Leading Article: Despair, defeat, then hope

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The Independent Online
WHAT would it mean to observe Easter? Christmas is now the only Christian festival that everyone in the country observes one way or another, even when they believe the underlying story untrue. Easter, by contrast, is a long bank holiday, in which Easter Monday is far more devoutly observed than Good Friday.

None the less, at least five million people will attend Easter services. If religion were to be a matter purely for the religious, it would still matter to a very large minority of the population. The trouble is that religion cannot happily remain a preoccupation only of the religious. There are elements in the Easter story that British society would be richer for.

At Christmas, the elements of the story appeal to common human experience. Most people would want them to be true: at its simplest, they would agree the birth of a child should be a cause for rejoicing. They would also want to celebrate a festival of warmth and light and fellowship in the encircling winter. In so far as these elements are also part of Christian joy, even office parties - or at least some office parties - can be said to celebrate the religious festival of Christmas even if they are not celebrating all of it.

There is no point, at Christmas, in trying to disentangle the sacred from the profane: all sorts of banal activities seem lit up with ritual worth, so that they illuminate and are illuminated by important truths. That is what the observance of a festival means: it is to take part in a drama.

Easter is different. The nearest approach to a resurrection in popular imagination would be a sporting miracle. The resurrection that Christians celebrate is rather more unlikely. And it seems to have few parallels in anyone's daily life. The British climate may partly explain this. Here, winter is not so awful as to make us long for spring, or to feel reborn when it does arrive.

Another hindrance is cultural. The ideas of rebirth and renewal are not those to which the British are naturally drawn. Enthusiasts who felt that such a thing was necessary were welcome to emigrate to America, which still retains a faith in the necessity of hope. In Britain, the virtues most prized are stoic ones such as courage in adversity: the prospect of an end to all adversity is not trusted. This is especially true now in the midst of a recession brought about by politicians pretending that we could make a wholly new start with none of our old problems.

Yet to live in a society based wholly on the stoic virtues would be rather like suffering incurable and eventually fatal toothache. Without hope, both faith and charity will wither. If Easter were to be observed, it would be as a festival of hope, and of celebration for all the hopes that are fulfilled in even the plainest lives.

The churches do little at present to make this possible. Their rearguard action to defend Good Friday is understandable and even necessary: it does say a great deal about the nature of British society that, despite the churches' protests, the Premier League should schedule a football match to clash with Good Friday services, after pressure from the satellite television channel that owns the rights to the game. But it hardly says anything new about the country.

If the established religion of the country is proving as fragile as an empty husk, the answer is not to preserve it in a glass case but to fill it with new life. A special place for Good Friday will be more or less slowly eroded for so long as religion is seen as a minority pursuit that gets its adherents incomprehensibly excited - rather like football, in fact. There is a parallel here with the campaign against Sunday trading. So long as the churches appear to be primarily in the business of preventing other people from going about their licit business, their campaigns will fail. The real problem for religion in this country is not that people go shopping on Sunday afternoons but that they do not go to churches on Sunday mornings. Good Friday can only be kept as a beachhead for the holy if it is supplied from a firm base in Easter Day observance.

This will not happen by itself. Only if the Christian stories are understood to be explaining common human experience and emotion, as they are at Christmas, can Easter be kept as a spiritual festival. But there is little in the current Easter rituals of the churches to suppose that the necessary rejuvenation will take place. The tradition that makes the greatest impact on the outside world is the annual dispute among clergy over whether the Resurrection really happened, and what it would mean to believe that it really did. This has a doubly unfortunate effect. First, there is the impression that to be religious you must choose between correct stupidity and dangerous common sense. Second, it concentrates attention on a dispute over historical fact, and makes this fact seem very strange and far off, even if true.

But, as reported in the Gospels, the behaviour of Jesus after his resurrection was remarkable largely for the quotidian and immediate details. It is not the Ascension into the sky wrapped in cloud that is remarkable: that is how a hallucination should behave. Wish fulfilments, however, are not meant to eat broiled fish even, perhaps especially, when they can appear in a room of which the doors are locked. The Resurrection that the disciples observed was an extraordinarily difficult event to assimilate into everyday life, but it was also an event that could not be detached from real life. That is the connection which the churches fail to make.

Despair, crushing defeat, and then a new hope which was only made possible by the preceding disaster are the essential elements of the Easter story. They are not confined to Christians. In fact, they will be found at the heart of almost any autobiography worth reading. In one sense, then, Easter may be observed by anyone. The problem for the churches is to establish this pattern, and the Easter story, in the popular imagination as part of the underlying reality of the world. It can not be done cheaply. The message is not one of simple triumph over the odds, for the preceding death must be real for the resurrection to take place. But the world may be ready to listen: after all, the market for hope is hardly likely to diminish as the millennium draws to a bloody close.