[Beliefnet, April 14, 2001]
It’s that time of year again, when school children are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop-owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of the Flogging at the Pillar. In the malls everyone’s humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system, like “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded” (did you hear the Chipmunks’ version?). Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty-Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas.
Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter. Who hasn’t been invited to an “In His Steps” party, where players move plastic pieces around a board emblazoned with a map of Jesus’ last suffering day in Jerusalem?
Not me, for one. Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly jolly Easter.
Easter just isn’t fun in the same way Christmas is, a type of fun that could be better described as styled for children. It’s a commonplace to say that “Christmas is for children,” but what about Easter? Is it for children, too?
It sure didn’t seem so to me, back then. Compared to Christmas, Easter was boring. Chocolate bunnies: good. Scratchy new crinolines: bad. Long blah-blah-blah at church. A lot of wordy grownup buildup leading to, it seemed, no payoff. You could always count on Christmas to change a lot of stuff, especially in the toybox. Easter didn’t change anything.
But when you think about the astonishing claims Christians make for Easter, that neglect seems pretty strange, even to an outsider. My friend Mitch is Jewish, but his encounters with suffering during medical training led him to doubt whether there even is a God. Yet last Christmas he sent me this note:
“Looking at the Christmas thing from a man raised in a Jewish home, the big celebration in Christianity should be Easter. No Easter, no Christianity. So all the focus on Christmas, at least to me, is misdirected.
“Why Christians don’t whoop it up more at Easter is a mystery to me. How inspirational! How joyful! That is the time to toast each other, lay on gifts, attend worship services, pack in the rich food. Something really substantial and holy to remember.”
No Easter, no Christianity. Mitch has a point. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, who cares whether he was born in a manger or a 7-11? If he didn’t rise from the dead, Christmas is meaningless too.
I remember my toybox, but not much of what was in it, and I don’t retain any of those thrilling Christmas toys today. When I grew up, I put away childish things. When I grew up I began to be concerned with bigger things, many of them difficult to comprehend. Like Mitch, I saw suffering and death. I saw people live through situations so crushingly unfair that it was impossible that the universe bore no witness, impossible that there was no God who could wipe tears away and effect justice on the last day. I saw people find within themselves nobility to overcome, as well, and heard them say the strength came from a source beyond their own.
These are not things children have to think about.
Easter tells us of something children can’t understand, because it addresses things they don’t yet have to know: the weariness of life, the pain, the profound loneliness and hovering fear of meaninglessness. Yet in the midst of this desolation we find Jesus, triumphant over death and still shockingly alive, present to us in ways we cannot understand much less explain. In him we find vibrancy of life, and a firm compassion that does not deny our suffering but transforms and illuminates it. He is life itself. As life incarnate, he could not be held back by death.
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?” wrote St. John Chrysostom, in a 4th century sermon still used in every Orthodox church on Pascha (our name for Easter).
“Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
“Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
“Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
“Christ is risen, and life reigns.
“Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.”
On Pascha we will sing, over and over, dozens of times, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” It is not a children’s song. But grownups are taller, and can see farther, and know what hard blows life can bring. Easter may seem boring to children, and it is blessedly unencumbered by the silly fun that plagues Christmas. Yet it contains the one thing needful for every human life: the good news of Resurrection.
Easter didn’t change anything? Easter changes everything.