I have ambivalent feelings about Easter. I am sure I am not alone in this attitude towards the greatest of events on the Christian calendar, especially among people who grew up, as I did, in intensely religious (and loving) families but who have long put their Christian beliefs behind them. As it happens, my family were Quakers and that religion does not mark out the church festivals. But I went to a school that had a great musical tradition and each year there was a performance of one of the Bach Passions, alternating the St Matthew with the St John. No one could have them as a major presence during adolescent years without echoes in some sense resonating through the rest of one’s life. A fact that, I should say, gives me ongoing joy, for each year around this time, if only on disc, I listen to one or other or both of these incredible works – and end, if not in tears, then very close.
And yet, if I look intellectually – I am a professional philosopher – at the Sacrifice on the Cross, not to mention the Resurrection, I start to have grave doubts. I am not so much concerned about the miracle aspect – although I do think rather daft those folk who spend so much time trying to prove the historical authenticity by worrying about the stone and so forth. Why not simply say that the disciples felt in their hearts that their Lord was risen, and leave it at that, whatever the psychological reasons? I am concerned about the whole point of the Sacrifice.
Assume that we are all sinners and that we need saving. I personally cannot see why the misdeed of one person, Adam – real or symbolic – should condemn the rest of us to a life of sin. And that is apart from what seems to me to be a bit of an overreaction by God. A naïve chap, sitting stark naked in a garden, seduced by a wily reptile, grabs a piece of fruit, and the whole of humankind is condemned for all eternity? God is starting to sound like some of the legislators in my home state of Florida, who argue that it is perfectly appropriate to lock up troubled fourteen year olds for life, without hope of parole, ever.
Even worse is why a death on the Cross should do the trick. It all seems a bit pointless to me. If Jesus had been an aid worker in Pakistan and had been killed while trying to give polio vaccines to kids I could start to see it. I don’t think Jesus should have been crucified for being a rabble rouser, but I don’t see that what he did was so very great – especially since the apocalyptic language of the gospels rather suggest that until virtually the end Jesus thought that God was going to rescue him.
Nor do I buy the fact that the sacrifice was the greatest moral act ever. I don’t think it even starts to compare with Sophie Scholl, one of the White Rose group in Germany during the War who passed out pamphlets against the Nazis and who was discovered, condemned and lost her life on the guillotine. As she went to her death, she said: “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” That for me is an act of moral bravery before which I can only bow, humbled.
Most importantly, why should Jesus’ act do anything for my sins? We have a group of kids all in trouble and one, who was blameless, steps forward and accepts the punishment. I don’t think that gets the rest of us off the hook at all. If anything we are worse. If we have done wrong, then we and we alone are responsible for our sins. God can forgive us or not, but keep Jesus out of it, please.
And yet – again! Emotionally I cannot escape from my Christian heritage, nor do I very much want to. I did not bring my kids up as Christians and I think that was the right thing for me to do. But I do feel a bit guilty that at some level they are missing out on something. What? For me, whatever the theological and philosophical issues, Easter is truly a time when I do stop and ask myself about meaning and sacrifice and duties to others.
I don’t think it has to be Easter per se. As one who came to North America, in major respects Thanksgiving – a festival that was new to me – is more significant, as I celebrate the love and kindness that people showed to me, a stranger to their land. But I do think it is important to have those times in one’s life when one pauses and takes stock – realizes what one has done and what one has not done and whether things can be improved. As I listen to those great Bach pieces, that for me is what they make me think and reflect. And for that I am very glad.
I don’t want to end on too serious or preachy a note. I am old enough that, to show my hatred of nuclear weapons, I marched around 1960 with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at Easter from Aldermaston. Ban the Bomb! I am not sure we did much good, but they were wonderful times of friendship and fun – although after four days of sleeping in one’s clothes on floors one was, let us say, a bit fruity. Easter for me therefore is also memories of being young and how good it is to be alive and have friends and have missions – not to mention, the virtues of soap and water! All in all, non-believer though I may be, I love Easter. And now back to the music.
Featured image credit: Easter-Eggs-1, by Lotus Head from Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.