Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Why can't Easter be more like Christmas?

I have always found Easter depressing. It’s like the pale, listless cousin of Christmas. I don’t understand it because Jesus being born was certainly a big deal, but wasn’t him rising from the dead an even more impressive event? Christmas was the day this baby god was born, full of promise and hope, but Easter was the day he actually defeated death itself, conquering human fears of what happens to us after we die and demonstrating that human beings have incredible potential. If Easter recognizes the day that all of humanity received a reprieve on the end of life itself, why does our American celebration of it so weakly echo our yuletide feasting and pageantry? (I limit my discussion to the way Easter is celebrated in the United States because that’s all I know, but please let me know of the traditions or viewpoints I’m missing out on.)

Either the early Christian church failed to connect Easter with a strong, ancient pagan tradition the way it did with Christmas, or early Americans didn’t recognize Easter as a unifying holiday to make their own, the way they did with Christmas [see my summary of the History Channel’s history of Christmas at http://chicanaontheedge.blogspot.com/2006/01/
isnt-there-anyone-who-knows-what.html since I can't get the link to work). The reason for our anemic American Easter tradition is probably the latter reason more than the former, but I’m not satisfied to stop there. Even though I’m an atheist and don’t believe in any of this stuff, Christmas is one of my favorite things and I really do wonder why Easter can’t rival it. Christmas is absolutely everywhere for months and even though the yuletide mechanism is mostly powered by pure profit-hunger, we still put on a damn good show, full of sparkle and mystery. Even I recognize the amazing spectacle and energy of a tradition we inadvertantly made wonderful on our way to the bank. Why can’t Easter be like that, too?

Instead I remember Easter mainly for the cool candy that appeared only at that time of the year (gooey Cadbury eggs, etc.), the boring life-of-Christ movies all the networks aired that weekend and the Easter ham I just never liked as much as the yuletide turkey. And maybe there’d be a cake decorated with jelly beans. What a sad, half-hearted holiday it always felt like to me.

It was hard to even get worked up over our brand new Easter dresses since we just wore them to church for an hour and then came home and took them off. There were no piles of presents to tear through, no decorated tree to take pictures in front of, no extended family gathering to suffer through. And in the days after Easter Sunday, what did we get? No cool new toys or gadgets, just a lot of egg salad sandwiches.

I am actually offended by our lack of imagination on this one. Come on, America, why haven’t we focused our money-making initiative on Easter? It could be so much bigger, so much more mysterious, so much more profitable. We made up the modern Santa Claus story out of thin air, attached materialistic gift-buying to the love of one’s children and splashed a specifically Christian holiday all over the streets, stores and airwaves. Separation of church and state goes right out the window every December 25th, all in the interest of retail America making a buck. So how about doing that for Easter?

A big part of the blame also falls on the Catholic church. Before I became an atheist (then a Christian, then a born- again atheist), I was raised Catholic. Oh my god, does the Catholic church suck at how it does Easter! For Christmas it does pretty well, dressing up in garlands and twinkling lights and spending weeks eagerly anticipating the birth of the baby Jesus. It’s a good story. Mary receives good news. The shepherds receive good news. It’s just good news all around, and for most of November and December the Catholic church really manages to step up its usual mea culpa shuffle and show a little pep.

But its true colors show at Easter. Oh, how unfortunate that the story of Easter is so dark. It doesn’t have to be, but the Catholic church focuses heavily on Jesus’ foreknowledge of the hell he’s about to go through, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest and torture...and torture...and torture...and death. Holy Week itself reflects the emphasis: Easter Sunday is outnumbered by Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and those come after the forty days of Lent during which we’re supposed to sacrifice something we dearly love and reflect on how depressing life is in general.

How much focus does the Catholic church give the resurrection? I never saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but my sister told me the entire movie focuses on pain and gore and then when it’s time for Jesus to be resurrected and triumph over death -- here comes the happy ending, let’s move the stone from the front of the tomb and get on with the Resurrection -- Gibson’s movie ends! Where’s the payoff? Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? Where’s the demonstration of God’s power over death? Gibson gives us nothin’.

I assert that the Catholic church observes Lent, Holy Week and Easter very similarly to the way Mel Gibson focuses his film. We get the weeks between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday to reflect on our pitiful selfishness as the sinners Christ died for, and one day to celebrate him rising from the dead. He f#%&-ing rose from the dead! That’s a good story! That’s an ending that can’t be beat! And what do we do? We make it an anticlimax. Almost a denoument, almost an epilogue. Catholics can’t decorate and build excitement for weeks like at Christmastime because we drag out this Lent business. There’s no eagerly anticipated Easter Eve because that’s the time when Jesus was lying dead and broken in the crypt. We just get weeks of ashes-to-ashes and “Crucify him!” and the most exquisite guilt of the Christian calendar, and then one day to wear pastel colors and finally indulge in chocolate or alcohol or anal sex or whatever it was you gave up for Lent (that one’s for you, Obesio).

Seriously, click here on The Passion of the Christ [I don't know why my links aren't working! Use this: http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com/splash.htm] for a pretty accurate visual depiction of how the Catholic church recognizes Easter. Heck, the Catholic church couldn’t even come up with a positive symbol with which to represent itself. The main Catholic icon is the cross, which is to say the crucifix, which is to say the incredibly cruel instrument of torture on which criminals used to be killed by the Romans. Why do we want to worship an instrument of torture? Why do I want to hang a dead guy on a stick on the wall above my bed? A dead guy on a stick was really the best representation the Catholic church could come up with for itself? Really? Yup, apparently.

The Catholic church has really failed us on this whole Easter thing. Talk about a missed opportunity. Christmas is great, but the Easter resurrection was the reason that baby was born. That’s your opportunity to lift spirits and inspire hope. That’s your chance to talk about beating the odds, never giving up, having potential you haven’t even begun to realize. A virgin birth is nothing compared to a dead guy coming back to life! Easter celebrations should be absolutely incredible.

Instead Easter languishes in the shadow of Lent, stunted by a pessimistic church and outshone by the yuletide. So what if Christmas has been fed by commercialism and inflated by profit margins? Commercialism has created a much better holiday with Christmas than religion has with Easter.

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