, now roused from sleep, stand waiting.
The leader of the crowd steps forward and kisses the man’s cheek in greeting and, all at once, the rest of the crowd moves forward, as one, to seize the man, a signal having clearly been given.
Chaos erupts, a sword swings wildly and a man screams, clutching at the bleeding side of his head where moments before his ear had been. Then, suddenly, his ear miraculously reappears, reattached and healed, and the crowd falls away astonished and afraid. You can hear the man sternly reprimanding the one in whose hand the sword is found.
“Put your sword away, for all who take the sword will die by the sword.”
You are confused and suddenly afraid. This is not how you expected this to go. You want to run away and, turning your gaze, you see that the small band of followers that had come with the man have done just that.
He is left alone, surrounded by a crowd who are at once afraid of him but also enraged by him. Their hate for him is palpable, and envy and violence are thick in the air.
They step forward again in sudden decision; the man is seized, unresisting, his hands are bound, and, as he is led away to be tried, you want to weep. All those years of obscurity and safety, all the hope of the world resting in this man, and even he was no match for the dark evil in the world.
You hope for a miracle but you have seen what men can do.
The sun finally rises, illuminating a terrible sight. The man is struggling up a hill, the weight of a timber crossbeam pressing down on his bruised shoulders and back. He has been viciously beaten and his back is covered in deep welts, A rough circle of small, gnarly branches, fashioned to resemble a crown, has been jammed upon his head. The sharp barbs of the thorns cut deeply into his flesh, blood dripping down his neck and onto the wood of the crossbeam across his shoulders.
At the summit, the man is unceremoniously stripped naked, his arms are forced apart, bound to either side of the timber crossbeam, and heavy, iron nails are hammered through his wrists and into the timber.
The crossbeam is raised high above the gathering crowd, the man sucking in shuddering breaths with each jostle, and attached to a large, upright post already fixed in place. The post, stained with darkened streaks, tells the terrible history of this place, and, as the man’s ankles are hammered to the upright, fresh blood flows, joining the old.
You want to turn away, you cannot bear to look any longer on the horror and humiliation, but you cannot. It seems as if the whole world’s gaze must surely be turned towards this sight, forced to give witness to the deprivation and evil endured by this man.
You can taste misery and guilt, like sawdust in your mouth and feel a terrible clawing in the pit of your stomach.
At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the man dies. The crowd, who came at first for sport, are now deeply shaken by what they have seen, and return to their homes full of sorrow and contrition. A Roman centurion standing nearby raises his voice, surely in protest of what has taken place. “This”, he exclaims, “was an innocent man.” You, too, lift your voice in agreement but it is lost on the wind.
Yes. A perfect human, good and true, and all the hope of the world rested in him. An innocent man but also now a dead man.
There is nothing more that can be done.
The man’s body is taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a newly cut tomb; he is the first to rest in this place. A stone is rolled across the entrance and the long-hoped-for saviour of the world is left alone, in the still darkness of the grave.
But this is not the end of the story.
A soft breeze is blowing as the first streaks of dawn creep over the distant horizon. A bird sings sweetly from a branch overhead and the grass is cool under your feet as you wander through this peaceful place.
You are in yet another garden and, as you draw closer, you realise you are near to the place where the man’s body had been laid. You can hear voices, the low, intimate conversation of a man and a woman and, as the path rounds a corner, you see them standing together beneath the trees, close but not touching. The woman has been crying, you can see her cheeks are wet with tears, but, strangely, her eyes are shining not with sorrow but instead with joy.
She turns suddenly and brushes past you, breaking into a run and is quickly lost to sight. Only the man remains.
And now you can his face clearly and you draw in a sharp breath, hope suddenly fluttering inside your chest; it cannot be!
For you saw this man betrayed, beaten, brutally executed, buried….not three days past. You saw the light of the world, condemned and put to death and yet here he stands before you, alive.
Radiant. Restored. Resurrected.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega” he says, his voice warm with feeling, “the beginning and the end. The one who is and who was and who is to come. Fear not.
I am the first and the last. I died and, behold, I am alive forever.”
He smiles and now a sob catches in your throat.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though they die, yet will they live. I have swallowed up death in glorious victory and all those in me will be made alive too, an abundant and eternal life.
Do you believe?”
You nod, scarcely daring to trust what your heart knows to be true. The curse has been overcome, the promise has been fulfilled. “Life to death, death to life, like seeds, like soil, like stars.”*
“In this world, you will have trouble” the man continues “but take heart! I have overcome the world.
It was prophesied that I, the Christ, should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning in this place.
And now, dear heart, go, and tell the world the good news.
I am risen!”