Sending out hundreds of Easter cards this year? Attending way too many Easter parties? Doing some last-minute shopping for gifts to place under your Easter tree? Getting tired of those endless Easter-themed specials on television?
I didn’t think so.
Unlike Christmas, whose deeper spiritual meaning has been all but buried under an annual avalanche of commercialism, Easter has retained a stubborn hold on its identity as a religious holiday. This is all the more surprising when you consider what an opportune time it would be for marketers to convince us to buy more stuff. Typically arriving around the beginning of spring, Easter would be the perfect time for department stores to euchre customers into buying carloads of kids’ outdoor toys, warm-weather clothes, and summertime sporting equipment. And while Christmas is forced to contend with Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, there is little holiday competition around Easter time. (Passover and Easter, despite their proximity in the calendar, don’t seem to interfere with each other much.) All in all, the church’s most important feast day comes at a terrific time of year for Madison Avenue….
Despite the awesome theological implications (Christians believe that the infant lying in the manger is the son of God), the Christmas story is easily reduced to pablum. How pleasant it is in mid-December to open a Christmas card with a pretty picture of Mary and Joseph gazing beatifically at their son, with the shepherds and the angels beaming in delight. The Christmas story, with its friendly resonances of marriage, family, babies, animals, angels, and—thanks to the wise men—gifts, is eminently marketable to popular culture. It’s a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life.
On the other hand, a card bearing the image of a near-naked man being stripped, beaten, tortured, and nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden crucifix is a markedly less pleasant piece of mail.
The Easter story is relentlessly disconcerting and, in a way, is the antithesis of the Christmas story. No matter how much you try to water down its particulars, Easter retains some of the shock it had for those who first participated in the events during the first century. The man who spent the final three years of his life preaching a message of love and forgiveness (and, along the way, healing the sick and raising the dead) is betrayed by one of his closest friends, turned over to the representatives of a brutal occupying power, and is tortured, mocked, and executed in the manner that Rome reserved for the worst of its criminals….
Even the resurrection, the joyful end of the Easter story, resists domestication as it resists banalization. Unlike Christmas, it also resists a noncommittal response. Even agnostics and atheists who don’t accept Christ’s divinity can accept the general outlines of the Christmas story with little danger to their worldview. But Easter demands a response. It’s hard for a non-Christian believer to say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead.” That’s not something you can believe without some serious ramifications: If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, this has profound implications for your spiritual and religious life—really, for your whole life. If you believe the story, then you believe that Jesus is God, or at least God’s son. What he says about the world and the way we live in that world then has a real claim on you.
Easter is an event that demands a “yes” or a “no.” There is no “whatever.”
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