The good news of Easter in the midst of the religion of consumption

At several moments in the past week, I have been reminded that Easter is no longer just a holy day for Christians.

  • This week’s edition of Waitrose Weekend, the free newspaper offered by the grocery store chain, lists “100 things to do this Easter.” On the list are such activities as make a robot, time for a spring clean, visit a beer festival, and get involved in the fun of a country fair. Not on the list: anything to do with attending church, marking the resurrection, or meditating on God’s great love for the world.
  • The grocery store Tesco had this new ad:
  • Last week, there was a kerfluffle when the National Trust changed the name of its annual Easter egg hunt to a “National Trust Egg Hunt” (which, incidentally, is one of the 100 things Waitrose thinks you should do over the long weekend). The Archbishop of York weighed in. The prime minister weighed in (rather incongruously from Saudi Arabia). Later in the week, I heard an interview on Radio 4 with an executive from Cadbury’s, the company that supplies the chocolate, who reassured the BBC reporter that “Easter will continue to be an important part of our marketing strategy.”

None of this is particularly surprising. In England, Easter falls in the midst of school holidays and a four-day weekend; families need things to do to fill the time. Ad-men are always looking for a new hook with which to flog their wares.

But the series of events was a reminder of how Christianity exists in a world of multiple faiths. We often talk about Islam or Judaism but rarely do we understand consumption as a faith. Yet that is precisely what it has become. It defines ethical norms (consume more) and sets the boundaries of our thought horizons (non-consumption is simply not an option).

And, as has happened many times in the past when different faiths interact, one is taking over the holy days and holy sites of the other. In the same way that the Christian feast of Christmas came to overwhelm the feast of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and in the same way that Christian missionaries once built churches on sites that had been sacred to existing religions, the religion of consumption (if we can call it that) is taking over Christian holy days. It’s easy to see how this has happened with Christmas. These recent events indicate the way in which it is true of Easter as well.

When that Cadbury’s executive said that “Easter will continue to be part of our marketing strategy,” I think he meant to reassure people who had protested at the exclusion of Easter. But I didn’t find it particularly reassuring. The trouble is that the deep-seated beliefs of the religion of consumption are diametrically opposite to the good news that is proclaimed on Easter day.

In the religion of consumption, you succeed by buying, acquiring, getting, claiming, and otherwise coming to possess things. One’s salvation, you could almost say, depends on what you have. The person who wins the (Easter) egg hunt is the one with the most eggs. Christian theology has a term for this: it’s called works righteousness and it’s the belief that what we do is what makes us right before God. In the religion of consumption, what we purchase and acquire is what makes us right within the framework of that system.

On Easter morning Christians proclaim that we are made right before God not because of anything that we can do but because of what Christ has done. God in Christ came into our midst—and we put him to death. Christ’s response was to rise from the dead and return to the very people who had denied him and say, “Peace be with you.” The good news of the gospel is that our efforts to make ourself right will always come to naught—but Christ’s work always will.

The religion of consumption (or whatever you want to call it) is exercising a greater and greater hold over society. But the vision of the good life that it offers will always be a mirage. By our own work, we will never be able to achieve it. That’s why the good news of Easter morning is so important. It is Christ who promises and delivers life abundant.

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