Easter: ‘The Only Way Out Is Through’1

Rev. Paul Smith writes about the importance of Easter and the complex underlying themes of forgiveness and resurrection which give the festival a deeper meaning. March 2021.

Despite cultural appearances to the contrary, Easter and not Christmas is the main Christian festival. Unlike the celebration of Jesus’ birth, Easter has been celebrated in the Church from its earliest days. This may be because it is associated with Passover and as the first followers of Christ were Jewish, Christian observances that we now identify as Holy Week and Easter, grew out of that original commemoration of the Exodus. That is why, to the frustration of commercial planners and those who arrange the western academic calendar, Easter is a “moveable feast” – like Passover. It occurs on a Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring equinox. (In 2021, this happens to be a whole week after the first full moon) Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ which the Bible recounts as being on the first day of the week (Sunday). Incidentally, that also explains why Sunday is the traditional day of worship for Christians.

Traditions: Christmas Tree becomes a Cross

A variety of traditions have developed as the Church has grown and spread throughout the world. Some of these, such as the decoration and giving of Easter eggs, may have roots in pagan observances of spring (in the northern hemisphere). The egg has connotations of new life emerging or breaking out of the hard shell. A growing trend in more recent times has been to re-purpose the Christmas tree in the following way. Many churches place a fir tree inside the building and decorate it, much as the home Christmas tree. Instead of disposing of the tree after Christmas, its branches are stripped down and the upper third of the stem cut off.

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The two parts are then made into a cross and placed in church at the beginning of Lent. Each Sunday in Lent the tree is decorated with symbols associated with the suffering, trial and execution of Jesus. Then on Easter Day it is decorated by the congregation bringing forward daffodils and placing them on chicken wire which envelops the cross. It is a wonderful connection of Christmas and Easter and reminds us that the same one who was born in Bethlehem, was crucified and rose again outside Jerusalem. It brings a sense of wholeness and connection between the two major festivals, and ensures that the Christmas tree is re-used before being recycled.

Easter- Complex and Incomprehensible?

Unlike the celebration of birth that Christmas represents, with its popular and commercial appeal, Easter is more of a problem to the average person. Far fewer people attend church at Easter and many find the whole idea of resurrection or of Christ’s rising to new life beyond belief. Whilst it may be a problem for the average agnostic, it also poses problems for some other faiths. Even in the New Testament the crucifixion and resurrection is described as a “stumbling block” and a “scandal” – in modern parlance – a “deal-breaker” (1 Corinthians 1.23). A prophet cannot end up humiliated in such a way; a saviour cannot wind up in total failure; Jesus only appeared to die and his resurrection was simply a recovery from near-death.

Honesty about their own beliefs and respect for the categories in which people of other faiths may think, leads Christians to beg to differ. They believe that Jesus really did die on the cross and his corpse lain in the tomb. The death was certified in the terms of the day. On the first day of the week his followers found the tomb empty and for many days afterwards bear witness to encountering the risen Lord in ways which transformed their lives. The resurrection of Christ becomes the central plank of the Christian gospel and the key to hope of life after death for humanity. But because Christ’s resurrection breaks the bounds of reason and its verifiability is contestable, accepting or rejecting its truth is a matter of faith. Not illogical or unreasonable faith, but a matter of belief that arises from accepting the direction of the evidence.

Easter, the Metaphor of Resurrection and Mental Health

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I would like to suggest, however, that one does not have to become a card-carrying Christian to appreciate what resurrection might mean. In particular, I offer a few explorations of how resurrection might enhance the world of therapy and the search for mental health, especially in and through a time of collective trauma.

There is some value in understanding that the place of trauma and recovery may be one and the same. In terms of the gospel accounts the garden tomb where the body of Christ was lain was near to the cross of Golgotha, the place of crucifixion. Those who observed Jesus die on the cross (and it was mainly women), returned to the tomb on Easter morning, and were transformed by their encounter with the risen Lord.

Fiona’s Memorial, Christ the Cornerstone Church, Milton Keynes, Bucks, UK

I have experienced something similar. In the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes, there is a memorial window to a young woman, a gifted calligrapher and newly-become mother. She died at the age of 31 after a brief and unexpected viral infection. The window is a large etching of a willow tree and the trunk bears a quote from Gandhi that the calligrapher had made into a work of art.

Two years later her husband married another young widow in the same church. A few people found this impossible to stomach. But to the young widower who found love and re-married, it made perfect sense: the place of crucifixion is also the place of resurrection.

Resurrection

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

The much respected but difficult to understand former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a theologian of considerable repute. He explores several themes in his short book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel [2]which include forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, renewal and restoration.

Although he is specific that these aspects of human experience arise in and through the resurrection of Christ and the subsequent life of the Church, he nevertheless writes in a way that informs human experience in general.

The Work of Therapy

Often the work of therapy, of assisting someone to find inner or mental wellbeing, involves confronting or grappling with hurt, damage, loss, alienation even violence and victimisation. Williams explores the ways in which the followers of Jesus who failed him through abandonment, betrayal, denial and plain loss of nerve, were restored and forgiven by him after the resurrection. For Williams, compelling evidence of the resurrection is in the transformed lives of his followers who went on to transform the lives of others.

My Victim‘, Forgiveness and Hope

But Williams also tackles the most uncomfortable and problematic truth about the resurrection. He writes that ‘to recognise my victim as my hope involves the prior recognition of the fact that I victimize’.[3] Therapy for some must include the recognition of how I have caused the diminution of another and how that causes me to be lessened, damaged, dehumanised. The followers of Christ were bold enough to present those who had victimised him with the possibility of forgiveness and restoration. But they were emboldened because their own diminution of Christ through abandonment and denial had first been forgiven by Christ himself.

Through their restoration and renewal came the possibility of new life. Healing, reconciliation, and bringing transformation to others all resulted from the mystery that is the resurrection of Christ. Isn’t it so often the case that those who train in and offer therapy have themselves experienced brokenness, crisis? In finding their way to wholeness they offer their compassion to others. The place of crucifixion is surely also the place of resurrection!


[1] Robert Frost’s poem A Servant to the Servants  (the actual line reads: the best way out is always through)

[2] 1982 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)

[3] Ibid p 14

The Rev Dr Paul Smith is an Anglican priest in Milton Keynes, UK. He is also an interfaith advisor for the Diocese of Oxford. He has been in pastoral ministry for 35 years including support for the bereaved and troubled. His doctoral thesis is based on research with interfaith couples and a book on the same subject, entitled Intimate Diversity.

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