THOUGHTS ON THE MEANING OF EASTER
When I was a child, Good Friday was my favourite day of the year.
It was deeply melancholic. A time to ponder death, sacrifice, forgiveness. All the big stuff.
And days like that, steeped as they are in deeper meaning, are rare when you’re an Anglo-Australian born into an atheist household.
Back then in country Victoria (and I’m old enough to start sentences with ”almost half a century ago”), the shops and pubs were shut. There was no cheering for your footy team. No treasure hunts for sparkly, foiled eggs at the local park (or at Kirribilli House, I imagine). No cheery ”Happy Easter” greetings.
Everything just … stopped. I didn’t quite know it then, but what I was appreciating was a day devoted to quiet reflection.
The Greatest Story Ever Told was made when I was 10. ”Awww. Truly this man was the Son of Gahd,” is the infamous quote from John Wayne, improbably cast as a Roman centurion.
The movie was playing at the cinema in town and my father wouldn’t take me to see it. In his mid-30s, he had declared himself a ”humanist”. No more Church of England Sunday school for us. It was the end of any religious malarkey.
However, I’ve remained deeply attracted to the tale of suffering and resurrection at the heart of the Christian narrative. Endlessly fascinated by accounts of religion, belief, myth, legend and fairytales from any and every culture.
Yes. I’m one of those pathetic non-believers philosopher Alain de Botton bangs on about.
The sad, godless orphans who can’t pass a church or temple without entering to light a candle or offer a flower.
We sit in abandoned pews or kneeling on woven mats inhaling the fragrance of incense and marvelling at the extraordinary human labours that built such glories to their gods. We’re envious of the belonging true believers enjoy.
And, also, we wonder. What comes next?
Like de Botton, I’m in no need of a god to worship. Not for comfort or moral direction. I’m quite sure about that.
But also, as de Botton says, I do wish our society – one of the most secular on earth – would borrow from the calendars, rituals, oratory and the exhortation to physical action that propelled even my atheist father down to the river to catch a fish for Good Friday tea.
There’s a hunger in this nation for something beyond the gaudy flag-waving of Australia Day. We have been having this discussion for decades. Time to move it along.
Gough Whitlam was a proud atheist. Bob Hawke, an agnostic, declared he learnt this at his father’s knee: ”He said if you believe in the fatherhood of God, you must necessarily believe in the brotherhood of man. It follows necessarily and, even though I left the church and was not religious, that truth remained with me.”
None of our prime ministers of recent times has been overtly religious – apart from Kevin Rudd, who sought the role of kindly vicar. Defeated by nihilists, he would probably argue.
Today, we have the confirmed atheist Julia Gillard and devout Catholic Tony Abbott in opposition. They seem to have made a pact not to offer up their beliefs for popular debate.
But with the election ahead, can you imagine a more riveting discussion from our political leaders? Do you believe in God? Or not? What’s at the heart of it? What’s it all for?
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