Seeking an Australian expression for Easter
Trinity College's Dr Gary Heard reflects on Easter's symbolism in Australia.
By Gary Heard
April 5 2020
The centrality of the Easter story to Christian faith is unarguable. The Christian faith and its key doctrines revolve around – and stem from – the Easter events, which by the time of the fourth century formed part of a liturgical cycle which brought into focus key events in our Lord’s life. The timing and nature of these events was established through reframing and reinterpreting existing pagan celebrations, with both the theology and liturgy clearly reflecting the northern hemisphere context.
For example, a key Christmas declaration from the prophet Isaiah – “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2) – carries power when uttered around the shortest day of the year, as in the northern hemisphere. The season of Lent derives its name from the Old English lencten – the lengthening days of spring, anticipating new life – which is expressed in the usual Easter symbols: eggs and rabbits – symbols of new life and of fertility, reflected in the changing spring landscape.
This does not reflect the Easter context in the southern hemisphere. As we prepare for Easter, the landscape around us is dying. Trees shed their leaves, the harvest is over and land is being cleared. Days are becoming shorter – radically so when Easter falls after daylight saving ends and darkness envelops the land much earlier. Easter in Australia inaugurates a season marked by days which are shorter, colder and somehow more alienating. We witness creation in throes of deconstruction: animals begin to hibernate, some birds spread their wings for warmer climes, many plants cease production, and deciduous trees shed their leaves, ultimately lending a sober and subdued, even dreary, hue to the landscape. While we welcome relief at the passing of scorching heat (this year especially, leaving last summer’s fires and smoke behind), there appears little to celebrate, little sign of the new life integral to the Easter story.
The Australian context has yet to find expression in Easter celebrations. As with borrowed Christmas symbols of snow and holly, our Easter observance strikes a discordant note with the landscape, creation somehow out of sync with the Creator. Unable to move the timing of Easter, we should search for themes and messages more consistent with creation’s voice. If an authentic and relevant spirituality reflects and shapes the rhythms of life, how can we ground the Christian message in experiences and symbols common to our setting, as it seems to have been practised by the early church? Is this possible with Easter?
To follow the events of Holy Week is to accept an invitation to ride an emotional roller coaster. Living as we do this side of the resurrection, it is easy to overlook the depth of pain, anguish and uncertainty which marked the journey which began with the Triumphal Entry. Jesus’ disciples evidently had no idea of what was about to unfold, given the strange decisions, denials and desertions which marked their response to the events. Holy Week is punctuated with visceral human responses which reflect the present experience of many in our communities today (does COVID-19 ring a bell?). A premature proclamation of the resurrection robs us of the opportunity to experience the full range of emotions and experiences in worship, and allow the word of hope to be born in the midst of painful realities.
Easter commemorations within the church too often reflect society’s broader reluctance to grapple with any sense of pain and loss. Rarely have I experienced a Good Friday service without hearing the resurrection proclaimed: a thought not echoing the experience of Jesus’ disciples, who were enveloped in despair as they watched Jesus die, the shadow deepened by their complicity in his death through denying or abandoning him. In Jesus’ death they watched their hope die. The dream Jesus instilled in them dissipated at the cross.
Yet this is rarely experienced in a Good Friday service. Jesus’ death too often seems trivialised against the backdrop of the resurrection, the disciples’ struggle and pain glossed over, their sense of loss dismissed. Standing on this side of the resurrection can make it difficult to appreciate the emptiness they felt, yet in the journey of faith we must endeavour to enter that same space.
Contemporary Easter celebrations risk overlooking how new life emerged. An all-pervading gloom marks the Easter story. Critical events occurred under cover of darkness: Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and trial, Peter’s denial; even Jesus’ death took place in darkness. We not only encounter the silence of Jesus in the face of his prosecutors, and the silence of those who might be expected to stand up for him, but, tellingly, God’s silence in response to Jesus’ own anguished cries in the Garden of Gethsemane. Resurrection hope emerged only through the despairing death of Jesus – the One we proclaim Son of God. Jesus’ disciples, Jewish leaders, and Roman authorities could not reconcile the two. Jesus’ death seemed conclusive evidence against his claims.
When our focus falls on the resurrection without contemplating the circumstances that made it necessary, we merely echo a motivational message that failure is not the end, simply an opportunity to learn and grow. Easter is no tale of persistence through tragedy. But for God raising Jesus from the dead, Jesus’ death was the end – the resurrection the sole source of light in an otherwise dark tale, and yet an overwhelming source of hope. Jesus’ death flowed from his submission to God’s purposes. In an act of obedience and surrender, Jesus embodied his teaching that the way to life was to lose it, surrendering to God’s purposes. Not seeking to preserve his own life for his own sake, Jesus surrendered it for a greater purpose.
Creation at autumn reflects that truth, as flora and fauna “die off”, a necessary prelude to spring growth. Symbols of death surround us: autumn leaves dancing their finale across the streets; lengthening sunsets and cooler evenings driving us into shelter earlier, just as much of the animal world retreats; the cries of summer birds slowly silenced; creation slows its pace. As winter dawns, and winter blues cast their shadow, we may despair of ever experiencing summer sun again. Yet this is part of creation’s rhythm, clearing away the old in preparation for the new. Only as these sights and sounds die can they be born afresh.
New life – springtime – stands only as promise, just as resurrection was Jesus’ promise to the disciples, just as new life is promise to all who would follow Jesus. Born out of death, resurrected from the demise of the present, new life comes. It is a way to life few choose, preferring to trust in their own strength than to surrender into the hands of another, to hold on rather than let go. To truly live, we must be prepared to die.
Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, held as a political prisoner as a consequence of his criticisms of the Soviet Union, was forced to work 12 hours hard labour each day. He lost his family and was told by doctors that he had terminal cancer. One day in despair, he dropped to the ground and thought to himself, “There is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.” In that moment, feeling a presence next to him, he looked up, seeing an old man standing before him, who took a stick and drew a cross in the ground, reminding Solzhenitsyn that there was a power greater than the empire which imprisoned him. A power which could bring new life in the depths of despair. Solzhenitsyn then picked up his shovel and continued working, his hope renewed. Unexpectedly released from prison in the following year Solzhenitsyn went to live in the United States.
Easter turns despair into hope.
The power of the resurrection emerges through the deepest of emotions. Through depths of despair, through anxiety, through pain of failure, through disappointment. When all seems lost, the resurrection breaks through, triumphing at the moment where it is least expected.
At Eastertime in Australia, spring remains a promise which lies beyond the cold, dark, alienating experience of winter. If we rob our communities of the depth of pain which Good Friday brings, and the emptiness and despair which Holy Saturday embodies, we also rob them of the power of the resurrection, and the transforming hope it depicts and declares for all who would trust in Jesus.
The Revd Dr Gary Heard is Academic Dean, Trinity College Theological School, and senior lecturer in Pastoral Studies
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA)