Saturday, 30 March 2013

Champagne and Fireworks?

This is an article I wrote about five years ago: an edited version was published in the Church Times in February 2007.

For several years now, I’ve been bothered by the contrast between how much I love Christmas and how low-key Easter seems by comparison. ‘We are an Easter people!’ was a favourite phrase in Church circles a few years ago. I agree in theory. But I can’t help wondering why, if that is the case, we don’t celebrate Easter better.

Christmas is commercial. Around the central religious festival, the Feast of the Incarnation, there are massive cultural accretions. Christmas means a red, green and gold colour scheme (despite the attempts by John Lewis to sell purple this year); it means cinnamon and raisins in pies and cakes. Christmas means presents, office parties, shop window displays and town centre lighting schemes. It means sending cards and an annual letter, making contact with all the people you have acquired in your address book over the years. It means tinsel, fairy lights, nursery parties, carol singing, school Christmas shows, visits to Santa, visits to relations. Christmas is a social event.

The Church is often quoted at this time of year complaining about all this. Fearful that all this razzmatazz distracts from the central nativity story. I may be unusual in being a priest in the Church of England who loves Christmas. I love the trees, the lights, the food, the drink, the parties, choosing and buying and wrapping present, as well as the nativity (both the school play and the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity).

I (was until recently) a university chaplain. A student came to see me recently, and our conversation turned to the Christmas lights that Durham council were beginning to put up. Suddenly she said, ‘Why can’t Easter be more like Christmas?’ She went on to say that she loved the family focus of Christmas, the cooking that went on, the colours, the lights, and the atmosphere of excitement that marked out Christmas as something special. She wouldn’t describe herself as religious, but said that of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without going to church on Christmas day. By contrast, she complained, Easter is much more downbeat, ‘a bit depressing’ with its focus on death and with no buzz about it except that associated with chocolate. The bunnies and lambs and chicks are twee and infantile. Easter comes at a time of year when it is still cold and gloomy and everyone needs cheering up with a good festival, and we give them Lent and Good Friday processions.

When a young, intelligent, occasional church attender bothers to tell us what she would like from the Church, we should listen and take it seriously. Our conversation made me revisit my thinking about the disjunction between how we celebrate Christmas and how we celebrate Easter. My conclusion is that we should welcome with open arms the cultural accretions, the ‘commercialism’ of Christmas. We should learn from the excitement generated by them, and try to replicate that in distinctive forms for Easter. The cultural iconography of Christmas – red, gold, lights, candles, stars, spices – is far richer and more attractive than that of Easter – daffodils, crocuses, bunnies, chicks, chocolate. We need to try to reinvent Easter as a richer, a more culturally resonant, above all a more exciting festival.

None of this is to denigrate the central, spiritual importance of the theological truths affirmed by both Christmas and Easter. But the Christmas story, the Incarnation, is not hidden or threatened by the baubles of Christmas. On the contrary, the trimmings draw all eyes to the central story. They create a sense of expectancy, a true spirit of Advent. Every other year, Christmas stamps portray a religious theme. Every other year, the famous Fenwick’s window display in Newcastle upon Tyne is a nativity. Many schools alternate between nativity plays and pantomimes for their Christmas production. Many people, like the student who came to see me, feel that Christmas wouldn’t be complete without going to church. Everyone will hear Christmas carols at some point in December. The nativity is central to Christmas. It is there in the background even when it is not mentioned explicitly. It is proclaimed to many more people than it would otherwise be because of, not despite, the cultural baggage and festivities surrounding it.

I want us to make the Easter story just as ubiquitous, just as loved, just as owned by so many as the Christmas story. Here are a few suggestions for starters:

1. Let’s make more of Shrove Tuesday. It comes at a cold, dark, miserable time of year. Lent is still a widely recognised and owned cultural phenomenon, but the Church looks depressingly pious unless we balance fast with feast. In the parish of St. Gabriel’s, Heaton, where I was a curate, we built on the expertise and contacts developed through a summer holiday club week by introducing a Mardi Gras weekend. On the Saturday before Lent we held a Mardi Gras children’s activity day, and on the Sunday morning a Carnival Eucharist. Pancake parties are better than nothing, but in this age of foodies they may need to become a bit more sophisticated in some social contexts.

2. I first came across Easter trees in the Netherlands over a decade ago. A few bare twisted branches are decorated with blown and painted eggs, small birds, or anything you like. Ideally the branches are of pussy willow so they already have their catkins, but the decorative twigs you can buy now would also work well. This would make a good family or Sunday school activity for Easter weekend. Decorations could be devised which reinforce the story and are cheerfully bright and attractive (perhaps Mexican crosses and butterflies).

3. I have heard of a cathedral letting off fireworks from its roof at its dawn liturgy. This is a great idea. Fireworks are ideal imagery for Easter. They literally lift your gaze and heart, exploding into dramatic and exultant life. Dawn could be problematic with noise in many locations. Also, the core audience attracted by fireworks, families with youngish children, are unlikely to attend at 5am. But fireworks on the Saturday evening could be a winner.

4. Finally, our Easter morning Eucharist should be seriously distinctive. A note of extraordinary celebration needs to be struck, preferably at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy. My suggestion is that on Easter day we use champagne as our communion wine. Champagne is part of our cultural shorthand for celebration. Its use chimes perfectly with the Easter message of the reckless extravagance of God’s love, and with imagery of the wedding feast.

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