21 July 2024


Our proper Easter feasting is a service to the soul

Mark R. Lindsay 

6 April 2024

This year, the entire month of April falls within Eastertide, that period of 50 days that stretches from the Easter Day feast of our Lord’s resurrection, to the exuberant joy of Pentecost. If the whole of March this year was devoted to Lenten solemnity, then the whole of April is devoted to feasting, not fasting. Indeed, Tertullian – that wonderfully enigmatic Christian apologist of the late second century – insisted that fasting, and even kneeling in worship, were to be expressly forbidden for the entire period between Easter and Pentecost, such was his devotion to the celebratory nature of the season. Slightly more than a century later, Athanasius of Alexandria echoed Tertullian’s injunction, urging Christians to “rejoice and be glad” for the entire “seven weeks [from Easter] to Pentecost”. 

Such indeed may be wise and appropriate counsel. As the Gloria rings out again during the Easter Vigil – sung for the first time since the start of Lent – it heralds the joyful proclamation of the resurrection, and ushers us into a time of grateful celebration. Why would we want to deprive ourselves of such a season, or foreshorten it by even a day? What more counter-cultural thing can we as Christians do, than to celebrate and rejoice in the risen Christ in spite of all that surrounds us in the world? What greater expression of our scandalously foolish faith, as St Paul would have it, than to refuse the culture of death and suffering that is so daily and visibly evident? 

Read more: A service with the sound of that first Pentecost

And yet, in doing so, do we not also run the risk of relishing in a certain cognitive dissonance?  

By feasting and rejoicing in the light of Christ’s resurrection, but equally in the shadow of our contemporary tragedies, do we risk appearing hopelessly out of touch with the world in which we live? As Canadian theologian Philip Ziegler has recently reminded us, the extent of present-day evil and suffering is such that it could be plausibly (though not Christianly) surmised that God has abandoned the world, and left it in Satan’s power. Poet David Adams Richards has similarly noted that, if we are honest about our past, we must admit that we live “in a world where evil sparkles”. We recognise unimaginable suffering – one thinks of Gaza, but also of Kiev and Haiti, as well as of the non-human earthly life that is being daily suffocated to extinction through humanity’s over-consumption of the world’s resources. So, does it not seem dissonant to spend seven weeks in a festive celebration of life’s triumph over death? Might our “foolish faith” be viewed not merely as risible, but as recklessly callous – indifferent, even, to the plight of our time? 

This, of course, is neither a new phenomenon, nor a new risk. Christians throughout the centuries have routinely been criticised for so gazing on the heavenly hereafter that we are assumed to be wilfully ignorant – or worse, dismissive – of the troubles of this world. Taking seriously those scriptural commands to set our minds on heavenly things (Colossians 3), we have been frequently judged for not caring sufficiently about earthly things. And to our shame, the accusations have not always been misplaced. Surely this is not the sort of celebratory feasting that Eastertide enjoins? Surely, if our Christian hope in life after death refuses the reality of the death out of which our new life emerges, it is not really a Christian hope?  

Read more: Jesus’ resurrection widely believed even as religious identity wanes: survey

Perhaps we might turn again to Athanasius for assistance. For in the very festal letters in which he urges his readers to “keep the great [Easter] feast” for those full seven weeks, he also admonishes them to “remember the poor, and show kindness to strangers”. Indeed, throughout the Easter letters that Athanasius wrote over the 45 years of his episcopacy, there is an acknowledgment of pain and suffering, trial and trauma, that afflicts both Christian and non-Christian alike. To put it otherwise, his is not a resurrection faith that feasts and rejoices in a present reality of vanquished evil. It is not a resurrection faith that turns a blind eye to the ever-present tragedies that beset our lives, as though our Easter celebrations desensitise us to, or inoculate us against, those sufferings. On the contrary, it is a resurrection faith that acknowledges that our hope in evil’s defeat is eschatological, not contemporarily historical. Never doubting Christ’s triumph, nor does Athanasius presume a sudden disappearance of tragedy and trauma. 

Rather, he calls us to “keep the feast” in a way that is appropriate to the truth of what we remember and live by. Unlike those who think that feasting “is in the abundance of food” Athanasius reminds us that our proper Easter feasting is “a service of the soul”, in which we “persevere in virtuous conduct, repenting as is our duty, of all that [and who] we have neglected…” 

Read more: This Easter I see Jesus, I pray my family will as well

There is a sombre recognition in Athanasius’s Easter letters that our Eastertide joy at Christ’s resurrection – and our consequent joy that we now also live in and through his risen life – is not a denial of this present world, but a deep commitment to it, in all of its pain and suffering. As the German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, 1600 years after Athanasius, “In the resurrection, we acknowledge that God has not given up on the earth but has personally won it back…Thus, those who affirm the resurrection of Christ in faith can no longer flee the world…” 

Our Eastertide feast is indeed and rightly should be a time of celebration and joy. But it is so as a deep and holy embedding of ourselves in the painful realities of this present world, and not as a cognitively dissonant indifference to them. Only when our celebration of Christ’s resurrection from death takes as seriously the death as it does the new life, is it really a Christian hope, and a Christian celebration. 

The Reverend Professor Mark R. Lindsay is Joan Munro Professor of Historical Theology and deputy and academic dean at Trinity College Theological School

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