This article was originally published on April 15, 2018.
I was lamenting the end of Lent to an acquaintance the other day, because, I said, Lent gave me endless subjects to write about, like Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, whereas Easter was just less suited to producing “content.” At this the man I was talking to gave me a horrified look, well-deserved.
On the other hand—it’s sort of true. I accuse myself here, but it’s not only me. For the most part, Christian art deals mostly beautifully with expectation and suffering, and the Christian writing I tend to be drawn to also focuses on these subjects. There is art that depicts Easter and the Easter season, some of it quite beautiful. (Did you know Handel’s Messiah is actually Easter music? Now you do.) But if you’re thinking of Holy Week music, you’re more likely to reach for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion than the Easter Oratorio. (Possibly you are not going to reach for either.)
And even though, as a liturgical season, Easter will continue until Pentecost, we don’t have much to fill it with; there’s no Easter equivalent of the Christmas carol. We too easily say “Hallelujah!” and move on. Even when we make a point of trying to live through at least Holy Week intentionally, preparing our hearts to celebrate the Resurrection, it’s easy to pass the time squabbling. (Was the Synod on Young People rigged? Does Pope Francis believe the souls of the damned are annihilated? And so on.) We can arrive at Easter distracted and angry, like it’s an afterthought in the struggles we have with ourselves and each other.
Does our response to Easter reflect poorly on us? There’s not a simple answer. Easter is simply a more challenging subject than Christmas; in that sense, it’s only to be expected. It could also be that there’s some amount of modern unease with enthusiastically declaring you think somebody, historically, did really come back from the dead—that, while Christians still live in expectation, they believe some of their expectations have already been fulfilled in history. Christianity is more easily lived as a sort of everlasting Ingmar Bergman film: better to expect and expect and never have to deal with the realization of expectation—to enjoy, even prioritize, uncertainty, doubt, and anguish.
Another reason, I suspect: Christianity, or at least American Christianity, has a difficult relationship with joy. (Though given that the most recent papal exhortation is called “rejoice and be glad,” perhaps it’s a global problem.) For those American Christians whose faith has been shaped—inevitably—by a reaction to the various feel-good Christianities that abound, the safest thing to do is simply to avoid any occasion of happiness. Focusing on anything other than the cross feels like cheap grace, a concession to the facile optimism all around us. We don’t deserve Easter, the general upbeat nature of the culture makes it impossible to celebrate properly anyway, and as soon as is humanly possible we should retreat back into the shadows.
It would certainly be foolish to claim that American culture is overly penitential, or that we aren’t ridden with cheap grace. But all grace, by definition, is undeserved; that applies no less to the brooding intellectual than it does to the flagrantly wicked. And what distinguishes cheap grace from grace isn’t the extremity of our penance or devotion to suffering (read: brooding), but recognition of sin and a contrite heart—not, precisely, the same thing. Avoiding cheap grace may mean avoiding grace altogether.