This is the strangest Easter of my adult life.
Nothing is as it should be. Around the country, countless families like my own are sad because we are necessarily deprived of much that makes this time of year special — and (for a Christian) sacred.
For almost half a century, I have followed a tradition practised in many Eastern European countries and created an ‘Easter tree’ — a sprouting branch or two from the garden decorated with wooden eggs, rabbits and birds.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a video call with staff and teachers from Casterton Primary Academy in Burnley, which has remained open to teach children of key workers and other vulnerable youngsters
It symbolises renewal. On Easter Sunday, the most important day of the Christian year, I go to our village church for the family service, and afterwards watch the children racing around the churchyard in search of the foil-wrapped eggs secreted there.
And then, for us, there comes the essential family gathering: chocolate eggs (and maybe a gift or two) exchanged, four generations around the table for a superb lamb roast, followed by our own Easter egg hunt, with the grandchildren scrambling to find the tiny eggs I’ve hidden all over the sitting room.
But this year there’s no ‘tree’, because I haven’t the heart to create it without the family around me. I’ll pack some food and drive for 15 minutes to deliver it to my parents (98 and 95, self-isolating at home), place it on their doorstep then stand a proper distance away to chat. We’ll all put on smiles.
Heartwarming moment Hylton Murray-Philipson, 61, received a guard of honour from staff at Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leics., after beating coronavirus
Our own home will be silent — as if the laughter of children, and the clink of ice in my son’s gin and tonic, and my daughter’s chat about her last girls’ night out, and my mother’s little giggles of delight to hear it all, will never come again.
Meanwhile, outside, Nature flaunts herself as if nothing had changed. The sun is shining, the air is soft and branches are heavy with pink and white blossom; violets, primroses, cowslips, fritillaries, daffodils, tulips, celandine and grape hyacinth star the grass; everywhere the trees wear their freshest, lightest veils of green. You could look upon it and feel resentment.
The other night I walked outside to see the April full moon and thought, rather bleakly, how pitiless it looked. Nature doesn’t care if people are separated from each other and cooped indoors, unable to enjoy her.
An image of Queen Elizabeth II and quotes from her broadcast on Sunday to the UK and the Commonwealth in relation to the coronavirus epidemic are displayed on lights in London’s Piccadilly Circus
It is so tempting to become angry in our confinement, to denounce Spring’s exuberance, to ask what’s the use? But let’s not give in to such feelings this Eastertide.
That moon — sometimes called the Paschal Moon, Paschal meaning ‘Passover’ in Greek — was beautiful, whether or not I or anybody else saw it. The glories of Spring are unlocked whether or not we are in the mood to enjoy them.
But these things do offer comfort — if you let them. Soldiers in the hell of the trenches in World War I noticed the poppies blooming and listened to birdsong when the guns fell silent.
This week a friend of mine, a divorced grandmother who is suffering with the dreaded coronavirus, posted on Facebook the following message: ‘I’ve now been put in total isolation/lockdown for 12 weeks following the previous weeks in isolation — I’m not allowed to even poke my nose outside.
But I can open a window in my flat, and am very, very grateful to have beautiful views of the park to feast my eyes on. Amazing clouds today!’ Those uplifting words are a reminder of the need to live life as fully as we can despite the restrictions. Indeed, this time of year is all about life, rich, pulsating, renewing life.
The other day my father commented on how noisy the birds in his garden had become. ‘I think they’re hungry,’ he said. ‘No, Dad’, I grinned. ‘It’s all about sex!’ A young man’s fancy . . . and all that. And what do eggs represent but new life? For many centuries and in many countries, this time of year has been explicitly associated with fertility.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson alongside Carrie Symonds England v Wales, Guinness Six Nations, Rugby Union, Twickenham Stadium earlier this year
In parts of Europe, pagans celebrated the goddess Eostre, whose symbol was a hare (Easter bunny anyone?), with fires and bread. Perhaps that was the reason that early Christians chose to stage their own holy festival of life triumphing over death — the resurrection — at this time. In 1990.
I was in Romania at Easter, just three months after the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Ceausescu, and I discovered their tradition of painting real eggs. On Easter Sunday you’d click eggs with somebody else, as one said, ‘Christ is risen’ and the other replied ‘He is risen indeed’.
Communism couldn’t kill that. No political changes or outrages, indeed no hardships, can eradicate the human need to celebrate. There are Spring festivals in Thailand, India and China, too. And of course, Passover or Pesach is a major Jewish holiday with special food and shared joy: ‘Chag sameach!’ But I hear you asking: what about this year?
What can we do, what can we feel — when an invisible enemy is stalking the whole world, imprisoning all people in fear as well as isolation, devastating lives and economies and making deprivation so much worse? When this vile virus has taken so much from us and so many things that bring joy and turned them into suffering and sadness . . . how can we think of anything else?
It isn’t easy and glib good cheer can be annoying. I am reminded of a story told by the late great neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. D uring World War II he spent three years in Auschwitz and other death camps, surviving to be a moral inspiration to millions.
When his six-year- old daughter asked why he spoke of the ‘good’ Lord, Frankl replied: ‘Some weeks ago you were suffering from measles and the good Lord sent you full recovery.’ The girl frowned. ‘Daddy, don’t forget — in the first place he sent me the measles.’
As a Christian I have to seek meaning — yes, even within misery. I firmly believe that the world, seen and unseen, is full of mysteries and miracles. My response to the news that Boris Johnson had been taken to intensive care was to rise at dawn, light a candle and say prayers for his recovery.
Hospital staff come out of Chelsea and Westminster and are greeted by a small but enthusiastic crowd, including several car loads of Met Police Officers
And I know of a beautiful early 19th century Lebanese icon of the Virgin Mary that bears, in Arabic script, the message: ‘Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic. Please answer our prayers…’ Do such exhortations do any good? Who knows? Many unbelievers find themselves breathing a silent prayer — a desperate wish to the Universe, if you like — when a loved one is very ill.
Fear is timeless — but so is hope. People need to make sense of what’s happening in order to find the strength to survive. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’
When you can’t change your fate the only thing you have left to take charge of is your attitude to it. In these testing, frightening times, we are seeing so many people rising to that challenge.
If our spiritual task is to discover the meaning of this experience, and then move from that to the question of how we can apply it to our lives after lockdown — well, I am already overawed by the answers coming in every day.
Millions of us clapping and children painting rainbows to show our appreciation of NHS staff; 750,000 volunteers available to work in our hospitals; neighbours delivering food to those who can’t shop for themselves; more of us talking to each other on the phone or via screens (including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) than we’ve done for years — even making little gardens on balconies: all these and more are proofs of renewal within the indomitable hearts of people who know what really matters.
The message of Easter for Christians is that Jesus sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of the world, and then defeated death itself. The cross is a symbol of suffering — but also of the very greatest love. Then too, the message of spring for people of all faiths and none that life is always renewed, that flowers will bloom in the most stony, hostile places, that those bunnies and eggs symbolise the will to live within us all which will not be defeated.
When people all over the world accept their government edicts to stay indoors, deprive themselves of the company of family members and activities they enjoy, they are obeying fundamental humanist principles of doing good for others, putting their own wishes last.
We put up with things for the sake of neighbours and strangers. We realise what we all share — and that it is far more important than what divides us. We know we really are all in this together. And we share the awareness that when it’s all over we will truly appreciate all the things we used to take for granted.
Doesn’t a drink with friends in a pub garden or sauntering around the shops or taking the kids to the beach seem like the Promised Land right now? Wouldn’t a hug or a kiss be a precious blessing? Haven’t we realised that celebrities don’t matter but doctors and nurses and delivery drives and shop workers really do? This week I received an email to my Mail advice column from a lady called Annie.
‘What incredible difficult times we are all living through,’ she wrote. ‘Having been diagnosed in the summer of 2018 with breast cancer, I am giving thanks every day for the brilliant treatment I received and my thoughts are with those poor people who have had their treatment cancelled…’
As I came through my treatment and tried to get my life going again I began to learn some quotes and one of my favourites was from an article you wrote at Easter some years ago: ‘All of us need to hope that the metaphorical stone will be rolled away and that we will each be allowed to walk out of our private darkness into a garden of spring flowers. This is redemption — the possibility of a changed life.’
Annie concluded her email to me with this: ‘In these times, how much do we need those words? Happy Easter to you and your family — and stay well.’ As I often say, the Mail has the kindest readers. The article Annie refers to was written in 2013 to mark a particularly joyous Easter.
I’d become a grandmother the previous year and was happy at the thought of celebrating with little ones again. Today life sometimes seems so much darker and more complicated. But is it? To me it feels at once more serious, more profound — and as unfathomable as the starry sky we can see more clearly than ever. Until the day I die I will never forget our Queen’s message, almost a week ago, reassuring us that, ‘We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return’ and ‘We will meet again.’ What was that but faith, hope and love?
And what are millions of people finding within themselves now but faith, hope and love in action? Despite the pain — and there is so much of it — we can experience the miracle this Easter. That is the promise of renewal.
The stone will be rolled away.