Why I hate Easter

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The Independent Culture
As an agnostic, I'm not at all sure that I should be saying anything at all about the Christian festival of Easter. We are living through paradoxical times as far as religious beliefs are concerned. Indeed, when it comes to considering Easter I find myself screwed to the sticking-point of what my "agnosticism" really means. It's all very well hiding behind "I don't know" when it comes to the large-scale metaphysical underpinnings of religion: Does God exist? (I don't know.) What happens when we die? (I don't know.) Are we brought into this world for a transcendent purpose? (Once again - I don't know.)

However, at the level of everyday ethical decisions - should the whereabouts of sex offenders be made known publicly? Should government seek to influence the nature of the family? - such "I don't knows" really do become offensive to the properly religious, of all stripes.

"When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime too/ And your gravity fails, and negativity don't pull you through..." Bob Dylan aka Robert Zimmerman - the secular-Jew-turned-fundamentalist-Christian- turned-orthodox-Jew, whose Zen grappling with religion and religiosity lies as near to the core of the poetics of the post-bomb 20th century as any other body of literature - speaks for me in this cold, awful, vernal equinox, as he voices for us all the unnaturalness of the rest of the emotional year: "I've never seen spring turn so quickly into autumn."

I hate Eastertime - and, by extension, I hate Easter. Not that I really know anything of Easter itself at all. There's a Venn intersection between Radio 4, the laity of the Church of England and the rest of what laughably calls itself the fourth estate in this country, which means that the rituals of the organised and semi-state-sanctioned religions receive a vastly disproportionate amount of consideration. At the exhausted fag-end of a century that has seen so many human lives snuffed out in such physically obliterating ways - conflagrated to ash; gassed to ordure; machine-gunned to pulp; exploded to inhumanly less than the sum of their parts - it would seem to me that to seek redemption in the 40 extra days between Easter and Pentecost putatively allotted, 2,000 years ago, to a self-proclaimed Messiah is - how can I put it with even a scintilla of respect for people's beliefs? - utterly ridiculous.

I've now been to Golgotha. Been to that Unholy Land. There's nothing more risible and historically disorienting about the environs of Jerusalem than those road signs that read "SODOM 20 KMS". And there's nothing more destructive of the Star Trek view of the Resurrection - a peculiar scenario involving a being with amazing powers marooned on a remote, backward planet - than a stroll around that cramped quarter wherein Jesus spent his final mortal hours. In the Star Trek view, Jesus is, of course, Caucasian. Pilate has a toga and a laurel-style eyeshade. The Temple priests - the quisling Klingons of their day - have exaggeratedly curled and perfumed beards; unctuous and unguent in one. And everyone observes the most important convention which renders this outlandish primitivism endlessly relevant: they speak Standard - RP even - English.

The cross is plywood - and anyway, a criminal from central casting, complete with standard-issue off-white dhoti, gets to carry the thing. The Way of the Cross is like any picturesque stroll through an ancient medina; the stations are spiritual time clocks; the crucifixion itself is mercifully televisual - when the sign is placed above his head with the dreaded ascription "King of the Jews", it's more in the manner of a title sequence than an abusive, cosmologically evil singularity.

To complete the teleplay, the garden of Gethsemane is just that, a municipal- cum-Olympian agglomeration of miniature cypresses, gravel paths and well- tended ornamental beds. The womenfolk, who are beautifully, cleanly attired in freshly laundered blue robes with white borders, arrive to make that epoch-creating discovery. Now, at this point in the gospels, it's easy for us cross-legged, nineteen sixties, late baby-boomer, Vietnam-as-TV- spectacle-witnessing kids to understand how it should be that the rock placed at the mouth of the tomb has been rolled to one side. Clearly, like all those bits of other worlds which are forever being hefted around by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, this alien stone is made from polystyrene, or foam rubber, or moulded plastic. Suffice it to say - even a flabby Kirk could've thrust it aside, and we know what a demigod he is.

Yes, I hate Easter, and the very movability of the feast makes it still more hateful - for I never know, in any year, when it will heave into view, freighted down with its groaning cargo of unpleasantness. It's not the Council of Nicaea which bothers me - although as a half-Jew with Catholic children from my first marriage I would seem purpose-built to respond to doctrinal disputations. Even that half-Jewishness requires some clarification - I mean, is it strictly possible to be half-Jewish?

The Jews might well claim me for their own, as my mother certainly was Jewish. But so intent was she on making her entire life a performance act of deracination, that I was uncircumcised, not bar mitzvahed, and only ever went to synagogue in my early teens, accompanying thoroughbred school friends in order to get in with them. On the other hand, my philosophically inclined, Anglican father - "I think of Jesus as a remarkable personality, rather like Plato" - did make a claim on my soul. I was christened - as was my brother before me - by the fantastically ancient vicar of All Saints, Hove, the Reverend Bickerstaff.

Throughout my childhood our father would take us two squealing, atheistically perverted (courtesy of my Jewish, anti-Semitic mother) brats, along to whatever empty, prayerful barn happened to be in our vicinity when either Christ's birthday or death day fell. What a thankless, graceless task it was for him. Try as he might to enthuse us with the sonorous beauties of the King James Bible, as declaimed by middle-class, middle-aged men in dresses, it was far too late. We had already been claimed by the split infinitives of Star Trek, were already preparing to boldly go into a world where ethics, so far from inhering in the very structure of the cosmos, was a matter of personal taste akin to a designer label, sewn into the inside lining of conscience.

My mother died at Easter. She who thought all religion was an out-and- out con, in that beautifully wiseacre fashion only a native New Yorker can achieve. She died in the Royal Ear Hospital of lung cancer - an irony which she might have appreciated, were it not for the fact that, in dying, my mother was fearful, alone, angry and devoid of any humour, no matter how black.

She had said to me a few weeks before her death: "The greatest thing about being a pessimist is that you're always starting off on the race of life with the understanding that you're bound to lose." Whether this was intended to give any comfort to either her or me I've no idea - since it certainly did neither. In the event, her pessimism was of no use anyway: she died utterly unconscious, shoved deep beneath the meniscus of sentience by barbiturates and opiates.

They had admitted her to the University College Hospital, where her oncologist was the consultant, but - wasn't it ever thus? - there were no beds available, and my brother and I had to follow her supine body as it was pushed through the subterranean passageways that connect this central London necropolis, until we rose up in a lift to the Royal Ear. This process was, on reflection, my mother's crucifixion: the cruel, iron trolley they wheeled her on was her secular cross; in place of the vinegar which was thrust into Christ's mouth by bystanders, nutriments were fed into Mother's arm via a transparent drip; and instead of the Roman legionnaire's sword, thrust into Mother's side were the increasing dosages of diamorphine which ensured that for all time she would remain dead.

In mourning my mother - whom I loved very deeply - I went through all the recognised stages of anger, denial and eventual acceptance. Like the disciples, in the days and weeks immediately succeeding her death I would see "fake" mothers wandering the streets of London much as she did in life. However, since neither of us believed remotely in the existence of personal immortality (and she in no kind of transcendence whatsoever), these visitations were mute and hazy. If Mother had felt driven to communicate anything to me from beyond the grave, it would doubtless have been a sardonic remark about the cost of her cremation.

As with so many of the most important and resonant facts about our lives, I have opted to block out the exact date in April when it was that we stood in the plastic cubicle and watched the mutant cells finally push mother out of her own head and into oblivion. So Easter is, for me, for the rest of my life, that time of the year when death comes to visit for a while. Western death: painless, medicalised, and about as ethical as a tooth extraction. It's a pity there are false messiahs - just the way that there are false teeth.

Yes, there will be no resurrection for Mother, just as there will be no resurrection for all the millions upon millions of dead souls that clutter this world of ours, like so much psychic lumber. Yes, they're gone - and they're not coming back.

So it is that I suppress my memory of the date my mother died and I never know the date upon which Easter is going to fall. As winter fades, a council quite as doctrinally hairsplitting as that of Nicaea begins its first convocation of the year.