The coming of new life out of death is the message of Easter, for Christians and for nonbelievers who have their own way of looking at this springtime ritual. Rebirth. Renewal. The do-over we crave, whether we believe our flaws took root in the Garden of Eden or derive from the destiny of human biology or from individual failings.
People hunger for a fresh beginning. Many of us started the year on a spurt of renewal, flush with resolutions for reordering our lives. We figured it would be a little better if we could just get the bank statements in order and out-of-season clothes sorted and stored. We crowded the gyms with our creaky bodies, intent on sweating our way to a trimmer middle and a longer lifespan. In January, we brought out our dental floss and good intentions.
Today serves as a touchstone — a measuring point — to gauge our efforts since we made those resolutions with where we are now. How are we coming along? And if our progress has waned, then we ask what went awry?
If many of us crave a renewed boost of encouragement, we can find it in this season of natural awakening. It's an annual delight that ancient hymn writer understood: "Earth her joy confesses, clothing her for spring. All fresh gifts returned with her returning King: bloom in every meadow, leaves on every bough." Ah, spring — ripe with dogwood and redbud, baby animals and flowers, renewal and rebirth.
What's an Easter basket but a big, calorie-stuffed symbol of all that? Consider the iconic baskets themselves — for what were baskets designed for but gathering the bounty of nature's cyclical regeneration? And the grass we stuff those baskets with, pink and purple impersonations of nature's own green stuff. And the marshmallow chickens, the dyed eggs and their mini-cousins, egg-shaped jelly versions. And the mother lode of fecund symbolism: bunnies.
Easter is also a day for families and friends to reconnect, to pause from their busy lives to share a meal and hide candy-stuffed eggs for younger generations to find. Renewed kindships between acquaintances invigorate our spirits and refresh our minds.
This is a day with symbols of renewal all around. For Christians, the one at the center of their faith — the cross that speaks of the resurrection that sealed the promise of redemption, rebirth into grace and everlasting life. For anyone with a sweet tooth, a basketful of symbols of revival. For nature, the awakening of life after winter's slumber.
Easter morning comes each year as a reminder of renewal, of life restored. The natural sense of the coming of spring mingles for the day with the Christian promise of eternal life, through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
At its best, Easter is also a culmination. After 40 days of Lent and the solemnity of Holy Week, it instructs us that suffering can have meaning, that we can be restored and, even increased, through pain and sacrifice.
This isn’t a belief unique to Christians. Buddha’s first noble truth is that to live is to suffer.
It’s worth taking a moment this morning and considering the deeper meaning of Easter.
All of us will suffer in life in some way. It can be widespread — the suffering of whole societies gripped in war with its constant fear and chaos. For others, suffering is personal but no less profound: the death of a loved one, a divorce or concerns about how to put food on the family table.
Depression, anxiety and the constant hum and buzz of modern life can be overwhelming. And there is nothing inherently ennobling about suffering.
In the Gospel of Luke, in the garden of Gesthemane, we find Jesus kneeling and praying to God before his crucifixion. “If it is Your will, take this cup away from me,” Jesus says.
Suffering isn’t something to seek. It is simply something we cannot avoid. And for those without the power or means to change their circumstances it is patronizing at best, and callous at worst, to suggest they embrace their suffering as an exercise in spiritual growth.
Growth comes only through an individual’s understanding of his or her own suffering. For some, it will take a lifetime. The love and compassion of those around us is the best nourishment that growth will get. When all is said and done, we suffer; we celebrate; we live together.
And on Easter, we mark the cycle of life and death and life again, knowing that joy and pain are its inevitable shoots. We endure and we rejoice, and we remember once more that we can renew and begin again.
The celebration and remembrance of Easter in 2020 will forever be different.
We have many that are struggling for their life. We have many working tirelessly to save that life. There will be no big family gatherings, egg hunts or pictures posted all over social media of families in their colorful matching outfits (okay, well maybe that will be one positive).
Easter is here after weeks of people being deprived of contact with friends and loved ones outside their immediate families, or even the simple pleasure of being able to gather in person for religious services.
Many of us are emotionally and spiritually worn out. There’s no denying that it’s rather depressing to face the prospect of an Easter without a trip to church, a big meal with extended family and all the other traditional trappings of the holiday.
But regardless of what’s happening in our world, the power and importance of Easter remain just as they always are.
The Easter story, the happy ending in a tale of brutal crucifixion, suggests that there's a powerful answer to the pain and evil that have touched the world throughout human history. That's why the Easter narrative can resonate not only with Christians but in secular society, too. Any story of hope is needed now more than ever, as recent headlines have reminded us.
On this weekend's Easter, as in others, there's trouble afoot on our anguished planet. A all of this is pretty grim stuff.
Illness and death are ever-present parts of the human condition, as the Easter story reminds us. But it has rarely been so pronounced in our lives as in pandemic form, with thousands across the globe dead or suffering from coronavirus-related hospitalization.
Yet our capacity to be shocked and horrified by accounts of death and violence in our communities and around the world is, perhaps, one of the more affirming things about the human spirit. We know that such cruelty is an aberration — that we're made for something better than bringing darkness to someone else. That brighter spirit is reflected in neighbors helping today, even under the difficult conditions of social distancing.
In whatever form, Easter speaks to our basic faith that love can transcend aggression, that miracles are possible.
In "Charlotte's Web," author E.B. White suggested that belief in miracles is perhaps not so strange a thing when we consider the presence of the overlooked miracles we take for granted. White was writing particularly about the life of a barnyard, where the wonders of pigs and ducks and spiders were spectacles so grand — but so routine — that few visitors thought of them as special.
Spring is like that, too, of course. After all the frost and cold of winter, the greening trees and emerging blossoms are an extraordinary thing, but they're a victory we usually overlook.
Easter is a day to hold such gifts close to heart, to believe once again in the renewal of spring, and in ourselves.