Monotony and Meaning: What Easter is for

What do the rhythms of the church calendar have to do with the slog of everyday life?

It comes in many forms. The seven-year itch. The problem that – as diagnosed by Betty Friedan – has no name. The lives of quiet desperation led, according to Thoreau, by most men.

The question sneaks up on us at unexpected moments: Is this how it's meant to be? Is this all there is?

So many of the experiences in life that we sign up to in the belief that they'll prove worthwhile – marriage, parenting, study, work – appear to us at times, perhaps for very long stretches, as mere slog. We dread the everyday, the routine, the rut.

We dread but also long for change. We write the thousandth shopping list, change the thousandth nappy, wait on the same platform at the same spot on the thousandth commute. Our lives seem both short and very long, and we grow periodically restless in them.

Maybe this is the true appeal of a holiday – even of the weekend: the promise, not just of rest, or of doing whatever I like, but of variation. Days that don't look like all the other days. Ways of being and doing that swing us clear of the ceaseless stream of daily life onto more fertile ground, a space that feels richer with meaning and possibility.

This was once true, in particular, of those holidays that were literally “holy days.” They “sanctified” – made holy, set apart – portions of time that would otherwise be indistinguishable from our normal days and weeks. They conjured the power of inherited rituals and rhythms to lift the communal gaze to something other and higher. They set the everyday in a new light (which was also a very old light, but one too easily lost in the glare of the everyday).

The traditional church calendar was designed this way: to alternate highs and lows, periods of introspection or anticipation with periods of rejoicing, to realign people's sense of the everyday with invisible but much weightier realities. The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that these “higher times” “gathered, assembled, reordered, punctuated profane, ordinary time.” They gave pause and substance to what would otherwise be just one day, week, month after another.

Secular practices for managing and punctuating time tap into this psychological (if not spiritual) reality. Our calendar builds to December, to an end-of-year sense of closure, the sweetness of summer begun (perversely paired with visions of winter wonderlands), the compulsory family fun of Christmas itself.

We dedicate a Sunday in May (and one in September) to making conscious and primary the background gratitude we owe our mothers (and fathers) all year round. UN events from the International Day of Happiness to World Rabies Day (it's in September, in case you're wondering) exist to draw sustained attention to one issue or group among a sea of need.

Initiatives like FebFast, Movember, or Live Below the Line attach a cause and an activity to a period of time in order to kickstart personal change, raise money and awareness, or introduce a new perspective on what we count as “normal.” All these interventions in the calendar want to rescue certain days or times from the oblivion of just-one-day-after-another, to make them special somehow – ideally in a way that spills over to our other days as well.

What is Easter meant to do? Why do Christians celebrate it? What kind of “special” does it want to make these few days that would otherwise be indistinguishable from all the others?

We know from the customary chicks and bunnies (almost as irrelevant to the Aussie autumn as all those snowflakes and sleigh rides at Christmas) that Easter is about a burst of new life. But the Bible suggests that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not just a one-off. Between the apparent low of Good Friday – when those first disciples of Jesus saw their investment of years and deep affections and inchoate hopes for the future die with him on the cross – and the unfathomably good news of Easter morning lies the story of our lives and of our world in miniature.

This is what Easter weekend celebrates: the death and resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of what will happen with our own humdrum worlds and fragile selves. Some of the most overwhelming and gorgeous imagery in the Bible describes desert places made lush, salt water made fresh and life-giving, whatever was barren suddenly teeming with glorious life. It's the resurrection writ large – writ, literally, universal – life and joy where before was only death and futility.

The rhythm of Lent – and ultimately of life – is one of humility, lowliness and hardship abruptly overtaken by joy.

The traditional church calendar remembers the death and rising of Jesus with a “low” period (the six weeks or so of Lent), followed by the biggest “high” of the Christian year on Easter Sunday. The tradition of fasting in Lent, of giving something up, functions partly as a reminder of a more general lack – an acknowledgment that our lives and we ourselves are not all we could wish, not by a long way. To our out-of-joint existences, Easter holds out the promise of wholeness, healing, and fulfilment.

The Christian life can be described – as Nietzsche wrote of any of the things that make life worth living – as “a long obedience in the same direction.” The frequent monotony of daily life is felt as a burden by many of us; we falter under it, and seek routes of escape. The rhythm of Lent – and ultimately, says the Christian message, of life – is one of humility, lowliness and hardship abruptly overtaken by joy.

Easter comes to disrupt the everyday: not by cancelling out our ordinary responsibilities, but by pointing backwards to an event it claims is of cosmic significance, and forwards to the cosmic fulfilment of its promise of completely full and meaningful life.

That past and future offer the believer much more than just a relaxing long weekend. They have the power to suffuse the current slog with the purposefulness and ease that comes from knowing this is not, by any means, all there is.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.