Now that it’s Easter I’m going to turn on some happy Easter music! I told my kids when we got in the car. Gabriel’s Oboe came on first, followed by Morning Has Broken. In response to each of these songs my five-year-old remarked, but Mommy, those songs sound sad.
We then launched in to a long conversation about bittersweetness and happy tears, questioning whether or not all happy tears are a little bit sad and so maybe that’s why we cry them. How a second “morning” brings with it joy, but also the sorrow that the “first morning” ever came to an end. Jesus rose, but Jesus also had to die.
Why did Jesus have to die?
The prayers at the beginning of Easter Vigil famously reference our “happy fault”. And this has always sounded to me like child’s play. A skinned knee. A little mistake. Would Mary call it a “happy fault?” Her son mocked and scourged and hung upon a cross? What about the mothers of the Holy Innocents? What about Eve, the mother of murderer Cain and murdered Abel? What about the mothers of all the innocents today? Wounded mercilessly by our “happy fault?”
I do not protest the phrase. But I believe it is one that only the saints can fully comprehend. It ought to make us bristle a little, us wayfaring strangers upon the Earth. The “happy fault” cannot be brushed off easily. We cannot forget Good Friday and we shouldn’t.
And maybe this is why it can be so difficult for Christians to celebrate Easter well. We know that Easter, technically, is our most important feast. But Christmas just seems so much easier. We can blame the culture all we want, we can blame the culture for preferring Christmas over Easter. But the reason they ever preferred Christmas is the same reason that we do. It is much easier to celebrate the birth of a man—whether that man is God or a great prophet and teacher— easier to celebrate His birth and the sweet peculiarities of it than it is to celebrate His brutal death and incredible resurrection. Easier for the secularists. But also easier for the Christian. Christmas is tangible. Indeed, it is the very concept of tangibility at its greatest and highest. God becoming tangible. We can celebrate Christmas easily because God purposely made it easy. He became small so that we could hold Him. He became poor and helpless so that we could help Him. Christmas is relatively simple to understand. Of course, its simplicity does nothing to take away from its beauty and goodness. But it is simple. I have now experienced four Christmases through the eyes of 1-2 year olds. They hold the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene and their eyes light up. They understand quickly and readily.
Easter? Not so much. Easter is not simple. Or, perhaps it is simple but it is simple in the way that the sun’s light is simple. We cannot easily look at it or perceive how it works. And when we try, we find that it hurts our eyes.
Certainly, many of us feel joy on Easter. But I do wonder if that joy often coincides simply and directly with our Lenten fast. Do we really feel what the apostles must have felt like on Easter Sunday? Without mystical intervention is it even possible? On Christmas, I can sort of feel what Mary and Joseph and the shepherds felt. I have held newborn babies. I have felt cold, but cozy. Scared, but hopeful. I have felt light in darkness. Easter is not light in darkness. Easter is light overcoming darkness entirely. Easter seems like it should be the final chapter.
And yet, it is not. Easter is followed by the Ascension. Christians celebrate the Ascension as a joyful feast. But for the apostles it was not exactly so. The Ascension might as well have been another death. Their friend and father and God going away, never to be seen on Earth again. And while Pentecost does follow the Ascension, after Pentecost come persecutions grave and terrible. And years follow with that same “happy fault” working its destruction upon us, sometimes almost as if He never came at all.
Easter is not the final chapter. Easter is the prelude to the final chapter. A glimpse at what the final chapter will be like. But we aren’t at the final chapter yet. And so it is, indeed, bittersweet.
So what are we to do with Easter? There is a tendency to think we should just do similar things to what we do on Christmas. And this is all fine and good— bonfires, egg hunts, lavish feasts— we should put our best efforts into celebrating! But at the end of the day, the Easter Bunny has nothing on Santa Claus and everybody knows that. No, Easter cannot just be another Christmas. In fact, Easter is, in some ways, totally opposite to Christmas. It is not childlike. It is very grand and solemn and serious. It is not something that plays upon the heartstrings of nostalgia and innocence. No. It plays upon something far deeper and harder to reach. If Christmas is a kind of looking back, Easter is a kind of looking forward. If Christmas evokes memories, Easter evokes the imagination. Christmas requires very little of our intellect. Easter requires much more.
We cannot feel what the apostles felt. But we can imagine it. We can imagine it each day. Each day of Easter, or each day of our lives, we can take a moment, close our eyes, and imagine that moment in the garden. And then we can imagine the moment in Heaven; we can imagine the future, when all the blessed will be brought in to a heavenly garden. By imagining, by closing our eyes, we can behold the piercing light. We can see beyond the “happy fault.”
Now, that is not something that is easy to explain to toddlers. And the Easter equivalent of Nativity scenes does not seem to have taken off. But maybe it’s better not to try to explain too much.
After my five-year-old and I finished our conversation I wasn’t sure he fully understood or, rather, that I fully understood. So I told him it was something that was kind of hard to understand, this happiness and sadness intermingled, but, the song is still beautiful, don’t you think?
Yes. He agreed. So we kept listening.