Someone recently forwarded me an email consisting of an advertisement wherein Bay Area Fellowship, a large and popular church in Corpus Christi, Texas, in order to attract guests to its Holy Week services, undertook to raffle off laptop computers, televisions, and automobiles. By appealing to people's avarice, the church believed it could win a few souls for Christ.
I must say that I see no principled difference between appealing to one aspect of human depravity as opposed to others. Perhaps next Easter, Bay Area Fellowship will host a give-away involving three days of drinking and gambling in Las Vegas; and, after that, who knows what else? A week-long assignation with three Easter "bunnies" of one's choice would be absolutely sensational! It would surely be a cinch to attract, like a magnet, a record number of male worshippers between the ages of, let's say, 20 and 45. I would suggest that, as a precondition for entering the raffle, each and every participant be required to submit to baptism and agree to tithe for a year as well.
This morning, while on the way to church, I passed a gaggle of play actors having the time of their lives. They were standing outside their church facility on the sidewalk, dressed as Roman soldiers and happily waving their large wooden swords at passers-by. What an inspiration that was to behold! A vivid portrayal of Easter! In case you are wondering whether I waved back, the answer is no. I am sorry to add that I failed even to manage the slightest smile.
Innovations in our Easter celebration of this atrociously poor quality detract from the occasion. The only aspect of traditional worship that runs them a close second is the Easter homily. By attending only to the words of a pastor, one may feel hopelessly lost in a time warp. I mean that, quite often, no reference is made to realities outside the four walls of the building. It is impossible to ascertain in what century the pastor is speaking.
The first century might seem a likely candidate except for the fact that the closest one gets to it in the words of the pastor is the reading of gospel texts. The minister's preparatory exegesis, ever so slightly reflected in his sermon, consists, it seems, of highly structured research in one or two devotional sources. Little attempt is made to understand what the passage meant when it was written or how it is applicable to present-day listeners. I have concluded that few preachers are able to provide a "progress report" on the verses assigned for the day. What a pity. It means that, during the Easter service, there is no gripping witness from Scripture, no points of contact with the present, and a cloud of irrelevance over the entire occasion. A bird's eye view of worshippers in the pews reveals that many are confirmed in their commitment to bi-annual attendance.
What is Easter? Let me take a stab at it. The Easter event is the apex of the Christian faith and the vantage point from which Christians understand not only who Jesus was and is, but who they are. In the absence of Easter, there would be no Christianity at all. The claim of the faith is that God acted miraculously, through a Jewish peasant from Nazareth, to conquer the horror of death.
Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Denial of Death, illustrates chapter by chapter how the reality of death, along with our ingenious ways of repressing it, lies at the root of human experience. "There is," he stresses, "no way of standing on one's own center without outside support. . . ." So he posits a fusion between psychology and religion. The brilliance of Becker's ideas is not, in my opinion, found so much in this conclusion, as suggestive as it might otherwise be for the light it sheds on the human situation with its failed heroics, but in the path the author takes getting there. He reminds us of our dual nature – as spiritual beings, on the one hand, who transcend ourselves and realize that death awaits us around the corner, and as animals, or material creatures, on the other, shaped by our bodies. Inter urinas et faeces nascimur. Just as we were "thrown into existence," to borrow Martin Heidegger's haunting words, we will be thrown out of it.
The Easter message is that God has built a redemptive bridge between humanity and himself, that the sting of death which neutralizes courage and threatens ultimate meaninglessness is no more.
The Christian faith is a frame through which to interpret what is. It is a life-giving way in which to address the world anew with unflagging resolve and courage. It is a means by which to understand evil – such as the corruption of our institutions and the demise of our culture – without being consumed by it. Easter involves the spirit of hope, which all of us need at the moment.
April 4, 2010