By Timothy O’Malley
If you are friends with clergy or other pastoral workers, the first days of Easter are a time of catching one’s breath. Yes, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil require a good deal of ministers. But there’s more to this exhaustion than the complicated liturgies of these three days. The season of Lent has been a time of preparation for celebrating aright the esurrection of our Lord. The whole Church needs to take a breath.
This brief period of exhaustion soon gives way to a non-COVID-related return to normal. Yes, there will be First Communions, perhaps some Confirmations, and a few ordinations. The end of the school year has arrived, and there are also graduations to celebrate. Whether we are aware of it or not, we Christians prepare a good deal for Easter. But then, we fail to savor the gift of Eastertide in its totality.
St. Augustine in his Enarrationes in Psalmos notes that the Church gives us the 50 days of Easter as a spiritual exercise for eternal life. For 50 days, we are meant to practice our primordial vocation as creatures made for praise. Keeping the feast of Easter is, in some sense, the closest that we Christians can get to heaven this side of the beatific vision.
Yet must we admit that it’s rather difficult to keep Easter, at least within the cultural context of American Christianity. Lent is something that American Christians kind of get. There is a reason that Ash Wednesday is such a popular observance on American campuses. For a group that for the most part avoids the language of sin, practices that help us to start over make sense. The work of conversion is comprehensible. It’s something — of course, with divine assistance — that we do.
Easter is different. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is nothing that we could accomplish. Easter is the Father’s acceptance of the Son’s sacrifice, the pouring forth of the Spirit of divine love over the created order. Humankind has been saved through the blood of Jesus, a love beyond all telling.
And therefore, the fundamental posture of Easter is gratitude. For the gift that has been given, for a friendship with God that we could not create on our own. Such a posture goes against the achievement culture that we in the Church have, to be honest, promoted through our schools, colleges, and universities. There’s always something more to do, something to accomplish.
But to keep the feast. To be festive. That’s too hard.
I wonder, therefore, if there might in fact be a concomitant asceticism required of us Christians during Eastertide. Not the asceticism of Lent per se, where through holy works we increase our desire for our Lord. Rather, we are to pursue the asceticism of festivity.
After all, for those of us addicted to the disease of productivity, festivity is perhaps the most counter-cultural act we can perform. The feast is anti-productive.
An analogy may suffice. When I first had my children, I was initially terrified of spending time alone with them. This was not because I was a monstrous parent — at least, I hope. Rather, it was because young children ask nothing of you except your existence. There is nothing to produce, nothing to achieve. You simply are in their presence. They are in your presence. There is sheer existence, the logic of the feast where all you have is gratitude for what is there.
The feast of Easter, for the whole 50 days, requires us to adopt a posture of anti-productivity. For some reason, surpassing our understanding, the triune God chose us. This God, despite our rather poor productivity in salvation history, continued to cast the divine lot with us. And during Easter, our task is to create a space for this God to be our God.
The God who loved us unto the end.
The God who was raised from the dead.
The God who appeared in the breaking of the bread.
The God who ascended into heaven, lifting up our flesh and blood to the right hand of the Father.
The God who still dwells among us through the Spirit of divine love, bringing us into a communion that none of us deserve. That none of us could produce.
Maybe, there really is an asceticism to the Easter season. We must stop bending the knee toward productivity, even the kind of productivity that infects the Church during Lent. And instead, learn to dwell anew in a space of total and absolute possibility. Of the feast of all feasts.
Of eternal life with the triune God.