Also in Slate: Andrew Santella asked if it’s OK to “modernize” the Stations of the Cross. Larry Hurtado investigated how early Christians wrestled with the idea of resurrection.
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.
So what enables Easter to maintain its religious purity and not devolve into the consumerist nightmare that is Christmas? Well, for one thing, it’s hard to make a palatable consumerist holiday out of Easter when its back story is, at least in part, so gruesome. Christmas is cuddly. Easter, despite the bunnies, is not.
To the secular mind, the story of Christmas goes like this: A young couple named Mary (pretty, pregnant, wearing a flattering blue gown) and Joseph (a little older, quite handsome, sporting a well-trimmed beard) journeyed on a trusty donkey all the way to O Little Town of Bethlehem. Since there was no room at the inn, the young couple bunked in a cozy stable filled with cuddly farm animals. There, Away in the Manger, Mary gave birth to Jesus, her adorable baby boy. Soon after, Angels We Have Heard on High came to the rustic shepherds to tell them What Child Is This. And then We Three Kings of Orient Are—or, rather, showed up.
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.
We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women’s underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus’ head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him. After this, Jesus suffered the most degrading of all Roman deaths: crucifixion. Jesus remains the world’s most famous victim of capital punishment.
To his followers, therefore, his execution was not only tragic and terrifying but shameful. It is difficult not to wonder what the Apostles would have thought of a crucifix as a fashion accessory. Imagine wearing an image of a hooded Abu Ghraib victim around your neck as holiday bling.
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.”
More shocking than the crucifixion is the resurrection. Two thousand years later, it’s still impossible for humanity to grasp this event fully. Even the Gospel writers found it hard to agree on what, precisely, happened and differ on something as basic as what Jesus looked like after the resurrection. (In some Gospel accounts, Jesus is almost ghostlike; in others, he is clearly a physical presence.)
That confusion may be one reason why in most “Jesus movies” the resurrection is largely an afterthought. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (an Easter TV favorite), the resurrection consists of Jesus uttering bland pieties to a dazed-looking group of apostles. In Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ (admittedly about the crucifixion and death), the resurrection, something with far more religious import than the suffering, is reduced to a brief coda. In Gibson’s version, Jesus stands up and marches out of his tomb on Easter morning to the strains of martial music, as if to say, “I’m back, and I’m going to kick some Roman butt!”
What does the world do with a person who has been raised from the dead? Christians have been meditating on that for two millenniums. But despite the eggs, the baskets, and the bunnies, one thing we haven’t been able to do is to tame that person, tame his message, and, moreover, tame what happened to him in Jerusalem all those years ago. That’s one reason why you don’t see many Easter cards, Easter gifts, and Easter decorations; why the stores aren’t clogged with shoppers during Lent; and why the holiday is still, essentially, religious.