WORLDVIEW: Resurrection is truth; accept no substitutes
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--Those blades of crabgrass that stubbornly poke through your front walk in the spring are wonders of nature.
No matter how often you pave over them, mow them down or douse them in weed killer, they keep sprouting, keep seeking the light.
Human souls are like that. You can break them, crush them, bury them under vast structures of state oppression, social custom, fear, superstition and ignorance. Still, though they love darkness, they seek light.
We sense the struggle between darkness and light within ourselves, and we see it play out around us -- never more so than at the approach of Easter.
The world does its worst to hide the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the central event of history. Its typical tactics: deny, distort, divert, distract. Jesus rising from the tomb is the biggest myth of all time, we're told. The cycle of natural life and death cannot be broken.
Historians and anthropologists often remind us of the pagan origins of Easter festivals. Some trace the word Easter back to Ishtar, Astarte and other ancient fertility goddesses of the Mediterranean. Most find it in Eastre (or Eostre), the north European Saxons' goddess of spring. The young Christian church seized on the popularity of the spring fertility festivals that pervaded agricultural Europe as an opportunity for evangelism. Early missionaries connected the feasts to Jesus' resurrection in order to tame the rowdy rituals, co-opt them -- and Christianize the pagan masses.
The strategy worked, perhaps too well. Today gaudy pagan traditions -- in countless variations, religious and secular -- still battle to overwhelm the holy season's Christian essence. Mardi Gras. Spring break. March Madness. Carnaval, the pre-Lenten celebration that takes over the streets in much of Latin America, finds perhaps its most bizarre expression in Salvador, the old Brazilian city named in honor of the Savior. There, African occult idols mingle with Catholic ritual and orgiastic street parties in a satanic parody of truth.
In places without a Christian tradition, other idols compete for people's hearts. In India the annual festival of Holi, celebrated March 26 this year, welcomes spring. During Holi, Hindus petition their gods for prosperity and playfully throw colored water on one another. But Holi has a darker aspect: Certain participants believe they can do anything on this day without repercussion. Some get drunk; others forcibly take the virginity of young girls.
Elsewhere, secular substitutes are offered to the masses -- or forced upon them. Such was the case in Russia under communism, where the state tried to eradicate millennium-old Christian traditions.
"Having eliminated religion from the public life of the nation, Soviet planners recognized the importance of creating rituals and events, which fostered social cohesion and a sense of identity," writes Oxford scholar Alister McGrath in his recent book, "The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World."
"Thus the Saturday just before Easter was celebrated as Communist Saturday .... The Soviets devised additional rituals as counterparts to the Christian rites of baptism and confirmation -- for example, the 'family event' to mark the birth of a new child, or the ceremony to mark admission to the Communist Party."
But the truth cannot be denied forever. Relative religious freedom has returned to large parts of the old Soviet orbit. Christ's resurrection can be celebrated without fear of reprisal. But first it must be believed -- and embraced -- by a new generation.
In the years before 1989, when Czechoslovakia became a free country again, the meaning of Easter was limited to the welcoming of spring. Religious connotations were suppressed under the communist regime. Nowadays people are once again aware of the religious origin of Easter, but it hasn't become a serious religious holiday. Easter in the Czech Republic is a fun time. Many traditions are still observed and practiced, especially in villages. Many symbols of Easter are related to the spring and the beginning of new life. Pray, missionaries ask, that young Czechs will respond to the new life offered by the risen Christ.
The same appeal comes from Hungary.
"We are sharing the truths of the Bible with nonbelievers," says a missionary there. "For the most part, the students in these groups seem to have firm head knowledge of the gospel, and will even admit that it makes sense. However, that information has not traveled to their hearts, and they are still unwilling to turn their lives over to Jesus. Please pray that as we approach Easter, they will begin to see both the personal nature of Jesus and their need to enter actively into a relationship with Him.
"Pray that they will see the truth of why Jesus died for them and the truth that He is the only way to the Father. Pray that they will fall in love with Jesus and desire to turn their lives completely over to Him."
May all the peoples of the world see that truth and reach for it -- like blades of grass reaching for the light.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.