It’s a nuisance when chocolate Easter eggs begin to appear in stores as outside temperatures reach the high 30s – it becomes awfully difficult to consume all the chocolate before it begins to melt! ‘Tis a sad waste of a wonderful delicacy to wash it away with soap… Yet this inconvenience is but a minor challenge for those who celebrate Easter in the Southern hemisphere – away from the emerging season of Spring so intricately woven into the traditional understanding of Easter we have inherited from our northern cousins. As Hedley Beare expressed in a recent faith column (23/2), christians in the fourth century found it uncannily expedient to attach celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus to an earlier pagan festival marking the commencement of spring: the themes of new life, rebirth and renewal already irresistibly embodied in the festival, waiting to be impregnated with christian meaning. The emergence of new life in creation as trees and plants begin their regeneration and new growth was a powerful symbol of new life to reflect upon in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But does the springtime fully represent the meaning of events surrounding the passion of Jesus? Are we in the antipodes somehow deprived of a full appreciation of the Easter miracle? Or does this almost exclusive focus on new life mask something more profound about the life and teaching of Jesus?
Here in Australia we celebrate Easter as trees shed their leaves, as fading light gives way to increased darkness. The Autumn equinox marks the shift from days where light is the greater part of the day to ever-increasing darkness. The end of daylight saving creates the impression of a sudden darkness as evening falls much earlier in our working day. For the next three months the days become shorter, colder, somehow more alienating. We watch creation enter the throes of deconstruction. Animals begin to hibernate, some birds spread their wings for warmer climes, many flowering plants shut down production, and deciduous trees shed their leaves, ultimately lending a more sober and subdued – even dreary – hue to the landscape. While we begin to feel some sense of relief at the passing of the scorching heat (although less so this year), there appears little to celebrate, little sign of the new life which is integral to the Easter story.
It seems that the Australian context has yet to find its place in the celebration of Easter in the christian church. Alongside our borrowed Christmas symbols of snow and holly, our celebration of Easter strikes a discordant note with the landscape, creation somehow out-of-sync with the Creator’s actions. Either we need to relocate the celebration of Easter to a more appropriate time of year, or look for themes and messages more consistent with the voice of creation. If an authentic and relevant spirituality reflects and shapes the rhythms of human life, then how are we to ground the christian message in the experiences and symbols common in the wider community – as it seems to have been the practice of the early church. Is this possible with Easter?
My discomfort with the way in which Easter, and more particularly Good Friday, is celebrated in many churches within the Protestant tradition extends beyond its dissonance with the surrounding landscape. The celebration of Easter within the church reflects society’s broader reluctance to grapple with any sense of pain and loss. Rarely have I sat in a Good Friday service without there being a strong proclamation of the resurrection: a thought not found in the original experience of the disciples, who instead were enveloped with despair as they watched Jesus die. This shadow was deepened by their own complicity in his death through either their denial of him, or their abandonment in his time of need. In the death of Jesus they believed their hope had also died. The dream Jesus had instilled in them had dissipated at the cross.
Yet rarely have I experienced this in a Good Friday service. The death of Jesus is almost trivialized against the backdrop of the resurrection, the struggle and pain of the disciples glossed over, their sense of loss given scant regard. Standing as we do on this side of the resurrection it is difficult to fully appreciate the emptiness they felt, yet I sense that it is essential to the journey of faith that we endeavour to enter that same space today.
In the celebration of Easter, what is often overlooked is the means through which this new life was brought into being. The Easter story is marked by an all-pervading gloom, as many of the critical events took place under cover of darkness: Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trial before the Sanhedrin, the denial by Peter, even his death took place as darkness spread across the land. The resurrection hope only came through the despairing death of Jesus – the death of the one christians call the Son of God. Jesus’ disciples, the Jews, and the Roman authorities clearly could not reconcile the two. To them, Jesus’ death appeared as conclusive proof that he could not be who he claimed to be.
If we allow our focus to fall primarily on the resurrection without contemplating the circumstances by which it was made necessary, we merely echo the message of many a motivational speaker that failure is not the end, merely an opportunity to learn and grow. The Easter story is no tale of persistence through tragedy. But for the action of God in raising Jesus from the dead, Jesus’ death WAS the end. The act of God was the only source of light in an otherwise dark tale – and yet an overwhelming source of hope. Jesus died as the result of his deliberate submission to the purposes of God. It was an act of obedience and surrender, an embodiment of his teaching that the way to life was to lose it, to surrender it to the purposes of a Heavenly Father. Instead of seeking to preserve his own life for his own sake, Jesus gave it up for a greater purpose.
And creation at Autumn echoes that same truth, as flora and fauna ‘die off’ for months, a necessary prelude to the new growth which the Spring generates. The symbols of death are all around us: autumn leaves dancing their finale across the streets, driven by the autumn winds; lengthening sunsets and cooler evening winds driving us into shelter earlier each day, just as much of the animal world retreats to cosier places; the cries of the summer birds are slowly silenced, as creation slows its pace. As winter begins to dawn, and winter blues cast their shadow over life, we may despair of ever seeing the warm summer sun once more. Yet this too is part of the Creator’s plan, clearing away the old in preparation for the new. It is only as these sights and sounds die that they can be born afresh, in all their wonder.
But new life – the springtime - stands now only as promise, just as resurrection was promise to the disciples, just as the new life is the promise to all who would follow Jesus. Born out of death, resurrected from the passing away of the present, new life comes. It is a way to life that few choose, preferring to trust in their own strength than to surrender into the hands of another, to hold on rather than let go. To truly live, we must be prepared to die.
March 23, 2002