Unlike Christmas, Easter doesn’t have a crazed shopping season preceding it. It doesn’t have its own tree. It doesn’t spawn wild office parties. It doesn’t boast its own annual TV specials for kids. It doesn’t spawn new albums from pop stars. It doesn’t prompt people to send out boatloads of cards to friends they haven’t seen all year. It doesn’t have its own sweaters. It isn’t the date that many children (and adults) anticipate all year. It doesn’t have dozens of songs beloved by even those who don’t celebrate the holiday. It doesn’t even have its own set date.
But in the eyes of most Christians, Easter is a more important holiday than Christmas.
On December 25, Christians celebrate the “Incarnation.” In the birth of Jesus, God became human, or “incarnate.” That’s a miracle if there ever was one. Jesus’s birth changed the way that people relate to God. Rather than seeing God as some far-off, distant, unapproachable being, even some abstract philosophical or theological concept, removed from time and place, God was now firmly in the world, inserted into human history. “The scandal of particularity,” is how some theologians refer to this. The idea that God became a particular person in a particular town in a particular year is still shocking. Things changed with Christmas.
But everything changed with Easter.
Easter changed everything for the followers of Jesus. The Resurrection revealed for anyone who may have doubted, even after seeing him perform all sorts of miracles, who the itinerant carpenter from Nazareth really was. It showed that, truly, “Nothing is impossible for God.” And it offered a preview of the kind of life that awaits all who believe in him.
I’ve always loved thinking about how, after Easter Sunday, the disciples’ abject fear turns into gobsmacked amazement and then into lasting courage. You could say that this is one of the most inadvertent “proofs” of the Resurrection: the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the disciples.
Remember that on Good Friday, after Jesus was executed, his great project seemed to have come to an undeniable close. And though believers today know how the story ends, the horrified disciples did not. The day after the crucifixion, they were cowering behind closed doors, dejected over the apparent failure and shameful death of their teacher, and terrified of being arrested and perhaps being killed themselves. It’s a natural reaction: their leader has been hunted down, tortured and crucified; the apostles likely feared that they were next.
But after Easter Sunday, they suddenly become bold proclaimers of the Gospel, ready and willing to stake their lives on the truth of what they know and believe.
What can possibly account for such dramatic change? To my mind, only something as vivid, as tangible, as clear, as real, as a physical encounter with the risen Christ. Sometimes you’ll hear people suggest that the Resurrection was really just the disciples “remembering” Jesus and together deciding to spread his message. One theologian told me that this idea of the “shared memory” was the only credible way of explaining this to a modern world.
But to me that isn’t credible at all. Only something as undeniably real as the appearance of the risen Christ standing before them could account for transforming terrified men and women into fearless apostles–some of whom would ultimately die for what they had experienced.
You need something dramatic to change people like that.
Easter changes everything for Christians today, too. We know that life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than hatred. Hope is stronger than despair. We know that Christ is risen, and is with us. We know how much God loves us. We know what it means to “die to oneself” and to experience new life-even in small ways in our daily lives. We know that the promise of eternal life is real, because we know of those who have seen the real fulfillment of that promise.
And we know that nothing is ever beyond the power of God’s grace.
So keep the cards, and the trees, and the office parties, and the TV specials, and the sweaters, and the celebrity albums, and the shopping season, and even the gifts. Keep all that. Just give me Easter.
Give me Easter, the day that gives meaning to all of my days.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” “My Life with the Saints,” and his newest book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Christian Life.”