Now I have reached the age of judgment giving sorrow that many men have come to, the verdict of regret, remembering the world once better than it is, my old walkways beneath the vanished trees, and friends lost now in loss of trust.
And I recall myself more innocent than I am, gone past coming back in the history of flaw, except Christ dead and risen in my own flesh shall judge, condemn, and then forgive. — Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997
T. S. Eliot said that April was “the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land/Mixing memory and desire. . . .” April in Maryland comes with the shyness of spring amidst the last blows of winter and before the blast furnace of summer’s heat and humidity. It’s a narrow sliver of chance that could fall, from day to day, any number of ways; of weather rising 30 degrees in a matter of hours or dropping wearily into thunderstorms at the end of a serene day. One never knows.
Somewhere in there is Easter, a mixed blessing of a holy day if there ever was one. Over the years I’ve come to a restless peace with it, but not without a struggle. For a Christian, Easter is both despair and hope, a spiritual slingshot into faith’s parallel universe. In a matter of hours, remembering and following the broken trail of Christ, we stagger under the brute fact of political and spiritual hegemonies crushing the life from the One among the many, bringing darkness—and then unbearable light.
Easter is prime time for many preachers, a kind of telethon of emotional chaos intended to wring the last drop of guilt out of compassion-fatigued parishioners. A few years ago Mel Gibson’s masochistic Passion of the Christ was playing to full houses in churches and sanctuaries, as well as theaters. This year we face only the usual seasonal froth of bunnies, Easter eggs, cards, and sales on spring outfits.
I’m not complaining that commercial interests have rendered Easter just another benchmark for profit or loss. That’s a given. Nor would I want a state-sponsored day of fasting and prayer imposed on all. Under the principle of the separation of church and state we’ve gained considerable freedom from the kinds of sanctimonious peril visited upon Europe for centuries. Instead, I’d cherish a neutral day, as transparent as water, in which it was understood that Easter was a time when one could reflect on one’s past, feel a just measure of shame for having broken promises and adding to the pain of the world, and experience a sense of wonder at forgiveness and the chance to begin anew. It is a day and an occasion when anyone can find the courage to go on. If nothing else, it’s a celebration of another chance, the earth rising from the depths of winter, stretching and yawning in the early light.
By now Christianity has tangled itself so inextricably with power and pain that such a day can only be experienced quietly within oneself, in the company of a few friends, or in the community of faith. There’s nothing stopping this from happening, of course, for all who wish to worship and reflect.
What am I really asking for then? I suppose it comes down to this: I long for an Easter that is simply there for the taking, with no taint of commercialism or profiteering. A holiday from Mammon, if you like; one day out of the year that is voluntarily cordoned off from exploitation. This would mean that we would not be bludgeoned with direct mail offers in February about Easter sales nor would we be exhorted to whip ourselves into shape for the beach season. We could let the rabbits get on with getting it on, let the eggs remain in the nest, and leave the baby chicks in their natural state, unsullied by dyes of purple, red, green, and blue.
It’s too much to ask, I know, and besides how would such a day come about? It would have to be legislated, thus defeating the purpose or bubble up from below as corporations, media, sports franchises, and the whole vast Difference Engine of calculated profit simply paused. And in that stillness, without the bullying shouts of the traders or the frantic piping of the media or the inexorable pressure of the invisible hand between our shoulder blades we could hear our hearts beating and take a breath.
For some it would be a day to allow oneself to smile in amazement at the fecundity of the earth, for others a day of reflection and meditation, a renewed commitment, perhaps, to accepting grace and extending forgiveness. For nations it could be a day of atonement, asking forgiveness for the wrongs done in the name of ideologies and self-interest. And for this beautiful, wondrous, and besieged Earth it could be a day when our presence upon it as a species brought more good than harm.
As for myself, I shall read the Gospel stories once again, read T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday as I have for some years, and carry within me that stillness, if only for a few hours, that is so vital to the spirit.
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee — T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday