Today's Easter celebration marks the end of Holy Week, in which we Christians commemorate the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had his last meal with his disciples on the evening of a Thursday (commemorated as Holy Thursday), was arrested during the night, tried Friday morning (Good Friday), condemned, crucified, and died before sundown on Friday. And, according to the Gospel accounts, he was bodily raised from the dead on the third day — Sunday, the day of Easter.
Unlike the Eucharist and the crucifixion, which seem to almost make a mockery of any traditional notion of God, the Easter story is fairly easy to comprehend as the logical consequence of the previous episode. We Christians are crazy enough to believe that God can be killed, but not so crazy as to believe that God must stay dead.
Belief in the bodily — literal, not metaphorical — resurrection of Jesus Christ is the belief on which every other Christian belief rests. It's how we know that this bizarre 1st-century preacher was not just a preacher, but actually the Son of God. He rose from the dead.
Indeed, the Oxford historical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has argued very thoroughly that the only way to explain the sudden and baffling growth of early Christianity, despite Jewish and Roman opposition, was that Jesus of Nazareth really did rise from the dead. There was no notion of bodily resurrection from the dead in Jewish or Greek or Roman religion. And in the history of 1st century Judaism, when there were plenty of people who claimed to be the Messiah, nobody ever, ever claimed that a would-be Messiah who had been killed by the occupier was the Messiah, for the self-evident reason that according to Judaism, the Messiah would not fail.
We have a patronizing way of thinking that people in the 1st century might very well believe that someone rose from the dead because they were primitives who believed in fairy stories. This is a cultural prejudice. If anything, everything about their religion and culture made 1st-century Jews even less likely to believe in a bodily resurrection, or that a crucified man could be a Messiah, than our society that believes in astrology and homeopathy. The best and perhaps only explanation for the fact that a bunch of 1st century Jews suddenly, inexplicably, started running around claiming that their crucified prophet was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, Wright argues, is that they saw him bodily risen from the dead.
Now, though Wright's scholarship is very well regarded, this is nowhere near empirical "proof" of Jesus' resurrection. And obviously, you could line up many scholars who don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is just to emphasize that, yes, Christians believe it actually happened. Literally.
But Christians celebrate Easter not just for historical reasons. They believe that Jesus' triumph over death on Easter wasn't just his triumph — it was ours, too. This is a bit harder to explain.
Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed the world not just at a historical level — which it clearly did — but also at a supernatural level. Christians differ on the precise mechanics, but they agree on this general outline: By willingly going to the cross and then rising from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Son of God, somehow tweaked the constants of the spiritual universe, so that sin and death are, by this action, in a fundamental way, destroyed.
Now, Christians will readily admit that sin and death seem to be as powerful as ever. But we see this almost as the comical staggering of a stage character who has just been stabbed. Sin and death have been revealed to be things we can overcome.
After the 40 days of spiritual penance by which Christians prepare for this holiday, we explode with joy on Easter, because we believe that through Christ's resurrection, we can be resurrected as well. Because Jesus Christ defeated sin and death, we are free from it in this life, and in the next, we will have eternal life with God. The old Christian phrase is: "God became man so that man could become a god." (And, by the way, most Christians believe that this is also possible for those who do not explicitly identify as Christians.)
If the crucifixion was about everything that is bad about the world, Easter is about how we can be free from everything bad.
For Christians, Easter commemorates the fact that, supernaturally, the resurrection of Jesus Christ changed something fundamental about the world and about humanity.
For Christians, Easter doesn't say that death is a tragedy that might, in the fullness of time, be somehow compensated. Easter says that death is a joke.
For Christians, Easter doesn't say that suffering is something that one day might be relieved; it says that it is an illusion.
In the end, the meaning of Easter is as simple as it seems: it says that life triumphs over death.