Yes, I understand it seems to you an enigmatic spring holiday, frivolous with candy and flowers, done up in weak pastels. At one time I could have led you down the path in Gethsemane (school-yard pebbles under foot, gnarled olive trees and English ivy, Christ in a white robe kneeling, glint of his auburn hair in moonlight, a soft sorrow from his smooth brow to the top of his trim and gentle beard). In those years of my strict belief I could have brought you to the gate, more the sort of heavy door that opens into a tidy Mediterranean garden, where St. Peter slept, about to betray his master three times, his simple coarse face already consumed with guilt. The door to the garden has a heavy colonial latch. The garden itself is dusky green, refreshing, and there is a solid chunk of Connecticut granite on which Christ folds his hands in prayer.
In my guided tour of the passion the details of the Agony in the Garden were gathered from badly printed holy cards and plaster stations of the cross, which hung in super-real bas-relief on the walls of every parish church. I do not want to take a sophisticated view and destroy the mythic quality of that quiet place. You must try to see that the story of Easter, more than any Christian myth, turns its back upon the rational.
As a Catholic child, I found the garden absolutely real, and there in the moment when Christ accepted the fact of his death the sweat from his brow turned to deep red drops of blood. I could see them-there was no sleight-of-hand involved as there was in "The Wizard of Oz" when everyday black and white became glorious Technicolor. I see now the primitive nature of my belief, yet I still choose not to imagine that garden as merely symbolic, a cold place, Christ's last chance at solitude before the public event of his death.
What amazes me is that I accepted without question a major Christian paradox in the false lighting of that garden: that Christ chose to die freely because it was God's will. Now it is easy for me to propose that the idea of history changed at that moment-there was something stated in Christ's contract with his father that implied a world beyond the particular victory of provincial Rome and its brutish soldiers, a continuum of events beyond one man or one nation as a historical agent. Perhaps I can now find the beginning of humanism in that scene when the son-in agony, we're told-gives way to the father.
The cross: let me call it crucifix-it is not pleasant, though often done prettily these days in stamped plastic filigree or polished woo where we're meant to notice the grain. Gold, of course, is most common on a chain. There's a good-looking young teller at my bank who wears one resting on his tie, a miniature corpse with remarkably fine nose and dreamy eyes. As art it'sure misses the humiliation and isolation of Calvary-the pain.
In works of art, the crucifixion is so often appropriated as a political or stylistic statement: Christ wearing an overseas cap, foreshortened, baroqued, florentined . . . you understand that for this same reason this year's Easter sermons may refer to the false prophet of Guyana or the triumph of the Israeli-Egyptian pact because we must hold on to whatever we can of redemption. But the crucifixion was not about a specific event. W.H. Auden put it nicely: ". . . the God-Man, he dies to redeem sinful mankind; the ordinary human martyr dies to bear witness to what he believes to be saving truth, to be shared by all men, not reserved as an esoteric secret for a few."
Easter 1979. In my secular world, this holiday has come to be the obligatory chocolate rabbit for my godson and a quick show on every street corner of the familiar flowers forced to bloom-very comforting, too, the pots of tulips and daffodils, azaleas. Only the lilies seem high-minded and religious, a little ridiculous, part of some old-fashioned whitegloved world. I believe you said you could not understand Easter-the fussing over colored eggs, the disastrous new clothes I can account for as rites of spring. Yet consider the tomb where Christ lay where the stone miraculously rolled away. Now that's a mystery.