I have always felt that Christmas was the most wonderful holiday in the Western calendar. While I may have spiritual reasons for thinking this, I also harbor residual from the wonders of childhood Christmases. The magic of Santa Clause, the romance and rhythm of the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and, of course, the surprise of gifts all congeal into thrill towards the end of November. Easter, on the other hand never seemed that epic. I don’t know whether I was just not artistic enough to appreciate egg decorations, or I was not awed by chocolate in Springtime variations. I could have been convinced that peeps were the closest thing to dietary perfection, but still the holiday always seemed a pale imitation of The Holiday itself. On Christmas Santa completed the year-long toy building program – it made sense that this would be a glorious day. But bunnies, eggs (never clear on that combination), and cellophane grass seemed like more of a marketing campaign than a celebration.
Of course the way that we celebrate Easter, which I am calling pagan easter, has little to do with its actual purpose. Pagan easter is a time to focus on the return of life to winter’s stinginess. Baby animals are born as the grass takes on its lively green color and the trees put on their summer best. The northern topography transforms from browns and greys, even white in some years, to the great variety of colored flowers. Ah, life – that is worth celebrating. And those who have grown past the superstitions of deities and the childish stupidity of believing in miracles are happy to restore the pagan character to this spring holiday. We hunt eggs to celebrate life.
Paganism has something to offer, or does it? Isn’t life worth celebrating? Actually, no, life is not worth celebrating. Life is an ephemeral condition that offers no promises to those who worship it – consider that at its best life is merely the temporary absence of death. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes shares wisdom with us as he proves this point. Nothing escapes death and so pagan easter is, at its best, an expensive distraction activated by ignorance. If we do not look at death, then we can pretend that life is worth living. I think that it comes down to this, pagan easter is a way of ignoring death and calling such a thing life.
But this is not Easter. Christian Easter is the celebration of life that takes us through death, not away from it. We do not ignore death, rather we look it directly in its evil eyes and see it for what it is – a truth that Christ has transformed into a lie. Easter is not worth celebrating unless there is first a crucifixion – Easter morning is only made joyous by Good Friday and the food of Easter’s feast is only made delicious by Lent. The Holy Son of God took death’s curse into his flesh to restore to us life as it was created to be – eternal and good. Without his atoning death, life offers very little worth celebrating. But, as Paul clearly argues in I Corinthians 15, since Christ has been raised from the dead, death is now a powerless lie – only now is life worth a holiday.
It seems to me that pagans, modern and ancient, have made the mistake of thinking that life in this world is an end when really it is just a metaphor. The beauty of spring is nothing worth celebrating because it offers only the sure promise of death. But for those who fear God, spring is a metaphor of life that conquers all death. Thus the Creator uses flowers and rabbits to say very simple things about Christ who has life in himself and to speak lovingly about the one who gave his life freely to those who love him. I leave to John Milton to conclude:
Christ, “But I shall rise victorious, and subdue
My vanquisher, spoiled of his vaunted spoil;
Death his death’s would shall then receive, and stoop
Inglorious of his mortal sting disarmed.
I through the ample air in triumph high
Shall lead hell captive maugre hell, and show
The powers of darkness bound. Though at the sight
Pleased, out of heaven shalt look down and smile,
While by the raised I ruin all my foes,
Death last, and with his carcass glut the grave;
Then with the multitude of my redeemed
Shall enter heaven long absent, and return,
Father, to see thy face, wherein no cloud
Of anger shall remain, but peace assured,
And reconcilement; wrath shall be no more
Thenceforth, but in they presence joy entire.”
He is Risen; He is Risen, Indeed!