How Easter stubbornly resists commercialism.
We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women's underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus' head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him. After this, Jesus suffered the most degrading of all Roman deaths: crucifixion. Jesus remains the world's most famous victim of capital punishment.
To his followers, therefore, his execution was not only tragic and terrifying but shameful. It is difficult not to wonder what the Apostles would have thought of a crucifix as a fashion accessory. Imagine wearing an image of a hooded Abu Ghraib victim around your neck as holiday bling.
Even the resurrection, the joyful end of the Easter story, resists domestication as it resists banalization. Unlike Christmas, it also resists a noncommittal response. Even agnostics and atheists who don't accept Christ's divinity can accept the general outlines of the Christmas story with little danger to their worldview. But Easter demands a response. It's hard for a non-Christian believer to say, "Yes, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead." That's not something you can believe without some serious ramifications: If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, this has profound implications for your spiritual and religious life—really, for your whole life. If you believe the story, then you believe that Jesus is God, or at least God's son. What he says about the world and the way we live in that world then has a real claim on you.
Easter is an event that demands a "yes" or a "no." There is no "whatever."
More shocking than the crucifixion is the resurrection. Two thousand years later, it's still impossible for humanity to grasp this event fully. Even the Gospel writers found it hard to agree on what, precisely, happened and differ on something as basic as what Jesus looked like after the resurrection. (In some Gospel accounts, Jesus is almost ghostlike; in others, he is clearly a physical presence.)
That confusion may be one reason why in most "Jesus movies" the resurrection is largely an afterthought. In Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (an Easter TV favorite), the resurrection consists of Jesus uttering bland pieties to a dazed-looking group of apostles. In Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ (admittedly about the crucifixion and death), the resurrection, something with far more religious import than the suffering, is reduced to a brief coda. In Gibson's version, Jesus stands up and marches out of his tomb on Easter morning to the strains of martial music, as if to say, "I'm back, and I'm going to kick some Roman butt!"
What does the world do with a person who has been raised from the dead? Christians have been meditating on that for two millenniums. But despite the eggs, the baskets, and the bunnies, one thing we haven't been able to do is to tame that person, tame his message, and, moreover, tame what happened to him in Jerusalem all those years ago. That's one reason why you don't see many Easter cards, Easter gifts, and Easter decorations; why the stores aren't clogged with shoppers during Lent; and why the holiday is still, essentially, religious.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.