What Easter Is as We Grow Older

COMMENTARY: The Heart of the Resurrection Becomes More Apparent

Annibale Carracci, ‘Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb,’ 1590s
Annibale Carracci, ‘Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb,’ 1590s (photo: Public domain)

Charles Dickens would be lauded as a great British writer, even if he never wrote A Christmas Carol. The Carol is a testament to his literary greatness, for — as one commentator observed — who else could have successfully pulled off putting a death figure, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, into a Christmas story?

Bharat Nalluri’s 2017 film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, emphasizes the commercial side of the Carol. As the film frames it, Dickens was already a successful author in 1843 who needed a potboiler to make money. The festal celebration of Christmas was growing in popularity in Victorian Protestant England (Massachusetts had banned it from 1659 to 1681), as was the custom of giving a “Christmas book” as a present. Dickens seized the entrepreneurial opportunity, publishing “Christmas books” throughout the 1840s.

Thinking that Dickens was simply interested in making a shilling on Christmas, however, does him wrong. Dickens wrote Christmas stories throughout his life, even writing The Life of Our Lord for his children in the last half of the 1840s. He also wrote an essay reflecting on the holiday’s meaning, “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older.” Like the Carol (and his other Christmas books), Dickens brings up death in it. As children, we see Christmas full of joy and gladness:

“Time was when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and everyone around the Christmas fire and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.” 

And then comes life — and death — “when our thoughts overleaped that narrow boundary,” putting us face-to-face with another Christmas where someone’s beloved voice — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a child, a friend — was absent. And once more, in the words of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, as “the shadows of those not present again appear, let us believe one more time in another Christmas.” 

Dickens affirms the same theme. No one will be shut out of Christmas. Not even “the City of the Dead. In the blessed name wherein we are gathered at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!”

What Dickens wrote about Christmas and the Communion of Saints is even more true of Easter.

Growing up in a very Catholic town in New Jersey, childhood Easters were holidays. School ended on a half day on Holy Thursday. Good Friday was a holiday. Parents took their kids to church on Holy Thursday and then often performed the old Catholic custom of visiting seven different churches that evening. 

Good Friday was unusually quiet. One hoped Mom and Dad would decide that abstinence would result in a cheese pizza, not some smelly fish. Good Friday was a strange day when you went to church in the middle of the afternoon. Lots of times, you were also back in the pew in the evening for Stations of the Cross or adoration. In those days, the demographics of my hometown were changing, too: Suddenly, the Stations were not just pictures on a church wall, but immigrant Catholics carrying a real cross down Cortlandt Street.

On Holy Saturday, parish societies competed to “keep watch” at the tomb, each parish trying to outdo the other in honoring Jesus. The churches were busy, either with mothers shuffling in with baskets of Easter goods to bless or penitents shuffling in and out of confessionals. If it wasn’t church, you might get a trip downtown — to the bakery (yum!) or the shoe store (yuck!). 

Easter, of course, meant a chocolate rabbit, painted Easter eggs, lots of good food and going to church. It wasn’t till I was older that I found out the school district really wasn’t observing the Easter Octave by giving us the week off.

Today’s Easter is hardly the feast of that little Polish American kid in Perth Amboy. Except maybe for schools, Good Friday is another workday. Since Easter always falls on Sunday, it’s conveniently hidden: “Easter worshippers” (as one journalist recently put it) get it all done in the course of a weekend, acting on Monday as if nothing happened. The politically incorrect might even wish a co-worker, “Happy Easter!” 

There’s no social lead-up. Christmas is preceded by the “Christmas season.” Santa Claus and presents, Christmas trees and holiday lights can all fill the cultural space that prefers to avoid Love Incarnate. There’s no “Easter season.” People don’t have office “Easter parties,” and — compared to lights, ornaments and carols — a couple of eggs and a rabbit just don’t cut it.

But, as we grow older and, hopefully, fuller in faith, the heart of our hidden “Spring Holiday” becomes more apparent. If Dickens could connect Christmas with “the City of the Dead,” Easter makes it clear that city is but a temporary rental, not eternal digs. 

Easter, in fact, makes apparent what Dickens touched at Christmas: that the last word in human history is not death but life. The human aspiration for immortality is not a cruel illusion, taunting us for “seventy years or eighty for those who are strong” (Psalm 90:10), but the stirrings that speak to the truth of our existence, made in the image and likeness of a God who is Goodness, Love and Life itself. God never goes back on his gift: Man may try to take life, but God never takes back the life he has given. 

That, perhaps, is the challenge of Easter: not that its message is so wonderful we cannot believe it, but that our hearts may be still too narrow to want to accept it. Easter is not about memories of the “shadows of the things” that were, but is about the promise that those shadows are displaced by the Son.