Religious dogmas and doctrines can often be difficult to understand for outsiders. Missionaries and others used to call aspects they didn’t understand in other religions for superstition. Recently, an otherwise well-informed Norwegian media personality called Islam a ‘strange religion’. How ignorant and how rude of someone grown up in a Christian environment with little or no knowledge of Islam! She didn’t even know that Christianity and Islam are very similar religions, with many texts and dogmas overlapping each other. They are Abrahamic sister religions.

Christian believers and culturally Christians in the West have less knowledge of Islam than Muslims have of Christianity. But when I grew up in Norway, all school children gained a good knowledge of Christianity, yes, I think often better than many Muslim children would gain of Islam.

I also believe it is essential that all children learn about the minority religions in their country and other religions in the wider world. This is important culturally and in order for all to learn to respect others’ belief – if thought right. We would become more religiously open and tolerant.

Living with friends and neighbours of other faiths, we might participate in (parts of) their main religious feasts. I have many times seen this among Muslims and Christians in Pakistan, and in Kenya where I lived earlier. In Norway, Muslims take part in the Christian feasts, but few Christians take part in the Muslim feasts. No, I don’t think anyone would change religion because of such contact and exchange. We would just become more aware of the sacred in all religions, realising that God is one and the same.

This week is the ‘Silent Week’ or the ‘Holy Week’ in the Christian religious tradition. Last Sunday was ‘Palm Sunday’ when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the poor man’s horse, stressing that he was not a secular leader. The crowds cheered him and saw him as their leader, mostly in spiritual ways, but some also in secular ways, noting that the ‘Land of the Jews’, with the capital Jerusalem, was occupied by the Romans that time at the beginning of our calendar some 2016 years ago.

Today is Maundy Thursday. That was the day when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his twelve disciples, telling them that he had to die for the sins of all people and restore their new covenant and relationship with God. Today, the Holy Communion sacrament of bread and wine is a symbol to commemorate this event in the Church.

Tomorrow, which is called Good Friday or Long Friday, is the day when Jesus was tried and sentenced to death by the Roman Court in Jerusalem. The Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, however, said he could not find Jesus guilty, but the shouts of crowd had swung in their attitudes since Palm Sunday; now the cheers were not ‘hosanna’ but ‘crucify’. According to the story in the Bible’s New Testament, Pilate washed his hands in front of the people, indicating that he would cleanse his conscience from being responsible for the harsh sentence.

According to the Bible, Jesus died on the cross in Friday night and was buried. At daybreak on Sunday morning, which is called Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, the ‘other Mary’ (probably the mother of James), and most likely some other women, went to the grave tomb to anoint Jesus’ body according to Jewish tradition. When they reached there, the heavy stone at the entrance of the tomb had been removed, and the soldiers guarding it were gone. An angel told the women that “Jesus is not here; he has risen”. The shocked, yet, happy women hurriedly rushed to town to tell the good news about Jesus’ resurrection to Peter, John, Luke, Mark, Matthew and the other disciples.

The mystery of Easter began with joy on Palm Sunday; then with Jesus’ last farewell supper, through people turning against him on Long Friday, ending with his death on the cross, and, finally, turning to joy on Easter Sunday as Jesus rose from the dead ‘on the third day’.

Some believed it, others did not. Some thought the body of Jesus had been stolen; other rumors had it that it was somebody looking like Jesus that had been crucified. One of the disciples, Thomas, is quoted in the Bible as having said that he would only believe the resurrection if he could see Jesus; he was not there to see him in the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared for his disciples.

Jesus appeared for Thomas so he could see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and the side where the spear had been penetrated so blood could run out of his body. Thomas believed because he had seen; yet, “blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed”, the Bible says.

Jesus was also seen by several others until the Ascension Day, which is 40 days after Easter, when Jesus was physically taken up to Heaven, and “a cloud took him away from the eyes of the people”, the Bible says.

Some may dispute whether Jesus was really seen, or whether it was a matter of deep belief and wish from his disciples and followers, so they thought and felt they saw him. His message was so strong that his followers felt they actually saw him, even spoke with him, without it really being so as seen from a strict scientific perspective.

Ten days after Ascension Day, called Whitsun or Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples received the Holy Spirit and could even speak in tongues they did not know, and they were commanded to tell everyone about Jesus’ teachings and who he was. This is considered the day when the Christian Church was founded. In the years that followed, many of the disciples and other followers were prosecuted by the authorities and people, and many were thrown into prison and even sentenced to die on the cross the same way as Jesus did, a common and most cruel form of death torture that time.

And then: How should we understand the ‘Mystery of Easter’? What is really the message? How can we interpret the Easter events, the ‘passion of Christ’, who walked into his death on ‘Via Dolorosa’ (in Latin, the way of grief and sorrows) to Golgotha where the gruesome death sentence was fulfilled? He was betrayed by some human beings, indeed his own disciple Judas Iscariot, who identified him so the soldiers could capture him. Through that, his mission was fulfilled to save all human beings. Is there logic to that story and how should we see it historically and in our time?

In the introduction to my article, I said that if we don’t belong to a religion, we may find many things in other religions strange, as the Norwegian woman I quoted did about Islam. The Easter story is indeed such a difficult story to understand for Christians as well as for others. Let me mention that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross. But Muslims believe that Jesus ascended to Heaven, and also that he was conceived though divine intervention. But Muslims don’t believe that Jesus was the ‘son of God’, but that he was a prophet, one of God’s messengers, and that his teachings should to be followed. Although Christians always say that Jesus is the son of God, it is not often that theologians try to define and explain that in any detail. To some, it all becomes abstract and many will not believe. A ‘holy man’ and particularly spiritual man might be called the ‘son of God’. We are all created in God’s image, but some men and women are better messengers than others.

The real Easter message, as the messages in all dogma, is to be understood figuratively. The Easter message is particularly dramatic and mysterious. What we may interpret symbolically from the sacrifice that God made when allowing his son to be crucified, is God’s ultimate love for humanity. However, we cannot quite understand why God, who is love, allowed it to happen. We also know from the Bible that when Jesus prayed the evening before the day of torture and death, and he knew what was coming and he asked for the ‘cup’ to be taken from him, if God so wanted. The ultimate sacrifice is in many ways beyond comprehension. Symbolically, it was done so that the sins of people could be forgiven once and for all, and so that the new covenant and relationship with God could be established. If we can understand the message that way, it makes sense to Christian believers, doesn’t it? Believers in other religious traditions can also understand it if not accept is as a dogma.

Let me end my article here, but let me also add that when I try to explain surrealistic religious stories in the holy books, I always add that it is the symbolic message that is important; not the literal story. That is important to realise for believers within and without a religion. Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life should be understood as: His message lives forever – of mercy, forgiveness, love for our enemy and neighbour – and God.

Dear reader, may I wish you all Happy Easter – and wish for greater interfaith dialogue. May I greet you with the universal Abrahamic greeting: Peace be with you. Shalom. Assalam Alaikum.