Sunday, March 23, 2008

THIS HOLIDAY is what is known in religious tradition as a "movable feast" because it is not, like Christmas and some other annual observances, celebrated on the same day every year but rather moves from one Sunday to another within a narrow range of weeks in early springtime. It has also been movable in another, more important sense, as it has made a long and sometimes difficult journey through the popular consciousness of much of the world over nearly 2,000 years. Easter has been a time of renewal and hope for millions, but for others -- victims of age-old religious persecution -- it has at times been a dark and frightening occasion. It is a day that can arouse intense emotions, and one that has been misused and misunderstood by many, even as it has provided comfort and solace to many more.

The root event of Easter, the Passion story, is strong stuff. Roman punishment, like Roman warfare, was extraordinarily cruel -- deterrence on a macabre scale. The feelings aroused by that story of betrayal, brutality and death have led, almost from the first days of the church -- when some Jews differed bitterly with other Jews over the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth -- to frightening outbursts of religious violence, as if the Easter message of resurrection and hope was all but forgotten, nothing was forgiven and the theme of the day was revenge.

But that's not what Easter is about. The Easter story speaks to everyone about the universal fear of death. It is about resurrection and new life, the consciousness that we, or something of us, will endure. To believing Christians, the resurrection is literal. For others, it may be the hope that they will live on in their families, their friends and their society, and in the things they have done. Easter today, in America and elsewhere, has become a day of life and affirmation. It can be as deeply significant as a sunrise service and as lighthearted as an egg roll or an Easter parade. It has moved well along on the path to toleration and understanding, although, as always with such things, there are many miles to go.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company