The Story and Meaning of Easter: A lecture by Dr. Obadiah Harris



A lecture by Dr. Obadiah Harris


Now this is a very auspicious occasion, and one I think is entirely appropriate to talk about the story and the meaning of Easter.  I would like to go back, way back, beyond custom and current practice to its original historic significance.  There is one historical fact that the students of comparative religion, comparative culture and philosophy will find very interesting and it is a whole field of study in itself, and one that I have given my life to, and that is this: whenever a great spiritual teacher emerges, he always presents a spiritual synthesis. And he adds to that something of his own light.

There is a line in the Bhagavad Gita, the Sermon on the Mount of India, which is a classic declaration of this historic fact and how that principle works which says “Whenever there is a crisis in cosmic affairs,  whenever there is an eclipse of the higher values, I Brahman,  am manifested in human form to hold back the forces of ignorance and ensure the progress of the race.”  Jesus was clearly of that caliber.

During his time on earth, there were four major religions or spiritual movements that were most common and most exercised in the evolutionary strivings of the civilized world.  They were paganism,  Judaism,  Egyptian mysticism, and Buddhism. It was the genius of this man to be able to reconcile, harmonize, integrate and synthesize these four great systems and present that to humankind. We will explore that today, so that we can more fully appreciate the significance of this world event;  the vernal equinox, the upsurge of new life that occurs every year at this time.

Now Jesus had this special gift, to be able to reach out and draw from the entire cultural, spiritual heritage of the human race.  Part of it came from study, part of it was research, and part was that a person like this is born into the world remembering.

I remember a line from George Burns when he had his 85th birthday on television and someone telling him how old he was said, “You must really be smart.”  And George said, “Well I know everything. It’s just that I’ve forgotten so much.” Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have an enormous memory. He seemed to be able to extract from paganism and integrate that into his world view. Even today, Christianity is full of pagan symbols.

Actually, pagan symbols are everywhere.  Rabbits and eggs are very popular. The rabbit was sacred to Eostre, the Teutonic goddess of Spring, because it is the symbol of the fertility of Spring.  And eggs were emblems of the universe to the pagans.  This was true not only in Greece, but in Rome and even in China.  In China there is the exchanging of gifts, the giving of dyed eggs on Easter.

It is the egg that symbolizes not only the universe but also the potential of life. The emerging potential.  We get our word ego from egg.  When the egg shell breaks,new life comes forth.  Easter is about breaking your ego shell and letting new life come forth.

At UPR, we co-sponsor a community meditation event. You might say we’re putting people through a practice of how to break the egg.  We cannot do it all at once; we have to really work at it.  Just at the time you think you have it accomplished, something else appears.  For every forward movement, there seems to be a backward drag.  But the eggs were a symbol of the universe. A symbol of the potential of life.

Also, there was the recognition that out of death comes life.  It is through the portals of death that immortality is possible.  In modern philosophy we call it being, non-being, becoming; that is the process. It was the genius of Jesus to recognize that this principle of creativity in the earth was also present in man in the spirit and in humankind. And therefore he took that and included it in his universal spiritual outlook. Recognizing it is through self-giving—through selfless giving for a cause that is greater than your own, greater than your family, greater than your nation but for the total neighborhood, the entire family, for the good of humanity.  Every time you can make a gift like that, make a gesture like that, something of the ego dies and a larger vision is born. It is a process of the unfoldment of consciousness. You can accelerate that by recognizing that this principle of creativity out of death to life manifests in your life all the time.  You can make it a way of life. Every time you get a chance to do something or say something that goes beyond your own self-interest, a spiritual rebirth occurs and a new level of consciousness emerges.  If enough people do that, the psychic temperature of the earth can rise and a new level of consciousness can be born.

So, Jesus was able to take the paganistic view of life emerging from death of this principle of the seasons.  What is it that you see there? I would like to take you with me and see if we can see what Jesus saw.  We might even go through some of the last days of his life on earth as we are told and see what it was he saw.

As you know, fall is followed by winter.  Winter is followed by spring.  In the fall, the leaves fall. Life falls.  In the winter, nature is crucified.  There is bereavement.  There is sorrow.  But at the very depth of this seeming death, this bereavement and sorrow, miraculously, mysteriously, wondrously, life emerges.  There is this upsurge of life out of the coldness of death.  Jesus recognized that cosmic creative principle and integrated that into his weltanschauung, his spiritual world view.

Then there was Judaism, which was a major force. He was, in my view, its finest flower. Judaism had discovered or had contained in its spiritual outlook what is called the transcendental view or transcendental reality.  And their view of the transcendental dimension of reality was manifested to them or seen through them as law, as justice. Jesus accepted that and became familiar with the laws of God as with the laws of nature through paganism, and found and added to that a dimension which we call today the eminence of God.  He called it not only the transcendental dimension, but he found that there was also an eminent dimension. A connection to the transcendental and the eminent was through love, according to him.  And it was this recognition of the eminence of God that got him into such great difficulty with religious and political authorities. Because many biblical scholars will tell you that we get closest to the mind of Jesus and to his lifestyle through the parables.  And it is this spiritual view that is contained in the parables that we will explore today and how he unveiled them in a style that he created for himself. He created the unique use of parables.  In later years, Judaism picked it up.

So what we are saying is that Jesus talked about the kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdom of Rome, which was so dominant in the world. So that when he spoke of the kingdom of God, he was talking about an experience.  He was talking about a different way to look at the world. He was saying to people who lived under the control of Rome, you have an option.  There is an alternative view of reality and you can look at the world through the eyes of the Divine, if you choose. The kingdom of God is within you; if you would just turn around. That’s the meaning of repentance.  He didn’t use the word repent, with its connotation of guilt. This is the meaning of “metanoia,” a Greek word meaning to change one’s mind.

Turn around. What do you mean by turn around? Well, we are so externally oriented.  If you will just turn around and look within, you will have a different perspective on the world.  You can see the world in an entirely different way if you will turn around and look within. Because that is where the kingdom of God resides. Now that is the eminence. That is the eminent dimension—God within. It is on the basis of that, Jesus had his non-dualistic vision of reality and could say out of the crucible of experience, the Father and I are one. When you have seen me, you have seen God. And, he would say that about anyone. And that is what is fundamental about the parables. There are no outsiders in the kingdom of God.  Read them sometime. Every one of them says that. There are no outsiders. Organized religion didn’t like that. They have to have outsiders. You have got to have somebody lost to have somebody found.  Insiders and outsiders. But not according to Jesus. The kingdom of Heaven has no boundaries.

So, all of the parables convey this sense of the divine eminence that we live and move and have our being in.  Jesus added to the idea of transcendence, accepted that, came to terms with that, understood the law of justice, but he also saw the eminence and the connection between the two as cosmic love.

Then there was Egyptian mysticism, very prominent in his day.  Egyptian mysticism contained and practiced many rituals around these principle ideas;  Jesus did something really tremendous with Egyptian mysticism.  In Egyptian mysticism there was the belief and the practice that through the partaking of the flesh and blood of a divine personality, that you can experience immortality.  Now what Jesus did with that concept was to subtilize it and give it a symbolical form.  That was part of his genius.  To take ideas and put them in a symbolic form so that you could experience it.  So he took the crudity out of that concept that it had fallen to, refined it and gave it symbolical form. So that if you will take the light of a great spiritual teacher, and as Manly Hall would say, if you will ensoul it, take these great spiritual truths that these great teachers bring and ensoul them, you too can experience immortality.

So on that Thursday, according to the story of Easter, his last Thursday here, Jesus really  gave the world one of the most graphic demonstrations of the subtlety of that teaching. You know, if you look at the last week of Jesus on earth on last Sunday, he entered into Jerusalem, they call it his triumphal entry, which Bible scholars say now is a rather moot question.  He was riding on the back of a donkey, not just a donkey but the colt of a donkey, which is like a Shetland pony.  Can you imagine a man about my size riding on a Shetland pony in white linen?  Well, that underlies the theme of all of his parables too.  That we experience the divine presence in ways we least expect it, from directions we would never suspect. Think of the parable.  Think of the Good Samaritan. What does it mean?  Well, it means that you experience the divine sometimes through your enemy.  We never like it, but sometimes it is the greatest experience of your life if you just look at it.  The Samaritan was an enemy, archenemy of the Jew.  There was no such thing as a good Samaritan.  And there was no lawyer there that day saying who is my neighbor. It wasn’t about being a neighbor. That is silly. Jesus wasn’t silly. He was profound. Experience the divine through your enemy. Why? Because there are no outsiders in the Kingdom of God.

So, on Monday he taught his parables. According to the great scholars, he spent most of the day sharing his parables with that throng who were tearing down palm branches and saying “Glad Hosanna to the Son of David,” giving him a welcome into the city.  They saw Jesus as a King. So he had to be a Son of David. That’s how they welcomed him. That night, Monday night, he went to Bethany and spent the night with Mary and Martha and Lazarus.      Tuesday is called the day of temptations.  And that is when Pharisees, Sadducees and others tried to embroil him with questions that would hopefully get him into difficulty with the authorities. The first question comes to him from a Pharisee asking, “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar? After all you are talking about another kingdom. You seem to be living in that kingdom. We do not know where it is.” So, Jesus reaches into his pocket and pulls out a coin. He asks whose image is superinscribed there. They said “Caesar’s.” He said, “Well, render therefore things unto Caesar that are Caesar’s and to God, things that are God’s.” And then a Sadusee spoke up, concerning the Seven Time Widow.  She had married seven brothers in a row. They’d all died. I’d look into that. Seven in a row.  “We want to know at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?“ And he silenced that question by saying, “In the resurrection there is no marriage.” In other words, the resurrection is spiritual. Then a lawyer spoke up and said, “What is the greatest commandment?”  And Jesus said, “The greatest commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul.” And the second is like unto it.  Love your neighbor as yourself. Then, Tuesday night he went up on the Mount of Olives. Wednesday morning and all day Wednesday, not a word, not an event. There is not a record of anything on Wednesday.  He entered into silence. That is ultimate reality; the supreme silence.

There was a Hindu one time who asked of his spiritual teacher to teach him of the nature of Brahman. And the teacher said nothing, just stayed quiet. So, he asked the teacher again and the teacher remained quiet, said nothing.  And so, he asked the teacher a third time and the teacher said, “I have already answered you, but you don’t understand.” Which is to say, you cannot comment on that of which you know nothing about.  Supreme silence.

Wednesday night was the last time he slept.  Thursday, he sent the disciples back into the city and two of them were sent ahead to prepare the way for the celebration of the Passover, which, you know, is about deliverance out of Egypt into the promised land. Well, so the disciples went into this upper room, this upper chamber, and the Bible says that there was dissension among the disciples. The disciples were sitting around arguing about whom was going to be the greatest among the Kingdom of God. They still didn’t get it. And so Jesus heard the dissension and talking about which one will be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  And so, he took out a basin of water and taught them a lesson in humility.  He washed their feet and dried them with a towel with which he was girded.  And he said to them, “I’m going to give you now a new commandment; that you love one another.“ Now that wasn’t new, that’s old, but then he added, “as I have loved you.” That is what made it new.

And then to utilize Egyptian mysticism and to protest the whole idea of the sacrifice of innocent blood; the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood would have appalled any good Jewish person, metaphorically speaking it would have been appalling. He picked up a glass of wine and said this is my blood. He picked up a loaf of bread and said this is my body.  And it so corresponded to the time when he went into the temple and turned over the money changers and released the animals.  He wanted to save their lives. And he said you can’t put your sins on the heads of these innocent animals. God is not interested in blood sacrifice.

You know the first temple, to give you an idea of where he was doing this, the first temple was built by Solomon in about one thousand B.C. and that lasted for about four hundred years. The children of Israel saw the temple in ruins when they were imprisoned in Babylon. And then Zarubable came along and he built a new temple on that same site and that lasted for about five hundred years. And then Herod came along and restored that temple and expanded it and that is the temple Jesus taught in, the third temple.

You see, those people today who think that salvation or that Jesus was a sacrifice for others, for their sins, for salvation; they just missed the whole point. Jesus would have been appalled at that notion to think of himself as a sacrifice for your sins. Incredible.  Appalling. There is no such God, not this loving God that he knew. Not this non-dualistic vision that he had of reality.

Then there was Buddhism.  Now Buddhism was a major force in the world.  Since Jesus is sometimes seen as a member of the Essene community, we know that Pythagoras had a big impact on the Essene community.  Pythagoreans adopted many of the views of Buddhism. And thus, Jesus partook of that knowledge. And he really saw something there and totally accepted it. And the central message of Buddhism, as all of you know, is universal compassion; Mahayana.

Jesus saw something in this message, this concept of universal compassion, as more powerful than any physical weapon. He believed if you would take this universal compassion and integrate it into social welfare, that is, social evolution, that it could change the world. Ahimsa, you see,  trying to get that to work as a modern day spiritual teacher, Mahatma Ghandi.

He tried to use the concept of Ahimsa with four hundred million people on the sub-continent of India and freed India, as you know, in your own lifetime, without resorting to violence. Ghandi used the term non-violence.  People wondered why he used a term like non-violence.  He used the term non-violence in order to make an emphasis of the ambilivance of human nature.  We have this strange and uncanny ability to talk about love and at the same time hate someone.  To talk about world peace while we are sharpening our knives. This is a strange capacity. So Ghandi wanted to use the term non- violence to say no way can you partake of universal compassion and talk or think about violence.  No way.

So Jesus saw in the concept of universal compassion of Buddhism as a great truth. This is what I want you to get. What he saw was not only a great truth but a concept that was fraught with great power; enormous potential for human transformation.  So he took the idea and integrated it into social evolution.

You students of history know very well that Rome didn’t have a chance once this concept became integrated into early Christianity. They didn’t have a chance.  It became unhinged with this concept in social evolution.  That’s what happened. In government, in positions of authority, all over there were people adopting universal compassion and giving to the poor and providing for the needy, and when Rome tried to clamp down it was too late.  People had tasted of universal compassion and nothing could be the same again.

Now, I shouldn’t leave this situation without also pointing out that the earliest account we have of Easter, and this I want to leave with you because time is running out. The earliest account we have of Easter in the scriptures, I mean, as we practice it, is not about Jesus’s resurrection but about ours.  And one can indeed surmise that this was the apostle Paul’s view of the matter.  But within the narrative of the letter around 50 AD, his focus is on our resurrection.  On Jesus being the first fruits of those who have died upon whose hope that death, the last enemy, has been destroyed. Now for Paul that is  the heart of the good news.

Now some maintain he wrote this passage to lend credence to his own credentials, to defend his apostulate.  Perhaps.  After all, like Peter and the twelve disciples and some five hundred, more than five hundred, and even Jesus’s brother James, Paul insisted he too had experienced the risen Christ.  Doubtless, this notion had merited in an emerging movement while the guidelines of authority were still malleable.  Whatever Paul’s precise intent, let’s be clear on this matter, in this initial version of what we’ve come to call Easter, Paul does not endorse the notion of a resurrected  corpse.  He does not argue in a way for the notion of a physical body  that has been raised.  He argues instead for an altogether new and different body.

In this early period, twenty years after the event, Paul evidently has no knowledge of an empty tomb.  He seems to not even be satisfied or even concerned to the notion of a missing body as even a unique or special event.  Thereby, Paul’s being is only the first of many who will experience resurrection.

Now, consider with me right now the lineage of the Biblical writings on this matter,  just for one moment.  I’m going to hold you on it. Whatever controversy still hovers over the question of the Sayings gospel, you know the Q gospel, the hypothetical document that was a source of both Luke and Matthew, you’re familiar with that, well, the evidence is plain to me that an early community formed around Jesus’s teachings that the Que community evidently imaged themselves as followers of the way that Jesus had taught.  They seemed to have had no passion story and it is difficult to know whether this early group had any formal notion of resurrection. But I would argue that they had experienced resurrection in new lives.  They were living now in that alternative vision of reality Jesus had illumined for them as the Kingdom of God.  It is one way ,perhaps, the very earliest Christians had understood Easter.

Now at about the same time Q people, the German word Quelle, we have the document now, we have it in the original form now, found the Nag Hammadi scrolls, found by the young man named Mohamed Ali, not the boxer. At about the time the Que people gave emphasis to Jesus’s teaching, Paul was shaping the communities he served around Jesus’s passion and resurrection with little regard for his teachings.  Had Paul known anything about an empty tomb tradition,  much less that of a missing body, it seems unlikely he would have written as he did.  After all, when he wrote about Jesus’s physical body he insisted what is sown is perishable.  He asserts without ambiguity that resurrection is not resuscitation. And I rather imagine he pictured Jesus’s body as deteriorating as that of any other fellow human. This view of Paul’s suggests, applies not just to Jesus but to all that are his followers.  He writes…so it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable. What is raised is imperishable.

It is sown in dishonor.  It is raised in power. It is sown as a physical body.  It is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. And, as if this were not enough, he goes on to say…”Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Now finally, within twenty years of Paul’s description of the Easter experience, the author of Mark had discovered an empty tomb and a missing body.  The shape of Easter would now be sharply altered.  Matthew and Luke followed along with this wonder story, and John added his own peculiar twist.  The fact that these accounts seemed to be drawn from a similar source cannot change the fact that they are impossible to fully harmonize. While they share the notion those women were the first on the scene, only Mary Magdalene remains constant even in this.

In Mark’s gospel, the women flee and tell no one. In the other gospels they tell the disciples. In one account there is a young man present. In another an angel appears, and still in another two men in dazzling array are present.  All this is a late addendum to the earlier notions of the meaning of Easter, either in Paul or the Q materials.

I do not share the view that the Christian movement could not have come to full blossom apart from an empty tomb.  On the other hand, I believe it did come to full flower with the notion that human life here and now can be transformed.  It is clear to me that Jesus’s earliest followers believed his life and his vision of an alternative reality called God’s Kingdom had been vindicated by God.  Now they shared in Jesus’s own death defying faith and it had been a transforming experience.  They found as well something of his presence that was simply inescapable.  The spirit of this man met them on the other side of death.

I propose this is what Easter is all about.  And I contend the biblical literature itself leads to this conclusion. Moreover, I insist a literal reading of the event is demeaning, seriously demeaning.  In a curious way, Paul was right.  Easter is not so much about Jesus’s resurrection as it is ours.

Obadiah Harris is the founder and president of the University of Philosophical Research. Harris has a long and storied career in both mainstream academia and the American metaphysical culture.  He holds a Ph.D. in education administration and supervision from the University of Michigan and an MA in education from Arizona State University, where he was an associate professor of education and director of community education.