Mormons’ Puzzling Indifference to Easter

“Happy Easter,” I said to a pair of fellow missionaries as I entered the LDS meeting house in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on the last Sunday in March, 1986.

The elders stopped and stared at me. “Easter?” one of them said. “Today’s not Easter.”

“Yes it is,” I said. 

“Sister Welker,” the other said, “Easter is always the first Sunday in April.”

“No it’s not,” I replied. “It’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. And that’s today.”

The elders rolled their eyes at each other. “Where’d you hear that?” one asked.

“My Chaucer class,” I said. “The early Christians put Easter as close as possible to a full moon so people could still have light at night to go on pilgrimage.” (FYI: a literature degree can be very useful in writing about religion, and vice versa.)

They laughed. “Sister Welker, that may have been how they did things in the olden days. But now Easter is always the first Sunday in April.” 

“No it’s not,” I said. “If it were, Easter would always be Conference Weekend. And it’s not, is it?” 

I had them there. But they still wouldn’t admit defeat. “If it was Easter, someone would have told us,” they said. 

The truth was, nothing but my Arizona Highways calendar had announced the holy day to us. Because we weren’t in a country where children woke up to baskets filled with candy, we didn’t simply know, like everyone else, that the holiday had arrived. We hadn’t had 40 days of reflecting on the holiday to help us prepare for it. Our mission president didn’t mention it; apparently no one had received Easter wishes in letters from family; and nothing in our meetings that day directly acknowledged the atonement, the crucifixion, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mormon indifference to Easter can puzzle pretty much everyone who stops to think about it: Mormons, post-Mormons, non-Mormons. I doubt mine is the only post today or this week addressing the strange situation. (Jana Riess wrote about it on Ash Wednesday.) The church has created media to encourage people to think more of Easter during Holy Week, regardless of what happens in Sacrament Meeting this Sunday.

Part of the reason for it is the influence of New England Congregationalism and/or Puritanism on Joseph Smith and the religion he created: Joseph and his ancestors rejected a liturgical calendar. In the American colonies established by Puritans, you could be fined for celebrating Christmas, which didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870.

As it’s always on a Sunday and federal offices are already closed, Easter is not a federal holiday, so almost no one but candy makers and the printers of calendars actually has to know when it is.

But part of the strange lack of observance is the fact that in Mormonism, the atonement of Christ is not necessary simply because of humanity’s fallen nature. Instead, it’s necessary only to protect human agency, what Jana Reiss recently labeled “our greatest gift,” adding, “In the Mormon cosmogony, our God cared so deeply about human freedom that a full third of the host of heaven was sacrificed in order to preserve it.”

The way in which agency is more foundational than the atonement in Mormon theology was pointed out to me by Amelia, a permablogger at Exponent II. In a followup conversation, she provided this explanation of her ideas:

The only reason Christ performed the atonement was to protect agency—to provide a mechanism that would allow each of us to live a life in which we make our own choices, while still making it possible for us to return to God. Without agency, without the imperative for each of us to live our lives deciding for ourselves our own courses of action as best we understand, there would be no need for an atonement.

This central tenet is one of the things that makes Mormonism a very American religion—it makes self-determination one of if not the driving force of Mormonism. That said, I think it’s important to understand agency and atonement in conjunction with one another. Taken alone, neither works. “All agency” results in destruction. “All atonement” results in no moral culpability or responsibility. It is only the two together that create a society that values both the individual and the collective.

In other words, to synthesize the ideas from Amelia and Riess, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ taking on the sins of the world is not the only sacrifice involved in enabling humanity to return to live with God; there is also the sacrifice of a third of the host of heaven. And both of these sacrifices are in service of humanity’s right to do whatever the hell we want.

But I think Mormons can simultaneously exalt agency and have worship services on Easter dedicated to the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would also like to see Mormons observe Good Friday somehow and reflect on what the day means in terms of their theology.

When my mother was buried two days before Easter several years ago, my devout Mormon family lamented the fact that the proximity of her death to the holiday would forever taint our celebration of it. It fell to me, the unbeliever who studies rather than practices Mormonism, to point out, “Mom is being buried on Good Friday, which is what happened to Jesus, and they say it worked out OK for him. Can you think of a better day to bury her?” That became a source of comfort for them, but we all should have understood the significance of the day from the beginning.

One part of a Catholic approach to Easter that many Mormons now embrace is giving things up for Lent, which I used to find baffling, in part because Mormons don’t celebrate any sort of carnival before it—they merely increase their level of abstention, with no festivities or indulgence to balance or justify the denial, nothing to mark the periods as different. But I can understand it as a way to imbue the celebration of Easter with greater meaning and mindfulness.

In any event, however you are or are not observing or celebrating what is considered by many to be a few of the holiest days of the calendar, I hope they are enjoyable and rewarding for you and those close to you.

Happy Easter.