Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Powerful and Personal Easter Memory

Salvador Dali's
For many of us who are agnostic, atheist, or just not particularly religious, Easter weekend can be a curious and ambiguous time. It's not that we feel left out or alienated, and it's not that we don't still enjoy some of the traditions surrounding the holiday, it's just that we feel kind of...weird.

Maybe, this is because the scriptural subject matter related to the holiday, the text about which we are inherently skeptical, is so incredibly grave and serious.

After all, this isn't just a celebration of any old biblical miracle, we are talking about the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Maybe we feel strange because, unlike Christmas, the Easter holiday lacks the plethora of accompanying social and cultural trappings that can entice anyone, Christian or otherwise, to get caught up in the spirit of things. Maybe Easter is simply less commercialized and so manages to maintain a more purely religious aura than its Yuletide cousin.

Regardless of the root causes of my Easter discombobulation, here I sit, reflecting on the meaning and memory of Easters past, thinking about childhood baskets and chocolate bunnies, middle-aged mimosa-fueled Easter parties, and Jesus.

I imagine that my childhood memories of the Easter season are not too different from those of most Americans who grew up in a Catholic household. I remember the forty days of Lent - complete with ashes on my forehead, fish dinner Fridays, and frightening shopping trips, steering myself as far away as possible from the terrifying, wild-eyed, man-sized bunny who sat in the middle of the mall.

And then there were Easter Sunday mornings. Waking up early to eagerly search for a not-so-well-hidden basket of goodies, attending Easter Sunday mass in my finest button-down shirt and maybe a clip-on tie, and then joining aunts, uncles, and cousins for delicious ham and potato salad, and a warm springtime afternoon spent searching for hidden eggs in my Aunt Millie's manicured backyard.

Whether in traditional celebration with family or in slightly less than wholesome revelry with friends, I hold dear a variety of pleasant and gratifying Easter memories, but the most powerful of these about Jesus.

In early 1988, the buzz had begun about the Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, several months in advance of its planned fall release. Wanting to learn more about the controversial movie, I decided in the spring of 1988 to read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, upon which the film was based.

I enjoyed the book greatly, and as I consumed page after page, I began to understand why this novel that Scorsese had chosen to adapt had stirred so greatly the passions of so many. The Last Temptation diverges significantly from the accepted biblical presentation of Jesus. In his novel, the legendary Kazantzakis imagines a Christ who was tempted away from his punishment of death by crucifixion, and instead, the author offers us a Christ who dreams of a more ordinary life, complete with wives and children, but who, in the end, returns to the cross and begs God to let him fulfill his original purpose. At its core, The Last Temptation presents us with a Christ who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life for us, not because he had to, but because he chose to.

For many of those whose views are tightly bound to Christian religion and dogma, the idea of a temptable Christ was blasphemy. For me, as I finished the novel on Easter Sunday morning in 1988, it made the event of Christ's crucifixion and the horror of his suffering that much more powerful and beautiful.

Say what you will about The Last Temptation of Christ - it's anathema to some and a work of art to others, but for its author, it was a gift of love. Kazantzakis expressed his inspiring, hopeful, and pious intentions in the prologue to his book, and I choose to take him at his word.

"This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, and death - because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered. I am certain that every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ."

I still remember vividly how I felt on that Easter Sunday morning more than twenty years ago, when I read the final pages of The Last Temptation of Christ and gently closed the book. Grateful, stirred to my core, and moved to tears, I was more fully aware than ever before, of what it means to celebrate Easter.


  1. 'Cultural trappings' can be lost over the years however in my family there were some that persisted. I'm Ukrainian on my dad's side. My grandma would prepare an Easter basket filled with horseradish, hardboiled eggs, paska (sweet-ish bread), perhaps a pysanky, salt & pepper, ham or kielbasa and of course a butter lamb! Lining the basket would be a cloth deocrated with a Ukrainian design. She'd take the basket to the church to be blessed by the priest. Then we'd eat! ;)

  2. At first, I thought you were just saying that your grandmother gave the children a basket with horseradish, salt & pepper, ham, etc. I was thinking - I'm more grateful than ever for chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs!