When I was growing up, my dad always created fun and often elaborate treasure hunts for us kids to find our Easter baskets. I’m carrying on the tradition with my children. After Sean and Muriel hunted the plastic eggs in the yard, Sean found a clue in one of them– the letters A B C cut out of paper. Inside the house, I had taped letter stencils and a printed-out picture to six closed doors. Sean had to find the door where the stencil matched the three letters he had, and then choose which letter would “unlock” the door– the door with the picture of an Astronaut had to be unlocked with the letter A, a Frog with F, etcetera. Inside the unlocked room (or closet) was another egg with the next three letters. In the last egg was a puzzle I had made of a picture of the storage shed on our property. Once Sean had put together the puzzle, we all went there and Sean and Muriel found their Easter baskets inside a play tent we got for them.
I know that a number of Christians think that Easter baskets and treats detract from the “real” message of Easter. The idea seems to be that if we can’t link an activity back to a Bible story that it has no place in the Christian life, and that gifts and eggs are somehow unholy “pagan” traditions. This often goes hand-in-hand with teaching that Good Friday is for us to reflect on how horrible and evil we (individually) are and how we deserve Jesus’ death on the Cross and the wrath of an angry God poured out on our heads. I have memories of sitting in Good Friday services trying to increase feelings of self-loathing, searching my soul for the black wickedness which I was sure was lurking there, so that I could see myself the way I imagined God saw me and thus be properly grateful for Jesus averting my just punishment.
This is not an Easter tradition I want to carry on with my children.
Because the Easter narratives for children I am familiar with are all heavy on the concept of Penal Substitutionary Atonement– a theological theory which for most of my life was taught as gospel fact*– this year I decided to write my own narrative to read to the kids this year. It begins like this:
“The most important thing you can know about Easter is that Easter is about love. Because Easter is about God, and God’s love for all that God created– you, and me, and the whole wide world and all the people and animals and plants and everything in it. God made us all, and God loves us all– and God wants everyone to know and understand love, and live in love, and love each other. That’s why God made the world.”†
I want my children to know that God loved us all so much that God became one of us, and lived and worked and loved and laughed and cried as one of us. I want my children to grow up hearing not that Jesus came to rescue us craven worms from the hellfire of an angry, avenging God, but that Jesus was God’s embodied expression of the Love that rescues us from the powers of darkness and evil that hold us captive, a Love that empowers us to live in light and love, freedom and wholeness.
I want my children to understand the Jesus who lived and taught and healed and died as the embodiment of Love– Love that is on the side of the suffering, the outcast, the weak, the wounded, the poor, the lowly, the scorned and despised. I want them to know that Love does not grasp for power and control but seeks to serve and set free. That Love will always sacrifice itself rather than hurt someone else. That Love leans into the messy, uncomfortable places. That Love does not consume and destroy but pours itself out to create life, Love does not abandon a single bit of creation to evil but plunges in to battle it out and defeat that evil, and Love is making all things new.
ALL. Things. New.
And right now our children are small, so we do simple things like decorate cardboard crosses with stickers and paint, and we hide plastic Easter eggs and fill baskets with treats, and we tell them God loves them. Right now our children’s concept of God is almost inseparable from how Nate and I parent them, and what we want them to know above anything else is that God loves them, that God’s love never runs out, that Love wins every time. We want them to know that we can reflect and celebrate and pour out that love in so many ways– by being kind to one another, by taking care of each other, by being patient with each other and apologizing when we’ve messed up, by enjoying each other, and yes, by doing things like Easter baskets and treasure hunts. It’s all a reflection of that Love that is the greatest treasure.
I can write all this and it might sound as though I’m full of confidence in my faith and in how I teach my children. Let me assure you otherwise. Parenting through a deconstructing faith is like walking blindfolded in a labyrinth full of trap doors. All that I’ve written before is the sermon I’m preaching to myself. There is so much I don’t know what I believe about any longer, and I come from a background where we knew what we believed about everything. But that is why, in the midst of the wreck of my former faith, I come back to love. Love will be my lone flag planted in the midst of a battlefield of discarded theology and broken trust and doubt. Love will be what I teach my children. (As I wrote before, unless God’s heart towards us is a heart of love, we’re all screwed anyway.) Not a love that controls, but a love that sets us free.
On Good Friday, after supper, I read aloud the first part of my Easter narrative. And then I took Publix bread and a mug of pink moscato from a partially used bottle in the fridge, and to Sean and to Muriel and to Nate I broke a piece of bread and said, “This is a symbol of Jesus’ body, which he gave out of love for you.” And I gave them a sip from the mug and said, “This is a symbol of Jesus’ blood, which he shed out of love for you.” And then Nate served me, and then I prayed and thanked Jesus for giving us a simple ritual using ordinary things to help us remember God’s love for us.
When Jesus shared a meal with his friends the night before he died, he didn’t enact a complicated ceremony fenced in with rules and regulations and threats of punishment. He gave us a meal to be shared by his followers, those who try to reflect the loving heart of God to the whole world. In the past I have been weighed down by the rules and threats, never sure if I was sorry enough for my sins to approach the table of God, fearful of punishment, unsure if the welcome was sincere or just begrudging. This Easter weekend, for the first time in many years, I have felt freedom, a sense of hope that the table of God is a feast set with Love, and that everyone is invited into Love.
May we catch glimpses of a God who is bigger than we thought. May we meet Jesus outside the lines, in the unholy and pagan places. May our love be unfenced.
* In fact, there are many Atonement theories, and in the history of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is relatively recent. But in my experience with Reformed Theology, PSA is made synonymous with the gospel. Perhaps this is because it meshes very nicely with the Five points of Calvinism, particularly Total Depravity. We are all evil worms who have all individually rebelled against God and are individually deserving of the eternal wrath of God, and the Crucifixion becomes a legal transaction where Jesus steps in and takes that eternal wrath on himself. It was a major stepping stone in my deconstruction when I discovered that there are many theories of Atonement, some of them hundreds of years older and far more widely taught than PSA. In my narrative I gave a simplified idea of the “Christus Victor” and “Ransom” theories, while trying to avoid the assertion that we can ever know exactly what happened when Jesus was on the cross.
† Here is a link to my entire narrative.