Easter is more than just an opportunity for indulgence

Barney Zwartz traces the history of Easter - and argues that it's about more than just chocolate eggs and big family lunches.

Australians love a good holiday, even if they are no longer so attentive to holy days, and Easter is a particularly good one with its double-long weekend. It is the paramount Christian celebration, commemorating the core beliefs of the faith about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but its connection to Christianity is relatively recent.

We first encounter Easter through the eighth-century English church historian Bede, who wrote about Christians appropriating the spring equinox festival of the pagan goddess Eostre, which celebrated new life and rebirth (hence bunnies for fertility and eggs for new life).

The link to the Jewish Passover is more ancient, its formal celebration by the church dating back to the second century. But if the earliest Christians had no particular calendar celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were very concerned about the meaning of these events.

The central message was that Jesus had conquered death – as the New Testament book of Acts puts it: “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” In his resurrection, Jesus became the guarantee of resurrection for his followers, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (Saint Paul).

Paul goes on to admit that if this claim is wrong, then their faith is futile and they are of all people the most to be pitied, in which case “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.

I suspect that this is precisely the attitude many Australians bring to Easter, that it is an opportunity for indulgence (I’m partial to some myself). Indeed, The Age reported this month that Easter is increasingly looking like a second Christmas, “only with more pastels and ceramic bunnies”.

Little could be more counter-intuitive than the Christian account of the resurrection.

Families are decorating their homes, enjoying festive meals and exchanging gifts. This materialistic paradox is beautifully put by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland: “We spend our youth attaining wealth, and our wealth attaining youth.”

Little could be more counter-intuitive than the Christian account of the resurrection, but it needs only one presupposition to make it credible, and that is the belief that God exists. This belief is manifest not least in the vast numbers who do not belong to any organised religion, yet are convinced that “this” is not all there is, that there is a supernatural force they cannot describe.

If an infinite God does exist, how can we know him and what he is like unless he reveals himself to us? And that is exactly what the Bible claims he has done.

For myself, I find the biblical narrative of God seeking out his self-willed people and providing a path for them of redemption and reconciliation not only compelling but a story of the purest moral beauty.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.