A lot of people associate Easter time with bunnies and eggs, sunrise services and songs, a cross and an empty tomb.
I have all of those associations too. But I also associate Easter time with something else: self-injury — and the freedom from self-injury that I believe God offers through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
I first made this connection in 2010 when I watched a DVD of Rob Bell’s 2007 lecture “The Gods Aren’t Angry” (which you should either download by clicking on “The Gods Aren’t Angry,” borrow from me if you know me in person, or at LEAST look up on YouTube). Through the course of his talk, Bell traces the role of ritual sacrifice through thousands of years of history (taking a more thematic than detailed approach of course).
In the Old Testament and in other books of its time, Bell describes, people sacrificed bulls, cows, goats, and lambs to win the favor of the gods. Old Testament history books like Leviticus specify the regulations that guided the peoples’ sacrifices. Throughout these regulations, there’s a theme of shedding blood to win the favor of the gods.
Sometimes that shedding of blood crossed over from people shedding their animals‘ blood to shedding their own. It would take a lot more time and space than I have now to investigate examples of self-injury in religions and cultures throughout history, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page on flagellation gives a glimpse into self-injurious practices that have existed in Graeco-Roman mythology, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today, too, people harm themselves in a number of ways — cutting, scratching, burning, hair-pulling. Even such behaviors as depriving ourselves of sleep or food unless we do enough work or lose enough weight can be signs that we think we are not enough and deserve punishment.
Bell says, after sharing a brief story of a high school girl who sometimes cuts herself: “The prophets of Baal cut themselves 3,000 years ago in the land of Canaan, and now this girl who’s in high school takes part in a ritual that’s thousands of years old.”
Many girls and boys, women and men, in high school or college or any other stage of life take part in a ritual that’s thousands of years old. In fact, according to To Write Love on Her Arms, 14-24% of youth and young adults have self-injured at least once.
14-24% of youth and young adults have felt so defective, dirty, and weak (psychologist Leon Wurmser’s triad of what causes shame) that they felt punishment was necessary — so necessary that they would take it upon themselves to make that punishment happen.
The big-picture story of the Bible is that we actually are defective, dirty, and weak, and punishment actually is necessary…but, as Easter time reminds us, Christ Jesus willingly took that punishment for us. For “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). To be more specific, shedding of blood actually is necessary…but Christ Jesus shed his blood for us. For, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
At one point in his talk, Rob Bell shares this anecdote:
“A friend of mine struggled with ending his life for an extended period of time. For years on end, he struggled with, ‘Why don’t I just end it?’ And he would stare at his wrist and think, ‘I could just slice right here, and it would be over.’…Well, several years ago he had an encounter with the resurrected Christ. In the depths of his pain and torment, he met the resurrected Christ, who knows something about pain and torment. And he had this experience in which the ground of his being shifted from stress, from worry, from shame…to love, to peace, to trust. He had an experience with the resurrected Christ that absolutely, profoundly altered the whole way he sees everything. Soon after that, he got a tattoo of a cross right here [motions to wrist] and now every time he looks down at his wrist, which was previously a place of temptation…he is reminded of the peace that has been made.”
Note: This is a big subject. If it triggered any questions, thoughts, or distress, please reach out to me (keeping in mind that I’m not a trained mental health professional), to someone else, or to any of the resources recommended by To Write Love on Her Arms.