Easter—not Christmas—should be the most important Christian holiday
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 21, 1962 issue of America, titled "Easter Is for Adults."
Easter eggs are a symbol of Christ breaking out of the shell of His tomb into the new life which He means every Christian to share. But who ever thinks of that? For most people, Easter is little more than the day when it is customary to display new spring wardrobes, and when the Christian who has been vaguely troubled all during Lent about not doing any penance can set his mind at rest until next Ash Wednesday.
Yet there was a time when Easter was the greatest day in the year. That was when the Resurrection was, in practice as well as in theory, the central Christian reality. Modern scholarship shows more and more clearly that the collection of writings which contain the essence of Christianity in its purest and richest form, the books of the New Testament, were all composed under the impact of the Resurrection.
What kinds of paintings do we find in the catacombs? Types and symbols of Christ’s victory over death. Pictures of the crucifix were nonexistent.
Studies of the Gospels show that a proper understanding of these books is impossible unless we realize that they contain two “levels”—the level of the pre-Easter experience of the apostles, when they were dull and “without understanding,” and the level of joyous insight into the meaning of their experience, which came after the Resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles give us a dramatic account of the series of widening circles that rushed out from the explosive fact of the Resurrection.
It was the overpowering reality of the risen Lord which drove Paul to the ends of the earth and produced those letters in which language breaks down, unable to capture this joyous mystery in mere words. The author of the Fourth Gospel is so absorbed in the victory of Christ over death that the Passion is almost neglected.
This focus on the Resurrection does not stop with the books of the New Testament. The preaching of Christ in the early Church was all Resurrection-centered. Christian art in its earliest beginnings, and for many centuries afterward, reveals this centrality of the Resurrection.
What kinds of paintings do we find in the catacombs? Pictures of Jonah being spewed from the mouth of the whale after three days, pictures of Lazarus being called forth from the tomb, pictures of Noah in his ark being saved from the flood, and many other types and symbols of Christ’s victory over death. Pictures of the crucifix were nonexistent.
For all the loveliness of the feast of Christmas, if the centrality of Easter is not reflected in the piety of Christians, their Christianity is lopsided.
These representations of victorious delivery were even more meaningful to the Christians when martyrdom became the order of the day. The martyrs saw their death in union with Christ as the gateway to victorious resurrection with Him. This is what made them “witnesses” with that exuberant joy and unflinching courage which broke the weary spell of paganism and infused fresh life into a world hypnotized with selfish fatigue.
Read the liturgies of the early Church. They all show us that when Christians came together to worship, the risen Lord was at the center of it all. This is plain if we consider the two principal Christian sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist.
St. Paul had spoken of baptism as in some way a re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ. To be immersed in the waters of baptism was to go down into death with Christ; to rise from the waters was to come up into new life with Him. The baptismal pools (piscinae) of the early Church, with their steps leading down into the water and steps on the other side leading out, show how the Church made this imagery her own. Nor was it on any random day of the year that catechumens were baptized, but, significantly, at the Easter Vigil, to make it unmistakably clear that by baptism the Christian entered through the death of Christ into His Resurrection.
The Eucharist, too, was celebrated in the radiance of the Resurrection. It was in a spirit of joy that Christians assembled for the community banquet of thanksgiving and praise, realizing that He to whose sacrifice they were united was the victorious, risen Christ now reigning in glory.
Realistic representations of the crucifixion were unknown until the fifth century, and in Western Europe it was not until the end of the 13th century that emphasis in representation of the crucifixion turned from the triumph of Christ to His sufferings.
Christ is not weak now; Christ does not suffer now; the contemporary Christ is the Christ who has won the victory over death and reigns in power.
In the centuries which followed, the human suffering of Christ and His Mother was emphasized more and more. We move into the era of swooning madonnas and gory crucifixes, which were both symptom and fertile seedbed of a strongly individualistic piety. Suffering is a private thing and tends to turn us in on ourselves, while joy, on the other hand, is a more public and social thing.
There was much melancholy piety in the period that culminated in the Reformation. Perhaps it was the widespread feeling of collective discouragement, the sense of sin and weakness, in short, the loss of the joy and triumph which accompany the risen Christ that made the tragedy of the 16th century possible. Some of the reasons why Luther felt it appropriate to emphasize the theology of the cross at the expense of the theology of glory were good reasons, but this emphasis is not without significance as an indication of the mood of the times.
We have seen the central position of the risen Lord in the liturgies of the early Church. The reality of the Resurrection was central, not only in the structure of the liturgical celebration, but also in the pattern of the liturgical year. Easter was the greatest feast of the whole year.
Today, whatever is said about the official place of Easter in the liturgy, Christmas certainly evokes a deeper and more vibrant response from most Christians. The commercial cult of Christmas may be partly responsible for this fact, but there are other reasons as well, and they are probably the principal ones.
For all the loveliness of the feast of Christmas, this shift of emphasis is deplorable. If the centrality of Easter is not reflected in the piety of Christians, their Christianity is lopsided.
The Christmas cycle has become part of the Christian year, but it is interesting to note that it did not begin from within Christianity. It is a “baptized” form of the great Egyptian and Roman pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the sun reached bottom and began its upward climb—when the turning point was reached and light won out over darkness. Following the custom of Christianizing such solidly entrenched celebrations, instead of trying to do the impossible and suppress them, the Church tied this celebration to the Christmas cycle.
Who has the sense of being the wave of the future in today’s world? The Christian? Would that it were so!
Easter, however, was the original Christian feast, a purely Christian product. This is just what we would expect, since the heralds of the gospel preached, first, not the infant Jesus born in weakness, not even the joy of His birth, but the risen Lord reigning in power. The Incarnation, which is the Christmas mystery, is indispensable as a foundation and beginning, but the full meaning of the Incarnation, that toward which it tends and without which it is incomplete, is its victorious fulfillment in the Resurrection. And a theology that would focus attention on what Christ did and does (His death and resurrection) to the exclusion of what He was and is (His Incarnation) would surely suffer from a serious omission.
It was natural and proper that the Christian experience of what Christ did and does should be followed by reflection on what He was and is. But, both in the books of the New Testament and in the development of the liturgy, these were later, though natural and necessary, reflections. The fact remains that the mystery encompassed by Christmas, though an essential part of the Christian reality, is more of a static thing, while the mystery of Easter is a thing of dynamic fulfillment.
Whatever can be said about a piety or a theology which pays more attention to what Christ is than to what He does, it is certainly out of tune with the New Testament and the authentic liturgy of the Church.
Although the liturgy of the Advent cycle that reaches its climax in Christmas contains strong notes of joy and triumph and does not allow us to forget that this child is “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord,” popular Christian piety often draws our attention too exclusively to His frailty and weakness. Rut Easter unmistakably shows forth His divine power.
Both weakness and power have their place in the plan of salvation, but weakness is only a passing phase; power and victory are the permanent reality. Christ is not weak now; Christ does not suffer now; the contemporary Christ is the Christ who has won the victory over death and reigns in power.
The Easter moment was powerful enough in the Christians of the early Church to infuse new life into the dying pagan world. What it did once, it can do again.
Christmas, then, has become more of a children’s feast, and it appeals to the child in us. But Easter is the feast of the adult Christian, and there is no genuinely adult Christianity which is not Resurrection-centered. Christmas is a domestic feast, symbolized by the individual family gathered together around the warm hearth—protecting, fostering, nurturing. But Easter is a missionary feast, impelling those who have caught its meaning to go out and share the good news of Christ’s victory with all the world.
This is not said to downgrade Christmas, which has so important a place in the liturgical year that if it did not exist it would have to be invented, but rather to appeal for an understanding of its true meaning and for a restoration of the central position of Easter.
Indeed, the loss of Easter may be one of the deepest reasons for the hesitations and weakness of the Western world. Who has the sense of being the wave of the future in today’s world? The Christian? Would that it were so! If we are honest, we will admit that it is the Communist who radiates that conviction.
The birthplace and still the heartland of communism is Russia, the land where Easter had really remained the central Christian feast. Could it be that communism’s great reservoir of energy is the dynamic Easter faith of the great Russian people, distorted and misdirected? And have not too many Christians compounded the difficulty by misunderstanding Christianity as an escape from time and flesh and history, in a curious imitation of the religions of the non-Christian East?
Christianity, however, is anything but an escape from matter and from history. Christianity, as we would know if the Resurrection were central in our lives, means a transformation of matter and history.
For the Christian, time is, in one sense, trivial, because it is not the end of the line. It is, rather, the way to our destination. Yet, in another and deeper sense, time is ultimately decisive, because everything depends on what we do in it. The risen Christ carries with Him forever all the consequences of the days He spent in the flesh, and the same will be true for all of us who live in Him.
Parents should begin with their children from their earliest years. This will be easier than they might suspect, for young children are, in some ways, better able than older people to understand the meaning of the Resurrection. Children know instinctively that death is an illegitimate intrusion, as can be seen from their spontaneous reaction when it first strikes close to them. Besides, who needs the presence of Christ in power more than the child, who is only too aware of his own weakness? He will not find the support he needs if he knows only the baby Jesus who seems as weak as himself.
In their efforts to teach children that the risen Christ is the central reality of their lives, parents and catechists will have to continue working under a handicap until those who set the pattern of religious instruction—the professional students of theology and the professional theologians—learn and teach a genuinely Resurrection-centered theology. We may rejoice that developments now taking place in theology, under the vivifying impact of biblical and liturgical renewal, give solid hope that a Resurrection-centered theology will steadily grow in influence.
We are indebted to the modern existentialists for many valuable insights, especially those which alert us to the dangers of depersonalization in our increasingly mechanized world. But the existentialists make a serious mistake when they convey the impression that our private agony and death are the central reality.
Easter means that the central reality is not death, but life—not our personal sufferings, but the public joy which we share in the risen Christ.
History has shown that this Easter mood is contagious. It was powerful enough in the Christians of the early Church to infuse new life into the dying pagan world. What it did once, it can do again.