Feasting or Fasting? by Selina Palm

Feasting or Fasting? by Selina Palm

Why, oh why (asks Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham in his recent book Surprised by Hope) are we encouraged to spend 40 days every year focused on self denial and giving things up for Lent and then only get one single measly day to celebrate? Are we not in danger of getting our theology in a twist, he ponders? If Easter becomes merely the one-day happy ending tacked onto the end of 40 days of corporate gloom culminating in a fairly gruesome execution, can we end up almost missing what he amongst many others claims is the very core of Christian hope – a meaningful sense of the resurrection. Since the closest I have ever come to observing any sort of Lenten practice is eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and picking up the occasional Lent book, I’m probably not in any real danger of being overcome with gloomy self denial. However, this new angle got me thinking, if only because, to be honest, feasting sounds far more inviting than fasting.

Wright claims that if Lent is the time to give things up, that maybe Easter ought to be the time to take things up, to start new things, sow new seeds and to participate in the new possibilities of the creation of God. Easter is God’s ‘Yes’ to the world and its life and renewal, and a resounding ‘No’ to the powers of decay and death that can threaten it. As Christians we can and should be part of anticipating and celebrating those signs of new life. For Wright the Easter hope that is rooted in the reality of the resurrection is the inaugurated hope for God’s renewal of all things. He spurns any sense of a privatised hope, a spiritualised hope merely for an afterlife or for another world that escapes this one. Instead he argues that Easter ought to be a moment that reminds us to live fully in this world – committed to its renewal and new possibilities and with an earthy incarnated hope for our world and life in abundance.

I realised writing this that as a small child growing up in England, Easter held a greater sense of excitement for me then than it often does now as an adult. Our local church held an Easter egg hunt in its garden on Easter morning – thus ensuring a record turnout from the children. I realise that chocolate Easter eggs formed a highly significant part of that excitement but amidst all the seemingly rather pagan symbols of baby Easter bunnies, new primroses and painted eggs (which of course are far more obviously apparent when it’s spring in England than late summer in Cape Town), something that was both quite magical and earthy was being reinforced by Easter. New life (from eggs), abundant life (from the earth) and resurrected life (from the endless winter months) had come to us, to our world and this was something to celebrate. Maybe this Easter can be a moment for all of us to imagine and explore the new possibilities not only in our own lives but in the life of our world

I confess I struggle theologically with the very concept of resurrection. Literal or metaphorical? Revived human Jesus back from the dead or strange post-Jesus-like personality on the way to another dimension? As a small child reciting the Creed, the bit about the Resurrection of the Dead sounded like something out of a horror movie and even then I was fairly unsure about exactly what I was signing up to. As an adult, the more theology I read, the more confused I get, which is not a terribly good sign. And yet there is something about the idea of resurrection that keeps sneaking its way round my questions. In my life, the world continues to surprise me with its ability to resurrect, to re-form, to break out in new and vibrant forms of hope and life from the depths of circumstances that to be frank often look distinctly unpromising. A recent example of this happened last month when I visited the slums of Nairobi and met a 22-year-old young lady called Penny.

Penny’s story reads initially like a descent into hell. Running to the streets to escape the poverty of a single-parent home aged just 14, the rules of streetlife for girls meant she was pregnant to an unknown father by 15. Her young child spent the first 6 years of her life on the streets as Penny increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol to blot out her reality. In 2008, however, her street gang – ‘Miami B’ – was invited to turn itself around by the Undugu Society who specialise in the transformation of the toughest street gangs into positive associations. She quit glue sniffing, got training in money management and in 2009, received a £25 loan to start her own small chip and veg business. A year on, her loan is nearly paid back and her profits enable her to rent a room to stay, as well as pay for school fees, clothes and food for her 7-year-old daughter. Undugu say Penny is unrecognisable and is a role model to others still on the street. She told me ‘I am a responsible mother now and I am proud of myself’.
For me, this is the kind of crazy Easter resurrection hope that we need to celebrate. In a world that seems increasingly despairing as to whether real change is possible, reminders that even in what may seem the darkest places of our world, improbable seeds of hope continue to flourish is just one incredible reason for us to celebrate.
Champagne for breakfast, anyone? Or at least an Easter egg hunt in the garden?