The Complicated Commodification of Easter

6 minute read
Griffith is an assistant professor of history at Whitworth University. He is the author of God's Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America

Recently, my wife and I were talking about how overwhelming it can be to explain to our children what is good and important about Holy Week. Whatever theological knowledge that we manage to dispense inevitably gets misinterpreted, sometimes in hilarious yet troubling ways. One year, my son, frustrated by his toddler sibling’s tantrum, suggested, “We should send her to the cross.” A Good Friday-themed assertion to be sure, but not the catechetical takeaway parents hope for.

For many Christians in the U.S., Easter is an occasion to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection—oftentimes with chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs faithfully involved. But Easter is a more complicated holiday that its saccharine, festive connotations let on. Even when Christians have done their best to convey the deep importance of the cross and resurrection for our lives, this message is often misconstrued or missed altogether.

Take, for instance, one of its most visible consumerist associations: The sartorial choices American Christians have come to embrace on Easter. As middle-class Victorian sensibilities took hold in the late 19th century, American Christians increasingly abandoned muted reverence for resurrection and adorned themselves with ever-brightening bonnets, suits, and dresses for the holiday. Reflecting a burgeoning consumer culture, stores marketed new forms of Easter fashion and millinery. It was a religious shift, as historian Leigh Schmidt has written, “from self-denial to self-fulfillment.” Many today likewise adorn themselves in analogous garb with flowery, fluorescent hues (tailor made looks for social media posts). And even as church attire has grown more informal in recent years, Easter fashion still sells. An estimate from the National Retail Federation puts Easter clothing spending for this year at $4 billion, up from $3.1 billion 10 years ago.

Easter is also a holiday that, along with Christmas, intensifies the question of who is a true believer. Talk to a pastor and they’ll tell you that Easter Sunday is when many of their parishioners will make their lone annual trip to worship. Google searches for “church” are the highest right before Easter, likely the result of absentee believers who can’t remember what church options are nearby, hoping to pop in to worship. Some pastors embrace Easter as an evangelistic opportunity, a “Super Bowl Sunday for the church when it comes to preaching the gospel,” as one Baptist mission strategist has put it. For other church leaders it signals a lack of commitment to be lamented and challenged. Either way, the assumption is that those once-a-year attendees are just that: attendees, not real Christians. Easter nominalism is therefore as a sign of secularization—and of a crisis for the American church at large.

Read More: What to Know About the Origins and Meanings of the Major Holy Week Rituals

In its consumerist and nominal splendor, Easter is perhaps the holiday that Christians in America deserve. We are a faith captivated by wealth and spectacle, invested in commercial habits that shape our lives more than any liturgy or commitment to social justice ever could. We are also a faith that is declining in terms of membership and denominational health, to say nothing of our impoverished political and social imagination.

Every one of these dimensions is personal for me. I am someone who believes strongly in Christ’s call to simplicity and to economic justice. And yet, I am also entranced by American consumerist habits. I’m tempted to wear a suit to church on Easter, and I’ve spent more time scrolling men’s fashion sites this Lent than practicing spiritual disciplines. And even though I love my church’s services dearly, I understand the pull to other things, especially after a tiring week. More times than I’d like to admit, I breathe a sigh of relief when one of my kids has sniffles on Sunday; it’s a handy excuse to stay home while also maintaining the air of spiritual respectability.

Yet, I’m comforted by the fact the Easter story itself is one full of self-centeredness and lack of commitment. Consider Peter. On the night of Jesus’ death, Peter makes a bold promise: “Even if all fall away, I will not.” Like the churchgoers who show up every Sunday, not just on Easter, Peter knows what true discipleship looks like and is confident he is among the faithful. And yet, Jesus tells Peter that on that very evening “you will disown me.”

And disown Peter does, though not before falling asleep after Jesus asked him to stay awake, and then overcompensating by slicing off the ear of one of members of the arresting party. Jesus reproves Peter in both cases, though the message doesn’t stick. As Peter watches Jesus’ trial from afar, he is accused by onlookers of being among Jesus’ followers. He grows enraged, cursing and denying the association three times: “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

This is key to the Easter story. We are Peter. Not only are we broken, but the very moment that is the climax of the church calendar is also a crystallization of our selfish impulses, our nominal faith, and our sputtering inability to speak truthfully about God or anything else.

And yet, we can take heart, because Christ’s resurrection is for Peter. As women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body, they find that the stone has been rolled away. A young man in a white robe tells them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here…But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him…’” In the same breath, God’s messenger announces Christ’s resurrection and singles out Peter as a recipient of this good news.

“And Peter” is God’s word of friendship towards those who are fixated on themselves. It’s God’s work of making all things new, including lifeless, lackadaisical faith. It’s God’s reminder for us that, even amidst our mixed motives and selfish habits, we are loved not because we have it all together, but because God is for us. Perhaps then we can be confident in naming the various forms of brokenness present in a narcissistic, dying American church. Resurrection, after all, is for the dead.

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