“there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man”
Winston Churchill, July 1910, Parliament
This year, Easter is in lockdown. For the greatest of moveable feasts, culminating in the Resurrection story, and capping forty days of Lenten penance, physical Churches will stand in silence. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is closed for the first time since the Black Death in 1349, while in this temperate archipelago, our Churches lie empty, having last been closed by fiat in 1208. As Lent commenced, back in what feels like the Dark Ages but was, I discover online, sometime in late February, I made my annual joke, stolen from Dame Edith Evans, about what I would personally be giving up: “Dickens!” she bellowed, and I tweeted.
Apart from a slight calendrical wobble on Day 1 or 2, I was doing quite well on the wine front, too – I rather spurn the more fashionable months for penance, with their hideous neologisms, like Stoptober and Veganuary. For as Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind convincingly demonstrates, we are deluded if we think “we don’t do God” who remains beautifully infused, like a perfect Single Estate Broken Orange Pekoe from Marco Polo’s favourite island Serendip, throughout so many remarkable – and distinctively Christian – manifestations in our lives. As 2020’s Lent began to really bite, various forms of fleshly mortification, alms giving, and self-denial became fashionable once more and, as with Winston Churchill in America during Prohibition, the alcohol aspect of it all became rather more medical in nature. I write this as Lent ends with, I am only slightly ashamed to admit, a mild hangover.
But enough of all this, cry the children, where are our eggs? Except, of course, they don’t. In recent years they’ve hardly had to hunt or even cry much for anything that their greedy eyes might fall upon, and the fat children once so reviled by Roald Dahl (and almost all other children) have become rather commonplace. For months now, chocolate eggs of ever greater size, eggs that once were small and hunted, have stood in vast towers, like Easter Island statues, lining the entrance ways to our supermarkets, now blessedly if peculiarly quiet. At the tills, manned by some of the new breed of hitherto undervalued “covid heroes” we have finally begun to recognise, with something resembling Christian charity, even the few children are cowed into well-behaved quietude. This Easter, I contemplate my dwindling mixed box of Lindt chocolate eggs carefully, beadily, knowingly, where once I consumed them in such extravagant abundance that they lost almost all meaning. And no, you can’t have one.
A.E. Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, the poetry collection so many young men in The Great War took to the trenches that would consume them, reported in 1892 that the Easter Egg Hunt tradition originated in Germany, suggesting they were relatively new to Britain. Germany, being Germany, has a further tradition of sometimes hiding the eggs among nettles and thorns, no doubt for the moral fibre of all concerned. My maternal grandmother, a nurse of ancient English stock (in her dotage she traced it to John of Gaunt), was slightly kindlier. The eggs hidden in her hedges at Burghclere were few, and far apart enough, to occupy small ones for some time while the adults did more boring activities that seemed to involve a lot of standing about just talking. Meanwhile the low hedges, hardly glanced at before, were suddenly remade and reinvented into a thrilling world of mystery and possibility.
Around ten years after my first Easter egg hunt in a Burghclere garden, today filled with a new and modestly ugly house, my grandmother prepared to move on, to be nearer my parents, and I was told, gravely, about “the Chapel” a few hundred yards away. I was now considered old enough, at fourteen, not to be too upset by it. Having wandered into the corner shop (another house now) for the key, and then mooched the few hundred yards to a building I’d barely noticed before, I was principally upset, upon seeing Sir Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece, the Sandham Memorial Chapel – the finest war memorial on earth, in my opinion, and my favourite work of art – that I hadn’t been allowed at it before. I’m not sure, I confess, that I’ve ever fully forgiven either my parents or my long-gone grandmother for their wanton act of censorship. (I was, however, grateful to discover decades later that Spencer painted my great aunt Edna’s cottage garden, in which I once spent the afternoon catching cabbage white butterflies, for half a new penny each, while the women did more boring activities that seemed to involve of a lot of tea and sitting about inside just talking: it’s the one on the left).
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Spencer’s magnificent Chapel needs to be seen again and again – there’s simply too much to absorb on one visit, and, being naturally lit, you need to pick your moment and your season. As and when we return to something resembling normality, I hope to find myself there once more, preferably alone, contemplating The Resurrection of the Soldiers behind the altar before turning to gaze at Tea on the Ward, and look at the making of Spencer’s favourite jam sandwiches with a smile of relief and recognition. Spencer’s gift, for me, is to humanise the most terrible events, and remind us that amid the very worst things there are still deep moments of love and camaraderie – as well as sandwiches and tea.
The Australian Living National Treasure and cartoonist Leunig has pointed out that “Easter is not limited to the passion and death of Christ; it also includes the dismal tragedy of life unlived by the many, and all the loss of passion and truth that goes with it.” Not this one, I rather suspect. We’re a way from the end of the tunnel, but this weekend we can surely see some of the light, not least in the many silver linings we have all noticed on this extraordinary trip we’re making together. “After all,” as Ram Dass, who died last December, remarked, “we’re just walking each other home.” With spring sunshine and blossom drifting in the sparkling light upon the water, the ancient treasure within is surely stirred, and we can begin to believe again, to realise that the healing has begun, that pretty summer dresses and Easter bonnets will still be in play, and that we will soldier on and survive this, too, and then one day, together, we will look back upon it with a sense of wonder.