Easter season is upon us, and I am up to my ears once again in stories about people being moved by various prayers and songs and readings of the Passion last weekend. While I respect that it’s the central story to Christianity, the way in which people react to it tends to get on my nerves after a while.
Yes, it’s part of their canonical story that Jesus kicked the bucket to save people from their sins. I know. And I know the story of the crucifixion. It is indeed gruesome. But for those of you who have been practicing Christians for all or most of your lives, why are you crying over this and obsessing over the details of how this character was tortured again, for what may be the twentieth, thirtieth, or fiftieth time? Aren’t you sick and tired of this story by now?
From my time as a Catholic, I’ve learned there are several reasons people typically give for this emotional experience in the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Some people say that the reason they’re still moved is that it’s the power of the Holy Spirit moving through them, and that they’re having a spiritual experience. Or, they’ll say they’re just feeling deeply for Jesus, who suffered all those horrible injuries. The latter group sometimes even has a bit of a guilt complex, feeling that every sin they’ve committed contributed somehow to Jesus’ suffering.
The thing that bothers me about all of these explanations though, is that while I’d accept the “feeling bad for Jesus” one once or twice, there are people who experience these emotions every Easter. I know this because I saw my parents go through it every year, and because once I hit a certain age during my years as a Catholic, it started happening to me too. Catholics will talk about these experiences in a very convincing way because they truly believe they’re having a spiritual moment, but don’t be fooled by this. In my experience, practicing Catholics aren’t surprised by this experience; they know it’s likely to happen. They don’t go to mass on Holy Thursday and Good Friday thinking, “gee, this is just like every other mass.” They come to church craving a religious experience.
These pre-Easter tears are almost an addiction to them. I’d compare it to the strange addiction Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club develops. For those of you who don’t know, he becomes addicted to attending support groups for various ailments he doesn’t have, where he always winds up hugging strangers and crying. That character comes back to these support groups again and again despite not truly having a reason to be there. Many Christians do something very similar. They come back every year subconsciously craving that nice feeling they get when they cry their tears for Jesus: that surge of dopamine rewarding them for participating in a community ritual, for joining others as they do something they’ve been conditioned to believe is good, something that will bring them closer to their supposedly loving, tortured savior figure.
The religious experience in this situation is comparable to the crowd-inspired emotions that I experienced during the Steubenville retreat. You’re experiencing the emotions of the people around you to an extent. As social animals, humans tend to mirror each other’s emotions as a way to relate better and bond. But it goes deeper than that. At these events, you are also acting out the emotions you want to feel. In your mind, these people around you are very religious, and you will fit in better if you act like them. They’re all thinking the same thing too, because of the grandiose expectations religious people have for this time of year, so what you get is this collective hive mind of crazy Jesus love. Better yet, it’s rewarding for everyone present, because you can feel good about yourself for being spiritual like everybody else. If you cried during the reading of the Passion, you were one of the cool kids.
Sometimes it’s subconscious, but sometimes it isn’t. I used to sit in church for hours on end praying and contemplating during Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and finally Easter Sunday masses. I used to go to stations of the cross and TRY to feel sorry for Jesus. It really seemed like the right thing to do was to feel something while reflecting on his injuries. As an atheist though, I know I was just playing into the group think that comes with organized religion. It’s all designed to play with our natural yearning to belong, to fit in, to be special. In a religious community, you’re special when your savior is connecting with you on an individual level. It’s literally a “fake it till you make it” situation.
Thoughts on this? Ever cry at Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil masses or services? What’s your personal explanation for why that experience happened the way that it did? All opinions are welcome (religious people too!) Just be respectful to others and think things through before posting.