THE mysterious life, violent death and reported resurrection of a man who lived in the Middle East 2000 years ago is on the minds of many Australians this weekend, not only at church services but at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where thousands of people have used the extended Easter opening hours to marvel at the Renaissance masterpieces of Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini and Titian.
Jesus Christ features in many of the 15th- and 16th-century works - in some as a plump infant snuggling up to his mother, in others as a young man wearing a crown of thorns and nailed to a cross, beside two thieves. Whatever their philosophical and religious significance, the images possess a beauty and express a poetry that transcends faith. Their popularity is a reminder of the central place of the Judeo-Christian heritage in Western civilisation.
The cultural diversity of our secular nation is reflected in the ways Australians will spend the Easter weekend. We are united, however, in rejoicing in our freedom and tolerance, however we choose to exercise that precious gift. Some will spend time with family or relaxing on the beach: some will be working; Christians will stand in reverence at the sacrifice of the Son of God; Jews will remember with thanks the release of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Last Supper, of course, was a Passover meal, a tradition observed by Jewish families and communities since about 1300 BC to commemorate the liberation of the people of Israel, who were led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses. One of the most important Jewish religious festivals, Passover coincides with Easter this year.
The high point of the Christian calendar, Easter has drawn large crowds to Palm Sunday services last weekend, to the Mass of the Last Supper on Thursday and to the Stations of the Cross yesterday. Outside small churches and cathedrals, the faithful, the curious and a few doubting Thomases will gather tonight as the darkness is broken by Paschal fires at the start of the Vigil celebrating Christ's resurrection and the triumph of life over death, hope over despair.
Regardless of whether we celebrate Passover, Easter, neither or both - as many interfaith families do - the four-day holiday affords precious time to reflect. Easter, as Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart said, was a time to think about "ultimate things" and not to be cluttered with consumerism and distractions. Sound religious values such as forgiveness, atonement, hope, tolerance and generosity are also the hallmarks of civilised secular societies, and encourage us to take stock of our own lives and our society. Such values preclude us from giving up on complex problems such as how best to help the 90,000 Australians, including children and other victims of domestic violence, who are homeless every day and how to relieve the poverty and despair still afflicting too many Aborigines in remote areas of the nation. No Australian of good conscience feels comfortable while such challenges remain unsolved. We also have our fair share of problems, as church leaders point out today, arising from greed, self-interest - including that of politicians - excessive gambling and the misuse of the internet for bullying. Adelaide's Anglican Archbishop Jeffrey Driver was right when he said that Christ's "selfless, servant" leadership has much to offer as a role model.
Like Anzac Day, the major religious festivals are attracting an upsurge in younger observants, and Jerusalem, like Gallipoli, is now a popular place of pilgrimage for young Australians who want to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The trends suggest that many young people are more comfortable with secular and religious tradition than their baby-boomer parents and more in tune with the enduring power and purpose of sacrifice. For all that, the churches are fighting an uphill battle to draw them into the pews more than twice a year.
It is human nature to wonder about the meaning of life and death, and the overlaps and apparent contradictions between science, faith and reason. For those who have faith in the gospel narrative, Easter is about the tangible expression of God's inexhaustible love for mankind. For everyone else, the Renaissance artworks can be an enrichment to the soul, offering a glimpse of an extraordinary, enduring myth.
A happy and safe Easter from The Weekend Australian.