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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The resurrection: unsettling the world

SeeTheGraveIsEmpty-Easter
I was in a conversation recently in which the phrase “the joy of Easter” was repeatedly used. This is a joyous time of year, I was told, and our worship must reflect that. Indeed, the Bible tells us, some of Jesus’ followers were filled with joy when they heard of his resurrection.

In church this morning we read the resurrection account from the Gospel of Mark. It has another emotion: fear. When the three women going to anoint Jesus’ body find an empty tomb instead, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid.” The passage—and indeed the entire gospel, in its original form—ends with a most remarkable verse: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were very afraid.” (16.8)

Fear, terror—those don’t sound like “proper” Easter emotions to me. Most Easter services don’t end with everyone running away in terror. Why not?

One difference is that we have it figured out. I don’t mean we have all the answers but we can at least tell a story about why the resurrection happened. Christ died, is raised, our sins are forgiven, and a way to new life is shown. When we mark Good Friday, we already know how the story is going to end.

But what would our Easter look like if we could set aside our tidy retrospective interpretations of Easter morning and put ourselves there with those women on that first Easter morning? All their certainties and right answers were upended first when Jesus was crucified and now, again, in the most remarkable way in the early morning hours. Can we just sit with them at the frighteningly empty tomb?

We live in a world that prizes certainty and certitude. I know this in my own life because I know how uncomfortable I get when I don’t have an answer for everything. But if I let myself sit at the empty tomb with these women, all my opinions, answers, and expectations are challenged and upended. And when I’m left without answers, without certainty as to what I think I thought I knew, I’m left fearful and afraid.

To say that there is great joy in Easter is true. But that’s a retrospective evaluation that lets us off the hook without the unsettling experience of discovering the empty tomb.

Although we prize easy answers and certitude in our world, it’s clear that a lot of the answers we are living with are wrong. The world needs to be unsettled. The church itself needs to be unsettled.

But before any of that can happen, I need to be unsettled—and that happens when I bring myself back to that initial moment of discovery at the empty tomb and admit my expectations may not be fulfilled and my answers may not be the right ones.

What in your life—not the church’s life, the world’s life, someone else’s life, but your life—needs unsettling and shaking up? What expectations of ours will not be fulfilled? Can you—can I—live here and now without an adequate explanation for how things will work out?

To start asking these questions might be to begin to let the paschal mystery work its way into our being—to be the Easter people we are called to be.

The secret to changing the world—all is revealed in the Great Vigil of Easter

If you’re like me, there are lots of things about the world you’d like to see change. I’d like to live in a world that pays less attention to the latest pseudo-celebrity and more to the lives of the poor and marginalized. I’d like to live in a world in which free speech means all voices have an equal chance to be heard, not just those with the most money behind them. I’d like to live in a less violent world, in which the escalating proliferation of weapons can be reversed. The list, of course, goes on and on.

The Christian faith constantly holds forth a vision of a different world in its central sacrament, the Eucharist. When Christians gather to remember the Last Supper, they enact a vision of world in which neighbours actively practice reconciliation with one another, all share with one another what the Lord has blessed them with, and all are ultimately dependent on the forgiving grace of God. On Thursday evening, as Christians remembered the first time this meal was celebrated and heard afresh the commandment to love as we have been loved, we were saying, in effect, “This is the kind of world we want to belong to.”

You don’t need me to tell you that it takes a lot more than good intentions to bring that world about. That’s what Good Friday is about, that time when Christians say, “This is the kind of world we live in,” a world in which God can come to earth in grace and love and be rejected, despised, and scorned. When the love of God comes in contact with the ways of the world, the result is the cross.

But there is another message of Good Friday: somehow, I am complicit in all this. On Palm Sunday, the congregation sings—as the people of Jerusalem once did—”Hosannah to the Son of David.” On Good Friday, that same congregation continues in the role of the people of Jerusalem during the reading of the Passion, only this time they say, “Crucify him!” We hold back the world from attaining that vision held forth in the Eucharist.Various

And so we come to the Great Vigil of Easter, a service that begins in darkness on Saturday evening. It is the darkness that follows the death of Good Friday, the darkness of a world in which the Eucharistic vision of a transformed world no longer seems possible. And in this service, Christians express the very heart of their faith. We say, “Another world is possible—and we know how to get there.”

The key is in the act that is at the centre of the Vigil: baptism. In baptism, we die the death of Christ, dying to our selves, our brokenness, our ideologies that disfigure the world. And then we are raised to new life with Christ, free from our past and able to live lives shaped by the same grace, mercy, and truth that shaped Christ’s life. Renewed in baptism, we celebrate the Eucharist, proclaiming afresh, “This is the kind of world we want to belong to.” As baptized Christians, we make this affirmation with a new piece of knowledge: in order for the world to change, each one of us needs to change.

The liturgy of the church enacts a particular kind of understanding, a unique way of looking at the world. I’ve been a baptized Christian virtually my entire life and I’ve spent virtually my entire life learning in one way or another all the ways in which I still need to die to myself and be raised anew with Christ. The sacraments aren’t magic. Rather, they are signs of the grace with which, by faith, Christians keep moving towards a new world. But that’s why we need to keep coming back to our Christian communities, keep celebrating the sacraments, keep reminding ourselves of what is possible, keep reminding ourselves of how to get there, and keep inviting others to share in this transformed life. The Christian answer to the problems of the world is not a quick fix but the journey of a lifetime.

Baptism and Eucharist are intimately connected. As we celebrate the risen Christ, we see that connection, see how our world needs to change, and see how, as forgiven, redeemed, and transformed people, we can move towards that new world.

Christ is Risen. May we share in that risen life.

Crucifixion in Abuja, Nigeria

On this day, Good Friday, Christians commemorate one moment of crucifixion two thousand years ago—but we also reflect on all the other moments of crucifixion that continue to take place in our world even today.

One moment of crucifixion this week was the bombing of a bus station and market outside Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It is a moment of crucifixion whenever innocent people are killed, whenever violence tears apart our societies and brings grief and suffering in its wake. When I saw this picture, I thought of the women with Jesus at the cross reacting to his death sentence and execution.

I was in Nigeria in June 2011 when a similar bombing happened at Nigeria’s police headquarters in Abuja. I was well away from Abuja but what I remember so clearly about that time was how on edge everyone was afterwards. It’s understandable. These kinds of killings make us question what we think we know about our safety and security.

I particularly remember all the rumours I heard in church on the Sunday after the 2011 bombing. One rumour in particular was making everyone nervous: Boko Haram, the Islamist group thought to be behind the attacks, had tried but failed to bomb a church in the town of Enugu, not far north from where I was. Not only for me, but for everyone else, this brought the terror home in a deeply personal way: was our church next? Would we be the next victims? And if not us, what about friends and relatives at other churches in the region? I never actually learned if the the rumour of what had happened at Enugu had any truth to it but it had clearly done its job: everyone was on edge.

An environment like this, so shaped by such pervasive insecurity, shapes one’s approach to the gospel and to church. Some months back, when a Nigerian archbishop was kidnapped, I posted an excerpt of my book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, that reflects at greater length on how the Nigerian church is shaped by this context. In brief, however, people come to church looking for assurance, constancy, and steadfastness. They want to hear about a God who protects (when it seems no one else will) and who will defeat one’s enemies (when it seems no one else can). The result is a church that is about confidence, steadfastness, and fidelity to a particular interpretation of the Bible.

But what these holy days remind us is that this is not the only approach to crucifixion. Christ’s response to crucifixion was not to return as a vengeful, wrathful victim, seeking to inflict retribution on those who had wronged him. Rather, Christ’s response to crucifixion was to return to life as a forgiving, reconciling presence whose followers sought to create a new community that would include even those who had once put their leader to death.

Although the church makes the journey in a handful of days, it can take a long time to go from the crucifixion of Good Friday to the forgiveness of the risen Christ. Indeed, it is the journey of a lifetime. But it is the journey that all Christians are called to make, a journey that begins not in a place of strength but in a place of weakness and humility.

Crucifixions remain all around us in this world of ours. But Christians know that Good Friday is not the end of the story.

And that is good news.