In the time of Jesus, the cross was a brutal and very effective sign of Roman power. The message of Rome was this, “If you confront and challenge us, we will nail you to a dreadful instrument of torture and leave you to die in agonizing pain. Then we’ll make sure that your body hangs there until it is eaten away by scavenging animals.” The cross was state-sponsored terrorism, and it terrified people.
After putting down the great slave uprising of Spartacus, the Roman government lined the Appian Way with hundreds of crosses so as to discourage any other would-be revolutionaries. Pontius Pilate had much the same intention when he nailed dozens of Jewish rebels to the walls of Jerusalem. That same Pilate arranged for Jesus to be crucified on Calvary Hill, a high point of land just outside one of the gates of Jerusalem. This guaranteed that his horrific death would not be missed by the large Passover crowds moving in and out of the city.
As we know all of the apostles, except John ran from Jesus. They wanted with all their hearts to avoid the cross, to avoid the same fate. And after Good Friday the friends of Jesus huddled in the Upper Room, terrified that they too would be nailed to a cross on Calvary. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were, heading out of Jerusalem, away from danger, utterly convinced that Jesus’ movement had failed. The cross meant victory of the world, and the annihilation of Jesus and everything he stood for. But we as Christians understand something very different.
A few years later St. Paul would write something very strange, “I preach one thing, Christ and him crucified!” The cross is the centerpiece of his message. How bizarre this would have sounded to his first century crowd. And there is some 1st century graffiti that shows this. In Rome, archaeologists found a drawing of a crucified man with the head of a donkey. And in the drawing there is another man standing near and looking to the crucified man. Beneath it someone had written, “Alexandros worships his God!” Someone was mocking this man Alexandros for worshipping Jesus. St. Paul preached the resurrection of the crucified Jesus. His exaltation of the cross is a taunt to Rome and all of its brutal descendants down through the ages: “You think that scares us? God has conquered that!” And so even today, we are still bold in displaying and holding up an image of the humiliated and tortured Jesus, displaying him to the world. We are not afraid. The world killed Jesus but God raised him from the dead. The wood of the Cross has brought joy to the world. Jesus said to death, you shall die in me, He said to Hell you shall be destroyed by me. Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. All our Good Fridays are followed by Easter Sundays. Easter is the celebration of the single event that has transformed the world. And so an Easter celebration should make a lasting impression.
On Easter morning in the city of Florence Italy a strange, and fascinating, and wonderful Easter tradition will be celebrated. On Easter morning 150 soldiers, drummers, flag throwers, local leaders, musicians, and a team of white oxen decorated with flowers will gather at a place called the Porto al Prato. Porto al Prato is one of the ancient gates that lead into the beautiful and historic city of Florence. Once all are gathered, a 500 year old, 30 foot cart loaded with fireworks is hitched to the oxen and the Easter procession begins.
The procession makes its way through the ancient and winding streets of Florence it ends in the Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower. When the procession stops Easter Mass begins. Now here is where things get interesting. A wire is stretched from the cart loaded with fireworks to the high alter inside the cathedral. Now while the Gloria is being sung at the high altar, a little mechanical dove is attached to the wire, it’s lit on fire. It then “flies” down the wire and out the front doors to the waiting cart. That dove on fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The on fire dove then sets off the fireworks. And for twenty minutes there is a display of bell ringing, fireworks, and the singing of the Gloria.
That’s how you celebrate Easter! That’s how you celebrate the single event that has transformed the world. I’ll get Roger working on this for next year at St. Joseph’s☺. We’ll have our own show of fireworks and flaming dove.
Christ is risen! He is truly risen! And if we believe this, if we believe that our Savior Jesus Christ defeated death, defeated the cross 20 centuries ago, and that we continue to reap the fruits of that saving act of grace, then we should light fireworks and ring bells and rejoice like on no other day! Our Lord’s resurrection opened Heaven to us. His triumph is shared in all our sacraments. His triumphant grace is given to us in Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing. His resurrection is lived out by Christians every day.
And So Easter is a day meant to be celebrated and celebrated big, full choir, flowers, new fire, and new water. It is exciting, riveting, miraculous, and literally life-changing it’s something we are meant to share with others to run and tell others. In all the gospels we get a sense of certain urgency in sharing the message of the resurrection. There is an awful lot of running. We run when we are excited to share good news. Think of when you were a kid and had exciting news to share with your mom or dad, you ran to them.
And so it is with the disciples. Mary Magdalene runs to Peter to tell him of the empty tomb. And then Peter and John they run to the tomb. It all suggests a sense of urgency because nothing like this has ever happened before. This is a joyful day! Jesus conquered sin and death on the Cross and he rose from the dead. And He shares the grace of His triumph with us! Sin and death do not have the last word, our Lord does! Light fireworks, ring bells, sing alleluia, and run and tell others!
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley