On Easter, parents hide brightly colored eggs. Children dig through decorated baskets for chocolates and candies. Church-goers don new clothes and sing joyful songs about the power of God. Families gather to eat a holiday meal.
Easter is the high point of the Christian year, the celebration of Jesus Christ's return to life after being killed by Roman authorities. Jesus' resurrection represents God's triumph over death.
But for the increasing number of Americans who are non-Christian, Easter is just another weekend day. Phillip Whitley of Chambersburg, Pa., paused from shopping in downtown Hagerstown to say as much.
"I grew up Jehovah's Witness and we never celebrated Easter," he said. "Now that I'm on my own, I like to get together with friends, cook a meal. The importance for me, mostly, is the time to spend with loved ones."
Hagerstown residents Bryan Atherton and Laura Radiker took a moment from eating lunch at a table on Public Square to say they see Easter as more a cultural holiday than a religious event.
"We don't really celebrate Easter," Radiker said. "A lot of things around Easter are for children." Radiker and Atherton have no children.
"My family members were secular, but we enjoyed the cultural touchstones," Atherton said. "As adults, for me, Easter is spring."
Atherton added that he and Radiker are historians, and they learned Easter was named after Eostre, a mother goddess of Northern Europe tribes. That, Radiker said, was an interesting comment on the Christian holiday.
"Even the name is a (pagan) goddess's name," she said. "The irony is inescapable."
Still, for many Tri-State residents, Easter is thoroughly Christian and a celebration of God's power and love.
Life after death
The Rev. Stan Steele said an authentic celebration of the Resurrection — the climactic Easter event — is not just about the happy ending. It's also about the horrible tragedy that preceded it.
"For me, it's all about Good Friday," said Steele, pastor of St. Marks Lutheran Church in Hagerstown. "You have to go through the pain and suffering of the cross so that the Resurrection has the impact it does on us. If you skip over that, Easter is a beautiful holiday, but it sort of lacks something."
Steele and his congregation have recently struggled with the impact of death — five members of his church died in the past few weeks.
"Some of those were at the end of their life, (in their 80s and 90s)," he said. "The one that knocked the breath out of everyone was Quinn Hoover."
Quinn died following a March 18 car crash on U.S. 40 east of Clear Spring. He was 17. His death, Steele said, has challenged many church members. Steele said it hit him hard, too.
"This isn't my first teen death. It's my fourth," he said. "There's no way any of us can lose a spouse or child and continue on our own, to take that next step."
People struggle to understand death from a Christian perspective. Steele said he's heard some say a tragic death like Quinn's is part of God's plan.
"I'm not sure God has a plan. It's an unjust world in which bad things to happen to good people. It was not God's will that Quinn die," he said. "As difficult as these past few weeks have been, I've never believed more in the Resurrection. It's easy to let death have the victory here. But as Christians, we believe our God is the god of life. We believe he doesn't let death win at the end of the story."
Easter frees believers from sin
For traditional Christians, Easter proves God's love. Through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, God freed believers from paying penalties for their errors and immorality.
Pastor Gary Zook of Northside Mennonite Church in Hagerstown said Jesus' death and resurrection offer the promise of new life for those who believe.
"People have moved away from the Gospel account. Men are trying to find their own way to find satisfaction, their own means of fulfillment," Zook said. "But the only way to find true fulfillment is through Jesus. He said, 'No man comes to the Father except through me. The way to new life is through me.'"
Zook said the Bible describes humans as naturally sinful, that people tend to ignore God or break God's moral laws. And, just as a civil judge penalizes citizens who steal or murder, so God penalizes sinners. But Zook said Jesus willingly paid the ultimate penalty — death — on behalf of believers, so they could have a clean slate.
"Jesus offered himself up on a Roman cross, offered himself for us, so that all who believed in him would experience new life," he said. "As believers, we can rise from the death of our spiritual sins. We can find new life in a dead and dying world."
The Rev. Tim Lester, a pastor at Tri-State Fellowship, west of Hagerstown, said Jesus earned his worship.
"If I'm going to follow anybody, I'm going to follow someone who beat death," he said. "Jesus actually beat death. That's supernatural, and beyond the capability of any human. The Resurrection is a celebration of this simple truth."
A time to face mistakes
Lester said the Resurrection means different things to different people in his church. For some, the Crucifixion demonstrates that God was willing to become human in the person of Jesus and show how to live an exemplary life of service. For others, it's confirmation of how deeply God loves his people, that God goes to great lengths to maintain a loving relationship with believers.
Even for nonbelievers, Lester said, Easter holds an opportunity for personal growth.
"We all screw up. You don't have enough time to hear about all my own mistakes," he said. "Do you never stay awake at night thinking about something you did or said: ‘Oh, man, that was just stupid.' You may not tell anyone. But there's still a cost. In five years, you might lose a marriage or a relationship."
Lester said ignoring our mistakes — things we did that we shouldn't have done, or things we should have done but didn't — is counterproductive.
"There's a way to do life, and there's a way not to do life," he said. "The way (to do life) is not stuffing your guilt away, not taking revenge, not demanding your own way. If I was talking to Christians, I'd say that's sin. But all of us, believers and not believers, have a tendency to do those things."
The Resurrection, Lester said, offers hope that people can make a new decision to lead a new life. Their first step, he said, should be letting go of the bad stuff.
"There's a lot of things that have to die in them," he said. "If I'm not willing to let some death take place in my life, I'm (hurting myself)."
The way to heal and grow
The Rev. Susan A. Haberkorn, a licensed clinical pastoral counselor working in Hagerstown, said Jesus' sacrifice represents the opportunity for healing. One key part of that is accepting one's own actions.
"There are many people who don't like to take responsibility for their own behavior. As a counselor I see that," she said. "I tell people they have to face the fact that they are sinners. They have to accept the fact that they're lost."
The key to healing, Haberkorn said, is for people to understand that, because we are all human, we are all sinners.
"Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, a sin nature was attributed to all humans," Haberkorn said. "Sin separates all humans from God. God knew how he would deal with this. God came to Earth as Jesus. His whole purpose was to provide a sacrifice to allow sinners to repent and be guiltless again."
But Veeda Bassette sees sin and the Resurrection in different terms. Bassette is owner of Inner Beyouty, a metaphysical gift and book shop in downtown Hagerstown.
"Traditionally, Jesus died for your sins, and if you believed, then you were saved," she said. "But that's rudimentary. Easter is about inner resurrection, letting parts of yourself die off. Resurrection is a form of rebirth."
Bassette said Easter, like spring, represents eternal life. In autumn, trees drop their leaves and "die." But in spring, they "resurrect" with fresh leaves. Flowers bloom. Animals give birth.
"It's about the continuation of life — dying off and rebirthing," she said.
Bassette said she recently had a new appreciation of Easter. She reread the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, in which a rich man's son takes his inheritance early, spends it foolishly and then returns shamefaced to ask his father's forgiveness. The Prodigal Son felt disconnected from his father and wanted to rejoin his household.
Like the Prodigal Son, we feel disconnected from our spiritual homes, Bassette said. But we're not.
"One thing that tickled my fancy is to look up the definition of individual. It's 'part of a whole'" she said. "The Resurrection is coming back to the knowledge we're always in the spirit. It's only an illusion we're separated. Resurrection is resurgence of understanding that we are divine."