Arguments for Easter

Jesus - past, present and riding a bicycle
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The confusion of tenses inwhich believers speak of Jesus show that chilling out in eternity is not an option, says Paul Handley

IN A FEW days' time, English- speaking Christians around the world will be singing: "Jesus Christ is risen today, Allelujah". Oh no he isn't. Just over three months ago they were singing: "Yea, Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning." Oh no he wasn't.

It is like riding a bike: when you have your spiritual speed up, you can balance this grammatical confusion calmly. Congregations which are otherwise dull and unimaginative play happily in the fountain of time, coping easily with the sophisticated tension between a historical Jesus (past tense), an ever- present Jesus of faith, and the ritual Jesus who features in an annual round of immediate past, present and future (a spiritual cycle, if you like). Jesus is born each Christmas, dies three months later, and in two years we shall celebrate his 2,000th(-ish) birthday. Different strands of the Church favour different Jesuses. Evangelicals largely favour the historical approach: he appeared in nought AD (roughly), he told us what to do, and it's up to us to do it. Catholic ritualists are best at re- creation, daily, weekly or annually. For charismatics and Pentecostalists, Jesus's presence or absence is more a question of personal mood ("I feel Jesus is very near", "I feel Jesus is far away").

As is often the case in religious disagreements, everybody has right on their side. The historical Jesus did exist. Because the Church has played up the spiritual side, it is difficult to make this statement without getting dragged into the business of response and alliance; it is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many people avoid making it. Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence, not least the existence of worshipping Christian communities within a few short years of Jesus's death, indicate that Jesus the Nazarene lived in Palestine between c 4 BCE and c 33 BCE and said and did a fair proportion of the things attributed to him. That, then, is the past dealt with.

Jesus's memory was preserved by his followers, and this is why the ritualists are the direct descendants of the first believers: in Christian terminology, they are the body of Christ; in a more straightforward understanding, they pass on knowledge of Jesus's appearance on earth to the next generation. That is the cycle of re-enactment sorted out.

And this would be enough, were Jesus simply a prophet: he lived at a particular time, and his followers keep his memory alive. But Jesus is part of the godhead, and his existence does not depend on a set of believers. Although he only appeared in physical form for those brief 30-odd years, the teaching is that he was present at the creation of the world and is present now.

How? Until a short while ago, it would have been enough to say that God was immutable and existed outside time. Recently, though, perceptions of time have become more sophisticated. Eternity is no longer seen as a straight line, stretching backwards and forwards to two infinitely distant points, but as something more chaotic which jumbles up past, present and future. As such, it is more able to accommodate the creator as well as the creature. Don Cupitt, the Cambridge philosopher/theologian/priest, is currently encouraging people to live in the present tense, something which Western Christians are particularly bad at. (He writes of "dancing on the leading edge of now", so it's doubtful how many churchgoers he'll convert to his way of thinking.)

The fountain-image of time is one of Cupitt's favourites. From a distance, a fountain seems fixed and still; close to, though, it is in a permanent state of flux. The implication of this image applied to time is that Easter is not yet fixed. Easter happened, but hasn't finished happening. Event and effect cannot be cleanly separated. At a simple level, this can be understood in terms of personal experience: individual X has been touched by the events of Holy Week; individual Y has not, but will be in five years' time. No wonder Easter is called a movable feast. That was the week that is.

The events of the first Easter define Christianity. In my experience, the keeping of Easter is not about remembering, or re-enacting, or re- anything: just as the egg is not a recreation of the old chicken but a new creature, so the observance of Holy Week and Easter more often than not creates our present reality.

For followers of a religion - and I detect this in myself - it is too easy to chill out, lolling complacently in eternity. What we might do now, compared with what God did in the past and what God will do in the future, doesn't seem worth bothering with. But the demand is (I think) to stay in the fountain, practising the age-old discipline of . . .well, of living.