By all counts, this is the strangest Easter in memory – one of the two most important holy days in the year for over two and a half billion people in the world, the vast majority of whom cannot celebrate it together for the first time in their lives.
Even so, for many of these Christians this particular Easter, with the message it brings, could not have come at a better time. And even for those of who are not Christian, the season brings a powerful message, worth reflecting on.
Even as a committed Christian, I always had a surprisingly ambivalent relation to Easter. For the first thirty years of my life, I was very active in the Church; as a young adult I was not just a faithful attender of church who was engaged in worship and Sunday School, I became actively involved in church ministry as a youth pastor, head of Christian education, assistant pastor, and pastor (of the Princeton Baptist Church). But I was never as joyful at Easter as everyone else in my circles appeared to be.
Like most Americans, I suppose, I much preferred Christmas, even though I did feel a bit guilty about it, since, well, surely Easter and the resurrection of Jesus is the *point*, right? But more than that, I always (and weirdly in the eyes of most my friends eyes), always preferred Good Friday to Easter, and always thought it got completely undersold. Almost no one would go to church for it, in comparison with Easter. But I thought it was the day that really mattered: Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world. What could be more important?
I realized Easter was much better for him, of course. We might call it “good” Friday, but it was obviously the most horrible day of his life, as he spent a good part of it being tortured to death. It was “good” only for us. But rather than making us feel good, it should (I thought) make us feel horrible. It was because of *us* that he had to do *that*. To some extent that made me feel guilty, but more than that it produced gratitude, ultimate gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice, and I never understood why other Christians didn’t see it that way. They just were eager to get past it to the glories of Sunday morning and the big Easter celebration of what really mattered to them: the resurrection.
I always thought the death was far more important. And it always seemed to me that jumping too quickly to Easter was getting salvation on the cheap. It was all good news, and no bad news; all glory and no pain; all happiness and no misery. It always seemed weird to me going to church with everyone ready to celebrate the victory without having reflected on the costs of the war.
All sorts of other analogies came to mind. Focusing on Easter was kind of like watching part of a World Series game but seeing only the rally in the 9th inning with two outs and not watching all the game before then to see why the rally was so flippin’ unbelievably unlikely and amazing; or reading a long novel with a happy ending but actually reading only the happy ending and not the entire novel to see why the ending was so spectacular and uplifting.
So I never really enjoyed Easter services because I never was sure that my fellow parishioners were taking it all very seriously, for what it really meant. And so I went through the motions with some gusto as required (though I never, ever liked that sunrise service thing….), but at the end my emotional register and mood was somewhat the opposite of what it was on Christmas With Easter I was always glad it was over with, instead of feeling a kind of drawn-out sense of joy, happiness, and contentment in its aftermath.
OK, so that wasn’t everyone’s feeling. At the same time, and possibly a bit oddly, I stressed and felt the real importance of the Easter message, not just on Easter Sunday but throughout the year. And as I said, it is a message coming at an extraordinarily good time this year. It is a message worth reflecting on, not only for Christians but even for those of us who do not (or no longer) identify with the Christian faith.
It is the most powerful message that the Christianity brings to the world, in large part because in its original and deepest form it takes the real situation of the world very seriously and addresses it head on without shying away from it. It is a not a message that skips the pain to get to the happiness, that avoids the misery by focusing on the pie in the sky in the bye and bye. It is a message that resonates most with those who are in the midst of their pain and misery, whose suffering is very real, tangible, physically and mentally agonizing. It is a message that does not minimize, justify, or mollify the reality of human suffering. The horror continues. The pain persists. The darkness is everywhere.
But in the end, evil will not have the last word. There is hope.
This is not cheap solace. It is not facile advice or simplistic solace given to someone in the depths of despair about a child who has died, or has been disfigured in an accident, or is in the throes of agony with cancer. The crucifixion of Jesus was real, and he felt it. Writhing in agonizing pain. He didn’t take it calmly knowing that he’d be fit as an immortal flea in a couple of days. The torture was real torture for him, as it is for so many others, every day, throughout the entire world.
For most of the many billions of people who have ever lived in the world, life has of course had good moments; but most of existence has been a lifetime – usually a very short one – of perpetual pain and suffering. The material world is unaware of our existence and not at all concerned about the sentient creatures who dell on it, doesn’t give a damn about them, in the least. Pandemics, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, crop failure, leading to starvation, homelessness, disease, and and and…
And that is not considering the pain humans inflict on one another – war, torture, oppression, injustice that leads to pain and death, inequalities that create massive starvation, lack of concern for those suffering and dying horribly because they are not “one of us.”
The pain is real, even if most of us who are in our personal, comfortable situations can turn it off. But during the greatest international crisis of our life time, it is now suddenly very hard indeed to turn it off. It is all around us even if it has not yet invaded our personal space. And we realize that good Friday is not so good after all, when we ourselves, those we love, or those we ceaselessly hear or read about are living and dying through it.
But still. There is the message of Easter. The message does not — or at least should not — justify the pain or soften the suffering, per se. But it is still the Christian message. There is a glimmer of light in the world of darkness. Evil does not have the last word. God does. Death is not the end of the story. There is a different ending, beyond our understanding, not one we can conjure up through our own efforts, but one that comes from forces far beyond our ability to understand let along control. In the end, love wins. Suffering ends. Pain disappears. Good triumphs.
This is not a message I literally believe. But it is a message that resonates in my heart, in a period of pain and darkness. And one that I choose to live for.
I wish you all a very happy Easter.