Easter is much more difficult to write about than Christmas. The birth of Jesus can be made to sound so delightful. Most people are ready to be charmed by the thought of a baby born in a stable, and by the shepherds and wise men who attend the holy child in innumerable nativity plays. And there is a surrounding tradition of hanging up decorations, giving presents and eating Christmas dinner which makes it hard for the most convinced atheist entirely to boycott Christmas. No wonder Dickens saw what a wonderful subject it would make, and was able, in Scrooge, to show how mean-spirited it is to try to hold out against the prevailing spirit of generosity and celebration.
The death of Jesus on the cross cannot be reduced to a charming story. The manufacturers of chocolate eggs, and of inept representations of bunnies, do not obscure the horror of this event. The easiest course may seem to be to ignore the whole thing, just as one may decide to preserve one’s peace of mind by ignoring a story in the newspaper about some upsetting occurrence in a distant land.
In the Easter story, an innocent man is subjected to a show trial, followed by an agonising punishment. He is mocked: a crown of thorns is placed on his head and he is hailed by his tormentors as king. Pontius Pilate, who as Rome’s representative is supposed to be in charge, realises he is presiding over a grotesque injustice, looks for some way to release this man in whom he can find no fault, but decides it is expedient to go along with local opinion. Jesus is nailed to a cross and dies.
This story would not still be told after 2,000 years if it ended there. It would take its place as a disagreeable but essentially meaningless event somewhere on the edge of the Roman Empire: a miscarriage of justice of the kind which so easily occurs when an imperial ruler far from home is making the concessions needed to keep on reasonable terms with the local bigwigs.
But on the third day, which we shall remember and celebrate on Sunday, Jesus rose again from the dead, and by doing so made it possible for all who believe in him to rise again from the dead. In the Prayer Book, the Collect for Easter Day begins with the words, “Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesu Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life”. The suffering of Jesus on the cross turns out to have a hopeful and joyful ending.
How the mind reels at this revelation. Instead of contemplating the mystery of our salvation, it is easier to turn away and focus on things which seem more within our mental grasp. So although this country has a Christian inheritance, we feel the urge to downplay that inheritance, and to express it in the most tactful and unobjectionable language, for fear of upsetting people who do not want to spend their time thinking about religion. As I remarked at the beginning, Easter is much more difficult to write about than Christmas.