Canon John Young, of York Minster, contemplates the meaning of Christ's Passion.

HEROISM and inspiration are in the air. Last week, we celebrated a rare event - good news from Iraq. Private Johnson Beharry, a 25-year-old soldier, was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery.

Two weeks before that, secret service agent Nicola Calipari won widespread admiration. He used his body to shield journalist Giuliana Sgrena from a hail of bullets. His death caused a diplomatic row, for the bullets were fired by American soldiers - Italy's allies in Iraq.

We all admire acts of heroic sacrifice. Most of us wonder how we would respond if we were faced with a life-and-death decision of this kind. We do so uneasily, suspecting that we are not the stuff of which heroes are made.

Perhaps even more heroic are those acts of sacrifice which are carefully contemplated over time. One famous historical example is Socrates, who was condemned by the State to drink poison. He could have escaped - his friends urged him to do so - but he chose to die for his principles.

Today, we remember the most famous of all heroic deaths. In St Luke's Gospel we read that Jesus "resolutely set out for Jerusalem". He could have returned to the safety of his own region in the north. Instead, Jesus took Jerusalem by storm, knowing that he would be crushed and crucified by the authorities.

As Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion Of The Christ makes clear, crucifixion is horrendous. Unlike Socrates, Jesus shrank from the pain. "Father if it is possible, take this cup from me". But despite the horror of the immediate future, he was willing to go through with it, "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done".

Rather than using his power to dominate, Jesus chose to submit to the worst that human beings could do. So the power of God is seen in symbols of weakness - in a borrowed manger and a wooden cross. Here is power kept in check; power handed over; power utterly controlled by love. "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son..." (John 3:16).

Just how Jesus' death on the cross achieved God's purpose of salvation we cannot know. It is a deep mystery. But this mystery brings life, liberation and joy to countless people in the modern world. This is why we call this cruel and bloody day, Good Friday. It is a day of heroism and inspiration. We meditate on the fact that Jesus faced down his fears and went through with his terrible ordeal. In contrast, the key words on Easter Sunday are hope and joy.

On that first Good Friday there was darkness at noon. This symbolised the titanic battle between the powers of good and evil. To his first disciples, it looked as if the powers of darkness had won.

After Jesus' cruel death, a deeply distressed Mary Magdalene went to his tomb. It was empty, hence her poignant request to the gardener: "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him."

But, according to St John, Mary was not talking to a gardener. She was talking to a carpenter. It was Jesus himself, risen from the dead.

This illustrates two important features of the New Testament account. First, the empty tomb; then the appearances of the risen Lord. Taken together, these convinced the first disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Their conviction was tested in the crucible. They suffered for it. Some died for it. But their belief could not be shaken. This is very impressive. People will not die for their inventions. They will, and do, die for their convictions. One thing is absolutely certain, when the first disciples claimed to have seen the risen Lord, they meant what they said.

The resurrection of Jesus is a wonderful event. It is also a highly significant event. Jesus did not cheat death; he defeated death. He threw wide open the gates of glory. We anticipate the glories of heaven not because we are good people who deserve such joy. No. Our confidence is in the risen Lord, who triumphed over sin and death. Like John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace, we too are sinners saved by God's love and mercy.

Christ's resurrection from the dead is a miracle. For some this makes it impossible to believe. But there are many examples of sceptics who have been converted after studying the evidence.

A couple of years ago, John Polkinghorne visited York. For some years he was professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society - an elite scientist. John understands how the universe works. He also believes that the glorious festival of Easter declares the joyful truth. He wrote: "I believe that the only explanation which is commensurate with the phenomena is that Jesus rose from the dead... it is true to say that he is alive today."

Easter is about history. Two thousand years ago God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Easter is also about the long-term future. Death is not the end. Thomas More - hero of A Man For All Seasons - caught the joyful mood of Easter. From prison, while awaiting execution by the axe under Henry VIII, he wrote to his daughter, "I pray for you and all your friends, that we may meet merrily in heaven". Heaven will not be dull. Jesus talks about it as a great party. We shall enjoy ourselves enormously!

But Easter is also about the present. The Christian claim is that Jesus is alive and active in our world today. Recently, I met Ann who had been on drugs for many years. To feed her habit, she cheated and stole. Today, she is well-balanced and honest and she told me her story.

Someone told her about Jesus Christ as a living person - unseen but active in our world by his Spirit. In desperation, she called out to him and he met her in the gutter. He picked her up and gave her a new sense of direction and purpose. Many others in the modern world share a similar experience.

Of course, most Christians do not have such a dramatic story to tell. But we are aware of being accompanied through life by a "presence". We identify that presence as the risen Christ. He brings inspiration and encouragement into our lives. He brings challenge too, for he calls us to serve our hurting and divided world in his name and with his strength.

I invite you to join Professor Polkinghorne and Ann on Sunday, together with millions of others from around the world, as we declare:

Alleluia! Christ is risen

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

John Young is a Canon Emeritus of York Minster. He is co-founder of York Courses and has written a dozen books. He addresses the issues raised in this article in Teach Yourself Christianity (Hodder Paperback). A revised, updated edition has recently been published. A Russian edition is available.

Updated: 11:00 Friday, March 25, 2005