Easter, the Feast of Liberation

Giles Hibbert contributed these thoughts on Easter to the May 2005 edition of SOF magazine. Giles Hibbert C.P is the editor of Blackfriars Publications, including the Electronic Library. He also maintains the website of Catholics for a Changing Church

Just over twenty years ago (in 1984) David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, announced that the Resurrection of Jesus was a 'conjuring trick with bones'. Shock horror! Furore! Worse than Honest to God - typical Anglican 'liberalism'; the baby thrown out with the bath-water, but in a more than usually offensive manner. Jenkins was denounced by the media—who almost certainly had no belief or interest in it other than as a sensation. Everyone knows that this is what Jenkins said for almost every newspaper, all the media, radio and television carried headlines—proving its truth. And, hardly surprisingly, God struck the pinnacle of York Minster with lightening on account of such blasphemy.

What Jenkins actually said was that if you treat the Resurrection as a 'conjuring trick with bones' then all you will have is a God who is a conjurer. Verb. sap. This will be our starting point for it has been quite normal throughout the Christian tradition to do precisely that: to treat not only the resurrection, but the incarnation, the virgin birth, transubstantiation, papal infallibility—you name it, inside or outside of Scripture—as the actions of a very clever and manipulative Conjurer God who pulls it out of the hat, or puts in an interfering finger here and there when things get difficult. And yet he can't stop earthquakes or tsunamis, or doesn't want to—God moves in a mysterious way. Perhaps he wants to punish us—as with Aids, malaria, crop failure and so on.

What actually happened?

What happened that night of the Resurrection, or early in the morning, if it wasn't a conjuring trick? It depends, of course, on what one means by 'happen' - the actual facts, perhaps—but 'what is normally called fact is a miserable abstraction, torn from its context, uprooted and dead. The 'real', by contrast is when the facts are integrated into their context in life, through poetry and drama. So it's no good simply searching for, and trying to go back to, the 'facts' of the resurrection—which can possibly be searched out, through scholarship, from either the Gospels themselves or by archaeological research. The Gospels were not written by newspaper reporters—though even if they were we could hardly get more disparate accounts than are to be found in them. At a very simple (though actually a very deep) level one cannot say what happened. One has to approach the subject in a very different way, with a very different idea of what 'happening' means. And only then is it possible to escape from the idea of conjuring and get beyond it.

Jesus, I think we can say with a certain amount of certainty, spent the last night of his life celebrating, together with his disciples, either the Passover (Synoptics, Paul) or an Agape preceding it Gohn)—though, in all these accounts, we have to be aware that we are not being given 'facts' so much as their interpretation. The later Church—not all that much later—saw this gathering as involving an offering to God of the lives of those sharing that meal, which itself led to the crucifixion and death of Jesus, to the denial of Jesus by Simon Peter, and to the ' chaotic' indifference portrayed in the opening of Jn 21: 'Let's go fishing'—back to square one. But No! as the Evangelists saw it led beyond that; to life, not death—to the Resurrection and the gift, from God, of the Holy Spirit. Is this just 'wishful thinking' or is there reality to it? We are back to that word 'reality', and how it relates to 'what happened'.

Sharing life

A new concept has, however, been introduced here: the lives they shared together, which was symbolised at that 'last supper'. Sharing life is not just walking in off the street and saying 'here I am, thank you for welcoming me' (often in response to the 'do-gooder' charity worker), but something more radical. It is sharing a whole history of life, of hopes, rejection and expectancy. When we come to Jesus and his companions this is all about their position—in relationship to God - within the history of the People of Israel—those who thought of themselves as God's 'Chosen People' - a way of thinking rejected by several of the Prophets of old (Amos, Ezekiel) and indeed by Jesus. 'The day of the Lord shall be a day of darkness, not of light. You have destroyed your sacred status, by violating the Covenant, getting your liturgical rubrics perfect but at the same time grinding down the poor and the wretched' - to paraphrase Amos. And consider how, in the Last Great Judgment scene (Mt 35:21-46) those who expected top places in the New Kingdom were puzzled by being rejected.

Despite this, and a number of other failures—'whoring after false gods' for example - which involved their condemnation, though not rejection, the history of Israel is full of expectancy and hope. They awaited a new Messiah, a king - a concept which at that time took many forms, the chief of which was probably that of establishing a theocratic and anti-Roman government. Many would have been expecting precisely a 'conjurer God'—that, surely, was what was being rejected when Jesus said: 'Do you not think that, if asked, my Father would send a whole army of angels - but this is not the way to fulfil the scriptures.' (Mt 26:53) Also the 'bad thief's:' Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself and us.' (Lk 23:39) This too, rather than some other-worldly spirituality, is what is implied by Jesus' reply to Pilate 'My kingship [kingdom? - JB, etc.] is not of this world.' On 18:36) We will come back to this; it is radical.

Understanding the Gospels

It is of extreme importance, if one is going to understand the significance of anything in the Gospel 'stories', to realise that the response to Jesus of his disciples - and thus what we were given by the Evangelists - was to see in him the fulfilment of all that hope and expectation of Israel - something which was very much alive amongst them. This is the way in which the various versions of the Good News are presented. 'Who else could we turn to?' On 6:68) It is explained in detail on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13ff.); and when at Caesarea Philippi Jesus says, 'But who do you say that I am?' and Peter answers 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God', this is what is at the heart of it (Mt 16:16).

But who is this Christ, this Messiah (the Greek is a straightforward translation of the Hebrew); and why Jesus? Perhaps it is better to ask: 'What is he?' for Christ is not a surname, as we for the most part use it, but a title: Jesus, the Christ. The phrase 'Jesus Christ' occurs with considerable frequency throughout the New Testament. Indeed, right at the beginning, the third and fourth words of the NT are iesou christou (in the genitive case.) Of course (like there) it occurs with several different case endings, but always without a definite article: so, 'Jesus Christ', as if it were a surname, rather than Jesus the Christ, as if giving a title? This, however, does not in fact mean that 'Jesus Christ' is the correct way for it to be translated and presented by us in our current versions. Greek uses a definite article but no indefinite, Latin has neither, modem European languages (at least) normally have both. This does not, however, mean that the definite article in the Koine Greek of the New Testament had the same role within the language as the definite article does with us. There is no one-to-one correspondence between words when- being translated. The correct translation depends, not on some absolute 'meaning' of a word, but rather upon its use within the language. I suggest that putting christos after iesous is in fact applying a title (not a 'surname' of any sort), and that it is in fact correct (as well as theologically expedient) to translate it as 'Jesus the Christ'. This is not nit-picking, but of considerable importance with regard to how we see both his role in history and ours as his disciples.

Christ the King

The word, in either language, Messiah and Christos, simply means' anointed', or the anointed one - and in Hebrew specifically the one anointed to be king over Israel. It started with Saul - a mistake - and went on through David - whatever his faults, standing as the figurehead of kingship in Israel, hence the whole concept of the Davidic line. The role of the King - essentially the agent or deputy as it were, or representative of, the Lord Yahweh, the only true and ultimate king - was twofold: to organise and lead the army in defence against attack by hostile neighbours and to sit in judgment, giving justice to those oppressed - so that the outsiders might come in and the oppressed be protected, the un-cared for cared for. So that, all together, God's People might genuinely be a people, sharing life and care - agape. Unfortunately, through the medium of sixteenth-century English, the word 'justice', so significant here, has come down to us as 'righteousness', turning its significance into 'pie-in-the- sky' respectability - with a Victorian touch of hypocrisy.

Since scriptural times the concept of 'king' has passed through such metamorphoses as that given by feudalism, and more recently that of 'constitutional monarchy', where the so-called sovereign, is meant - despite all its dysfunctionalism - to represent the nation, the People(?). Is there anywhere in all of this any connection with the biblical concept of King, either Old or New Testamental? We are robbed of one of the richest of concepts, especially since, as those who shared Jesus's 'Last Supper', his resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son (forget the problems over the Nicaean Creed and its alteration, but consider John 14:17, 20; 15:26) we, as his friends an 15:14 - that is his companions, even lovers), his sisters and his brothers, his Father being 'our Father', are called to share his work, to be co-messiahs with him. His kingship is our kingship - the fight for justice, for the poor, the deprived, the outcast, the despised, the diseased, of every colour. That is what kingship means - through Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one. In his 'last supper', in his death, and thus in his 'resurrection' - the triumph over that death - we too are anointed. We are called on to be one with him in kingship - to sit in the seat of justice and to fight against the forces of exploitation, the way we give value to power, riches and position (Mk 10:25). When will we take seriously the words of the Magnificat?

By contrast the Church has traditionally supported such oppressors as Pinochet, Batista, and even Petain. And it took nearly two thousand years for the Church to abandon its ideological support for slavery.


According to the Bible's vision and presentation of history the theme of liberation considerably predates that of kingship. 'God's People' were effectively set up as such when they broke from Egypt in the Exodus; they were later, after some hesitation (d. Judg 9), consolidated as such under the messianic kingship. These two themes, however, run side by side. To be a People, as understood in the scriptural traditions, it is necessary to be free, to be liberated from servitude - internal, or external.

The Passover, at the heart of Israel's religion, was not a Temple feast, which would imply its being Jerusalemic, kingly. It was of the family, but the familybound by the whole concept of 'neighbour'. In the New Testament it has the prominent position of being the context of the offering which led through to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is shared, according to the Synoptic Gospels and the Pauline tradition, by Jesus and his followers at that 'last supper', being the 'feast' of the liberation of God's People from slavery - though its origins seem to have lain in the spring festival of a pastoral people evolving into a settled agricultural way of life. Whether that last supper of Jesus and his disciples was or was not 'in fact' a Passover (the Fourth Gospel after all explicitly rejects the idea, and seems by and large to have the more accurate' details'), the point being made - the value assertion - of those who interpreted it in that way is that, although the immediate follow-up is betrayal and death, this death is actually the triumph over death, its destruction by the creative power of life - shared in historical continuity with the history of Israel.


If the Resurrection is seen under the rubric of 'What happened next?' (and quasi-attempts by the Gospels to do this are evident though not altogether convincing) it is almost impossible to avoid treating it as a 'conjuring trick'. Seen, however, as following that last supper, both as a Passover and/ or John's agape, and seen as summing up the history of Israel behind it, it can better be understood as the creative destruction of darkness by the light; hence the Resurrection is presented as occurring, not on the Sabbath (Saturday), but on 'the first day of the week' (Lk 24:1) that day on which according to the 'creation narrative' God said 'Let there be light!' (Gen 1:3) This is significantly the day of the Sun (Sunday), the day of life (shades - beams? - of Akhenaton, the sun-worshiping pharaoh/ philosopher perhaps.) Unlike the Sabbath which insists on a day of rest for those in servitude, the 'day of the Lord', of the Resurrection, of light, proclaims by contrast our liberation - the liberation of all, from slavery. To conclude I think we can say that the Resurrection as 'conjuring trick' is the opium of the faithful—it is a betrayal of the Christ, and of ourselves.

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