CHILDREN, American ones anyway, have little doubt about who and what is being celebrated today. They know the Easter story of the inspirational figure, shining in his generosity, who roams the earth performing miracles then all too quickly disappears, leaving behind palpable symbols of his presence, symbols which - in the ritual ceremony of Easter Sunday - we take and eat. That's right, the Easter Bunny.
They may feel they are swimming against a tide of Disneyfication and Coca-Cola ads, but the childlike faithful of the Christian church have little doubt, either. They will have been in church on Good Friday. They will be in church again today. It is a far more resonant time of year for them than Christmas - "a rollercoaster" one of my oldest friends, a vicar, calls it. And when I think of the extraordinary drama and frantic cartoon pace of Holy Week, I see what she means: the tethered colt, the strewn palms, the supper in the upper room, Judas Iscariot's betraying kiss, Peter's triple denial, the crown of thorns, the sponge of vinegar, the stone in the mouth of the sepulchre, the empty linen cloths of the risen Lord - few narratives of the past 2,000 years can compete with this.
But whatever potency that narrative has, its impact in a secular age is steadily diminishing. The churches will be busier today, as they were at Christmas. But next week, and the week after that, they'll be a little emptier than they were a year ago. There are success stories, evangelical movements like that at Holy Trinity, Brompton Road. There's the possibility that Tony Blair, the churchiest Prime Minister this century, might make organised worship catch on as a Thing People Do in Cool Britannia. But for the moment, the CofE story remains one of a slow decline. Even Easter can't disguise it. The Rabbit is bigger news than the Redeemer.
You can see this from Easter cards, fewer than 10 per cent of which, so the Church Times reported last week, have a religious motif: the vast majority feature cuddly lambs, cutesy bunnies or fluffy chicks. Never having sent or received one, and not knowing anyone else who has either, I was amazed to learn that more cards are posted at Easter (an estimated 16 million this year) than on Mothering Sunday (12 million) or Valentine's Day (11 million).
What shocked the Church Times, though, was that the card designs are so resolutely secular and their words have more to do with sexual love than divine: "For my Boyfriend, the One I Love", runs one Carlton Card greeting, "I never realised that one person could light up my whole world until I saw you smile. I never knew that I could love someone so deeply, completely and endlessly - until I fell in love with you. Happy Easter."
In an earlier age, you could imagine this being banned as sacrilegious. Even in ours, Carlton would probably draw the line at "Happy Easter to my Favourite Bonking Bunny". But with big bucks to be made out of the Passion, every commercial avenue must be explored. Next year's Easter novelty will no doubt be Emu Eggs, the ground shells of which are allegedly a powerful aphrodisiac. Wildlife parks in need of revenue take note.
As an agnostic-going-on-atheist, I'm not sure how much to care about all this. Last month, I stopped by the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, believed by some to be the sepulchre and garden of Joseph of Arimathea, who took Jesus's body, "wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock". It's a delightfully maintained cottage garden right by the Damascus Gate, a little piece of England in the Middle East, where coachloads of tourist-pilgrims gather to peer at their Golgotha. But standing inside the tomb left me cold. If this was the place, I didn't recognise it. As the happy bands of pilgrims there burst into hymns of praise, I found it hard not to see that hollowed rock as evidence of something else: the emptiness at the heart of all religion.
Yet some small part of me will feel uncomfortable today, not going to church. Intellectual conviction might make me keep my distance, but a different rhythm will work against it. This rhythm doesn't necessarily mean anything grandiose, "the impulse to believe", say, or "the need to belong". It might just mean a fancy to stand among other people and sing. Philip Larkin famously described his fondness for visiting churches once he was sure there was "nothing going on" inside. But others are drawn to churches against their better judgment simply to croon to the accompaniment of a wheezy organ.
No doubt this instinct of mine is quite untypical. From the age of eight to 14, for social reasons not religious ones, I spent every Sunday in a village church, singing hymns in the choir with my mates. Even to me, it seems like something from another century now, a scene out of a Thomas Hardy novel, though it happened in the decade of the Beatles and Vietnam. If I'd grown up in a town or city, I'd have found other ways of seeing my friends on Sunday. And if I'd grown up in the same village now (as my niece and nephew are doing), I'd have found something more interesting to do of a Sunday. But that was there and that was then and it left its watermark.
You don't have to have had a religious upbringing, though, to recognise the importance of Easter on the calendar. The Church doesn't help by varying the date from year to year, but there's a seasonal imperative to it: the end of winter austerities, the coming of spring. Daffodils, celandines, bluebells, primroses; wisps of nesting material in the beaks of songbirds; pussy willow down lanes; mower-blades clogged with the first mushy grass- cut; thrush's eggs (as Gerald Manley Hopkins saw them) like "little low heavens"; the globe of a raindrop on a tulip blade - it is the season of nature's lushest poetry.
Perhaps the deeper problem of Easter - deeper, that is, than the problem of it ceasing to be a religious occasion - is that these seasonal rhythms are less potent than they were. In towns and cities (where most of us live now), the seasons scarcely impinge. And in the country, agribusiness has disrupted the old farming cycles of sowing and reaping, lambing and shearing. We no longer have to wait till May for asparagus or till June for strawberries. Hot Cross buns are on sale all the year round - Cadbury's cream eggs, too. I'm not complaining. But the old habits of deferred seasonal gratification are gone. Even the climate seems to be conspiring with this: after the mildest February for donkey's years, there's no sense, in 1998, of coming out of a hard winter. There have been ants in my kitchen (normally only a summer phenomenon) for the past month.
Perhaps it's precisely because of these shifts and counter-pressures that we need a ceremony to mark the official arrival of spring. Easter may be a Christian festival, but it's also a pagan rite of hope and rebirth, of yeastiness and rising sap. Acknowledging it, we also acknowledge our ancestors, for whom seasonal changes weren't something casually glimpsed from a car or train but a whole way of living and being. Going to church is one kind of springtime observance; eating chocolate is another. How we do it doesn't matter. But the rhythms of the season demand that we do something, and we should.
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