When death and resurrection mix with magical bunnies and chocolate eggs, you get Easter — perhaps the most misunderstood Christian holy day. Yet it is also the most essential; without this holiday, the Christian faith would be meaningless. Myths about Easter abound, for believers and nonbelievers alike, so let’s dispense with some of the most common ones.
1. Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead.
On Easter Sunday, several of the disciples discovered that the tomb in which Jesus’s body had been laid was empty. Later that same day, and in the coming days and weeks, more of the disciples encountered Jesus, who had risen from the dead. But almost immediately, naysayers rebutted their reports. At first, stories circulated about Jesus’s body being stolen by his sneaky disciples. Later, others contended that another person was substituted for Jesus at the crucifixion — or that he was not dead, but simply drugged into a stupor and then surreptitiously revived.
Today, a different kind of myth is circulating, sometimes set forth by well-meaning Christians: Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead, and it doesn’t matter that he didn’t. In this formulation, the “Resurrection” was nothing more than the disciples remembering what Jesus had said and done during his life, and letting those memories embolden them to carry on his mission.
But when one examines the Gospels, that hypothesis falls apart. For example, in one Gospel, the disciples are described as being so terrified after the crucifixion that they cowered behind closed doors. Why wouldn’t they? Their leader had just been executed in the most shameful way imaginable. But then, suddenly, the disciples are filled with resolve, ready to give their lives for Jesus Christ. Is it plausible that simply sitting around and remembering Jesus could account for such an astounding change? No, only something real, something dramatic and physical, something the disciples saw and experienced, could so decisively move them from abject terror to unbounded courage. And what they saw and experienced was Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
2. After the Resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Saint Peter.
Peter figures so heavily in the earlier Passion narratives that it’s natural to believe that Jesus would first appear to the fisherman from Galilee. But Jesus first appears not to Peter, nor to any of the other male disciples, but to women.
In Matthew’s Gospel, he appears first to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.” In Mark, he appears first to Mary Magdalene. And in John’s Gospel, the distinction of Mary Magdalene is even more pronounced: Early on Easter Sunday, she comes to the tomb, finds it empty and then races to Peter and the person known as the “beloved Disciple.” The two return with her, peer into the tomb, enter briefly and then leave. After they have gone, as Mary is weeping by the tomb, Jesus appears to her. He addresses her by her Aramaic name, which is preserved in the Greek manuscripts, tenderly calling her “Mariam.”
At the end of the story in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Mary to announce the news of the Resurrection to the disciples. Thus my favorite title for her: “Apostle to the Apostles.” This is a needed reminder of the central place of women in the story of Jesus, as well as in the early church.
3. Lent is all about sacrifice.
As Lent arrives each year, the most common question posed to Christians is: “What are you giving up?” To a large extent, Lent does include sacrifice — abstaining from certain foods, gossip, laziness and the like — but the sacrifice is not for its own sake. It reminds us that we can exercise self-control and that Jesus underwent tremendous physical sacrifices during his Passion. It also spurs us to charity. One of the original goals of cutting back on consumption, after all, was to save money to give to the poor.
But overall, Lent is about spiritual preparation; sacrifice is simply a means to that end. Often I ask people not, “What are you giving up for Lent?” But, “What are you doing for Lent?” Are you being kind? Loving? Forgiving? These activities, which move us beyond sacrifice, prepare believers to welcome Christ into their lives in a new way. That’s why one of the phrases in the Lenten prayers in the Mass speaks about the “joy” of Lent.
4. Easter eggs have nothing to do with Easter.
Many people annoyed by the creeping commercialism of Easter — baskets stuffed with video games and iPads, Cadbury chocolates and marshmallow Peeps — lump Easter eggs with the general secularization of the holiday.
But Easter eggs are an ancient means of representing religious beliefs. Depending on the source, either the custom originated in Mesopotamia with early Christians — who stained eggs red to commemorate the shedding of Christ’s blood — or it began as a symbol of rebirth. Others link the practice to parallels between a hatching bird leaving behind an empty shell and a risen Christ leaving behind the empty tomb. The consumption of eggs on Easter Sunday may also be linked to the conclusion of Lent, a time when, in addition to meat, some Christian cultures avoided eggs and dairy.
Despite the candy industry’s attempt to bury Easter under boatloads of chocolate and caramel, many Christians, most notably those from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, still decorate their eggs with religious symbols. Filled with chocolate or not, eggs are heavy with meaning on Easter.
5. Easter is not as important as Christmas.
In the popular mind, Easter was subsumed by Christmas long ago. People don’t spend weeks shopping for Easter gifts, hours writing Easter cards to friends and relatives, or days on end watching “An Easter Story” on TBS.
Yet Easter is the key event in Christian history. This is not to denigrate the importance of what Christians call the “Incarnation,” the belief that God became human in Jesus, which we celebrate on Christmas. But the Resurrection changes everything: It’s a reminder not just that Jesus rose from the dead but that love is stronger than hatred, that hope is stronger than despair, and that life is stronger than death. More simply, it reminds us that nothing is impossible with God.
Choose not to believe in the Resurrection, and Jesus is just another prophet. Believe in the Resurrection, and your whole life changes.
Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine, is the author of the new book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”