For Christians, Easter commemorates the most important event in history.
The importance of the event is not always obvious, for Easter — like Christmas — has been festooned with a garland of secular preoccupations.
At Christmas, it’s the gifts and the gaudy, the saccharine and the sentimentality. The kernel of the event, part pagan, part Christian, is often little more that a quiet seed in the cacophony of a holiday from which the ‘holy’ has been carefully extracted. Still, if you stop moving, you can descry the adumbrations of a ceremony acknowledging the engulfing darkness of the winter solstice and promise of light to come.
Easter has been decorated with ribbons and chocolates and strawberries. It’s egg hunts and blossoms and Fred Astaire and Judy Garland processing up the Avenue. It’s the cheerfulness that follows the vernal Equinox and the promise of summer plenty. In the usual course of events, there’s not a lot of reflection about what it is that the day celebrates, the grim and the grand. Good Friday, only two days before, commemorates the unfathomable horror of a bloody sacrifice. Christians usually congregate to recall the stupefying awfulness of the event (I use ‘awfulness’ in its fullest sense). This year, we were forbidden that grace, as we are forbidden from congregating in celebration today.
In some ways, however, our new antiseptic, anti-social regimen may prove to be an unexpected boon. There are fewer Easter bonnets this year, but perhaps more Easter benisons. Christus resurrexit! The tomb is empty and Christ has risen. I suspect that, for many of us, there will more leisure this year to contemplate that enormous declaration.
I can never think of Easter without also thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s great sonnet ‘God’s Grandeur’. God’s grandeur is patent everywhere, Hopkins notes. It ‘will flame out, like shining from shook foil’, it ‘gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ crushed’.
But people ignore it. All is ‘seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell’. The grandeur seems gone: ‘the soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod’.
Full stop. End of the octave.
Then comes the sestet, a cavalry charge at dawn:
‘And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.’
The pressure of contemporary events crowds us into the impatient confines of the present, rendering us insensible to the lessons of history — not least the lesson that tomorrow’s dramas are typically unforeseen by the scripts we abide by today. Who would have thought in December that we’d be ‘sheltering in place’ come March?
Language itself conspires to keep us in the dark. Consider only that marvelous phrase ‘the foreseeable future’. With what cheery abandon we employ it! Yet what a nugget of unfounded optimism those three words encompass. How much of the future, really, do we foresee? A week? A day? A minute? ‘In a minute,’ as T. S. Eliot said in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse’.
So much of life is a juggling with probabilities, a conjuring with uncertainties, that we often forget upon what stupendous acts of faith even the prudent conduct of life depends. Had I been asked, on February 1, 2020, to offer an existential weather report on ‘the foreseeable future’, I should have said ‘blue skies with only intermittent patches of rain’.
It would have been a reasonable forecast. Only my foresight was not penetrating enough, not far-seeing enough, to accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities: an event.
An event is as common as dirt. It is also as novel as tomorrow’s dawn. ‘There is nothing,’ the French writer Charles Péguy noted in the early years of the 20th century, ‘so unforeseen as an event.’ The particular event Péguy had in mind was the Dreyfus Affair. Who could have predicted that the fate of an obscure Jewish Army captain falsely accused of spying would have such momentous consequences? And yet this unforeseen event, as Proust observed in À la recherche du temps perdu, suddenly, catastrophically, ‘divided France from top to bottom’. Its repercussions were felt for decades.
We plan, stockpile, second-guess, buy insurance, make allowances, assess risks, play the odds, envision contingencies, calculate interest, tabulate returns, save for a rainy day…and still we are constantly surprised. Who among us, in December, had ever heard the word ‘coronavirus’? Today, do we hear anything else?
In a thoughtful essay called ‘What Is Freedom?’, the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted the extent to which habit — what she disparages somewhat with the name ‘automatism’ — rules life. We are creatures of habit, schedules, and conventions. And thank God for that. For without habit we could never build character. And yet we are also creatures who continually depart from the script. Human beings do not simply behave in response to stimuli. We act — which means that our lives, though orchestrated largely by routine, are at the same time everywhere edged with the prospect of novelty. ‘Every act,’ Arendt wrote,
‘…seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a “miracle” — that is, something which could not be expected..it is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an “infinite improbability,” and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real.’
Every moment of every day presents us with the potential for what Arendt calls the ‘miracle’ of human action, so familiar and yet ultimately unfathomable. That is why we find proleptic phrases like ‘the foreseeable future’ indispensable. They declare the flag of our confidence, the reach of our competence. They domesticate the intractable mystery of everyday novelty. But they also serve to remind us that our confidence is deeply complicit with luck — that most fickle of talismans — our competence instantly revocable without notice. Which is to say that our foresight is always an adventure, practiced at the pleasure of the unpredictable.
This is something that P.G. Wodehouse, a philosopher of a somewhat merrier stamp than Hannah Arendt, put with his customary grace when his character Psmith observed that ‘in this life…we must always distinguish between the Unlikely and the Impossible’. In December 2019 it was unlikely that some scraps of DNA from a Chinese laboratory would bring the world’s economies to to screeching halt. It was not, alas, impossible.
The eruption of the unlikely is an affront to our complacency, an insult to our pride. We tend to react by subsequently endowing the unlikely with a pedigree of explanation. This reassures us by neutralizing novelty, extracting the element of the unexpected from what actually happened.
On this Easter, anno Domini 2020, the unforeseen events of the last couple of months provide an invitation to moderate our complacency. For us Christians, perhaps they also provide an invitation to contemplate anew that long ago event in Judea that changed everything.