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?
Even the children in the house would draw closer to the television. Beyond the meagre fare of tax, welfare and infrastructure, we’re all famished for such sustenance.
I’ve seen that hunger satisfied at literary festivals, dubbed the ”new religion”, where 400 people gather under canvas on Sunday mornings to listen in rapt attention as much-loved authors exchange ideas and provoke roars of laughter or heckles from the back row. Sermons where the congregation talks back.
I’ve been at Marieke Hardy’s Women of Letters events where almost every speaker, beautifully articulating life’s losses and joys, ends up in tears as the audience sobs in unison.
As host of the the Sydney Festival ”Hope” series of talks I heard the survivors of the Black Saturday fires speak of resilience and I, like everyone present, was uplifted, spirits soaring.
You can see that our children want something more, too, as they flock to Anzac Day in record numbers, drawn by its grand, enduring theme of the ultimate sacrifice.
Halloween is easy to write off as a schlock-fest of lollies and dress-ups but it’s captured our children’s imagination, allowing to them linger on death and mystery. They’re drawn to the US Thanksgiving ritual too, which has more purchase than Christmas in the great American multicultural society.
And so I wonder what we offer our children – apart from the odd ethics or special religious education class in schools?
How do we make the public space for quiet gratitude for this peaceful society, born from such pain and inhumanity? It’s hardly during ”the race that stops a nation”. How do we cease our frenetic activity, stop and give thanks for the ”boundless plains we share”?
This year my municipal council is offering Easter ”vacation activities” at its care centres with visits from ”professional magicians and DJs”, excursions to the reptile park, cooking classes and a workshop on how to create your own TV reality show.
On reflection, I’d rather sit down with my kids to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told.
”Peace be with you. And also with you.”
I’d love to borrow this simple ritual from the Catholic Church where you turn and offer the greeting to the person sitting next to you. Imagine it observed at the State of Origin. Just after the national anthem is sung.
”She’ll be right. I reckon.” It could be our answer to the war cry of the haka.
An expression of respect and reconciliation. Born of suffering. Powerful. Undefeatable. Uniquely us.
This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and is re-printed with kind permission.