Today is ‘Maundy Thursday’, according to the Christian calendar. This day has a special significance, as it is the origin of one of the most basic symbolic sacraments of the Christian church. On this day, Jesus (Issa) had his last supper with the 12 disciples before his death. It is from this meal that the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, originates. The Holy Communion is a symbolic meal celebrated in a religious service with an ordained priest leading the service. The meal is symbolised by a tiny glass of wine (non-alcoholic juice) and altar bread, which is a dry biscuit made of flower and water. In some types of Christian churches the congregation receives only the bread, while the priest takes the wine on behalf of all. The Holy Communion symbolises the relationship of a person with God and with others in the community of believers.
Like Eids, the exact time of Easter varies. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after Spring Equinox (March 21). This causes the date to vary up to one month from year to year. Easter and spring indicate the beginning of new life. It is interesting to know that until the 16th century, our calendar placed the New Year in spring on April 1, not in mid-winter. Even today, the Persian New Year is celebrated on March 21.
The month before Easter is a month of fasting called Lent. This commemorates Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the dese. Today, fasting is not commonly practiced, neither by priests nor other believers, but it is preached about every Sunday during Lent, and it is marked with a special, modest gathering at the last Sunday called ‘Fastelaven’ in my Norwegian mother tongue. Lent and Easter are in many ways similar to Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr. In Pakistan, many Christians observe fasting, borrowing from the Muslim tradition.
After the last supper, Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers, the occupiers of Jerusalem and the Land of the Jews and Palestinians at the time of Jesus. The Roman soldiers were tipped off by one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, who according to the Bible, committed suicide later when he realised his mistake. It should be noted that some Muslims believe that someone else was arrested by mistake instead of Jesus.
The Romans were afraid that Jesus’ popular support could lead to an uprising against their rule. The Bible explains that Jesus was interrogated and tortured, but the Romans could not find him guilty of any crime. Since the Governor considered Jesus innocent, he asked the angry mob, who had suddenly turned against Jesus, what they wanted him to do. The Bible says they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” Governor Pontius Pilate then handed him over to be hanged on the cross, but he symbolically washed his hands in water, indicating that he would take no responsibility for the decision.
A week earlier, according to the Bible, on what is now called ‘Palm Sunday’, Jesus rode into Jerusalem along the roads lined with huge crowds and branches from palm trees strewn on the ground. He rode humbly on a donkey indicating that he did not want to be a secular ruler, but a religious leader of renewal. The week that followed until his death and resurrection is known as the ‘Holy Week’ or ‘Quiet Week’.
On Friday, termed ‘Good Friday’ in English, and ‘Long Friday’ in Norwegian, Jesus was taken to Golgotha (Calvary), the hilltop that the Romans used for public executions. Jesus died on the cross in the late evening. To be certain Jesus was dead, a sword was put in his side and blood came out. He was taken down from the cross and buried in a cave grave nearby, protected by Roman soldiers and a heavy stone blocking the entrance. All this happened in the presence of Jesus’ mother Mary, the disciples, several associated women and men named in the Bible, and a crowd of people.
But then three days after his death, the Bible says Mary Magdelen and some other women came to the grave on Sunday morning, ‘Easter Sunday’, to wash and anoint Jesus body, according to the tradition. On the way to the grave, the women discussed how they might have difficulties removing the heavy stone placed in front of the grave. But when they reached the site, the stone had been removed, the soldiers were gone and inside the tomb, an angel met them, saying that Jesus had arisen from the dead. The women were thoroughly confused. Yet, they were certainly very glad, too. They walked as fast as they could back to announce the great news.
During the next 40 days, until ‘Ascension Day’, Jesus revealed himself on several occasions. Once was to his disciple Thomas, who said he did not believe that Jesus had arisen from the dead; he would only believe it if he could see Jesus in flesh and blood himself. The Bible says Jesus did appear, and said: “You believe because you have seen. Blessed be those who have not seen but still believe.” On Ascension Day, Jesus was taken up to heaven, and the Bible says that a cloud took him away from the eyes of the people. This event, indeed a miracle, is also included in the Quran.
Ten days after Ascension Day, on ‘Whitsunday’, or ‘Pentecost’, the Christian Church was established. The Bible tells how the disciples were empowered with extraordinary power and they could speak in tongues - languages, which they could not understand. Peter is often said to be the founder of the Church. From then on, the Bible explains that the disciples preached in the local communities and undertook longer and longer travels to spread the Gospel, which are the teachings that Jesus had left behind about God and about relations with fellow human beings, about faith, spirituality and the eternal life.
It was not until several decades passed, possibly up to a 100 years in some cases, that the stories of Jesus called the Gospels were written down and found their way into a collection to be named the New Testament of the Bible. It goes without saying, too, that some texts (books) were not included in the Bible. It is also a fact that the accuracy of the texts has always been disputed because they were written long after Jesus had passed away. My opinion is that we should believe that the text have been inspired by God and cannot be disputed. However, the interpretation of the specific texts and the way we preach can and should be debated. Theologians have specific disciplines studying these fields, notably homiletic and exegesis.
The Christian dogma I have described in this article form the foundation of the Christian faith. In earlier times, and in many denominations of Christianity today, believers are not permitted to question the logical aspects of events. Many believe the miracles are to be accepted the way they have been described. However, we also know that many believers have doubt and disbelief from time to time, and some may lose their faith for long periods of time. We may recall that Mother Theresa was said to have lost faith for years, but still continuing her work of good deeds, caring for the sick and dying.
In the West today, many Christian theologians emphasise that dogma must be explained and interpreted in ways that are acceptable and make sense to modern human beings. That means that many texts in the Bible should not necessarily be taken literally, but should be understood figuratively. That Jesus is the son of God, for example, is a term which is not necessarily to be understood literally. They would argue that the point is not, for example, if Christians believe Jesus died and rose from the dead, but if we believe in the truth in the everlasting message of Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus is a prophet and that is also the essence of the concept.
To explain the further religious meaning of Easter, beyond the history summarised here, needs more space than this article allows. But it should be underlined that the Bible’s explanation is that since the human beings had gone astray, had lost the essential communication with God; God restored the relationship through his sacrifice of giving his son who was God, yet became a human being, and was tested in all ways. In a less theological sense, we should consider Christianity and later Islam, as the more human and all inclusive understanding of human beings' relationship with God.
I wish you a Happy Easter, dear reader!
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.