We went to the gym last weekend (Easter Saturday morning); I hope everyone is impressed. Oh alright, to be brutally honest, after swiping our cards and going inside, we sat down at the coffee shop to enjoy a healthy breakfast. What weights? What treadmill?
While enjoying the fare we heard the folk at the next table talking about religion, and bits of their conversation drifted over to us. “You know what they say,” one of them joked. “Jesus saves, but Moses headed it in on the rebound.” (I wondered whether it would become more profound, or was that it?)
“Religion’s a good thing I suppose,” said one. “Especially for those who are dying; it helps people get ready.” (Well, it wasn’t much, but it was better than the joke.)
“Yes, that’s true,” another one added. “But really, I don’t believe all this Christianity. I mean, Christ wasn’t really born on 25 December. That was just a pagan festival. The people who invented Christianity decided to use it because it would get more people involved.” (That’s what he said: “Invented”.)
“Ja,” another one agreed. “Easter too, with those Easter eggs. It’s all part of a fertility cult that the Christians have taken over. It’s not Christian.”
On the same day a man was quoted in a vox pop conducted by The Witness. “I do not celebrate Easter, neither do I associate myself with anything that has to do with this holiday. I’m a Christian and don’t believe that it has anything to with Christ.”
Well, however cynical it all sounds, all of them have got it right; but they have also, sadly, got it spectacularly wrong. Of course we don’t know when Jesus was born; we could use any day of the year. It’s not the day that matters, or what other people do with it; it’s what we do with it. Whether it’s on that day or another, we celebrate with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and to earth peace and goodwill to all humanity.” Immanuel, God with us. That’s something to sing about. That’s something to be excited about.
There are those touched by Christianity who refuse to celebrate Christmas. For some it’s a theological rejection of the humanity of Jesus, but that’s a topic for a different time. Others refuse to celebrate Christmas and Easter because they have been commercialised. But that means they have thrown out the Babe of Bethlehem with the bathwater of commercialisation. How sad to allow the world to dictate what we will hold on to and what we will discard. If the world misinterprets or misappropriates part of our faith, must we jettison it? In that case, instead of confidently proclaiming our faith, we are constantly looking over our shoulders, and we end up with a cut-and-paste set of beliefs pretty meaningless to everyone, including ourselves.
I have absolutely no theological or religious reason for eating hot cross buns. I eat them because I like the taste, and I love the tradition of eating them after service on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday morning just after a sunrise service. On the other hand I don’t eat Easter eggs as a rule. But again there is no theological reason. I simply like chocolate too much to spend money on a hollow shell made from poor-quality chocolate. Of course, if you insist on buying me a Lindt bunny (or reindeer) you will find me most gracious and appreciative.
But do Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, or a white-haired old man in a red coat, define our faith? Are they even peripheral to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Of course not. Yes, the commercial word has muscled in; that’s what it does. But that’s got nothing to do with us and our faith, or with how we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, or with how we share the Good News with the world.
What happened that first Christmas and that first Holy Week goes way beyond such trifles. And it is far greater than our celebration of it in any form. I also have news for my neighbours at the gym: it goes way beyond preparing us for death. It is not about death, although a death is at the heart of it, but about life. God has always participated in history not to prepare us for death but to prepare us for life—life in all its fullness.
When we as Christians bicker about Halaal stickers on “our” hot cross buns, or when they should be eaten, or whether people of other faiths should be allowed to have Christmas Day off work, we cheapen our faith, and we give the impression to a cynical world that faith is trivial and has no real meaning for life.
When we spend more time quarrelling about the “right” way to worship than we do reaching out to a broken world, when we spend our time pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others, criticising and condemning instead of encouraging, we engage in activities that lead to death rather than life.
In our worship and celebration, in our ceremonies and traditions, let us never forget that it’s about life not death, and that the focus is on God and not on our limited understanding of him. Let’s put aside those things that hinder our relationship with God or our relationships with others, or that make it difficult for others to relate to God. If they are too precious to put aside then let us at least ensure that in the way we live and the way we celebrate we keep the focus on Jesus, and not on the mere elements of our celebration.