Easter Sunday will be celebrated on April 5 this year. Plough Publishing has released a new anthology for Holy Week, called Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season (2015). It contains nearly thirty poems and stories. Some authors are familiar – Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Brothers Grimm, Selma Lagerlof, C. S. Lewis, John Masefield, Alan Paton, Leo Tolstoy, Lew Wallace, and Oscar Wilde. So are some selections, including Ben Hur (1880), The Great Divorce (1945), Cotton Patch Gospel (1969), and Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful (1982).
Still, I enjoyed the unfamiliar writers and pieces, especially those set during Easter in Jerusalem, London, the Netherlands, Paris, and Russia. “The Golden Egg” and “A Dust Rag for Easter Eggs” are beautiful stories of sacrifice for poor children. Tolstoy’s “Two Old Men,” in which one Russian helps his neighbors while another goes on an Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem, is an indictment of organized religion. So is “The Church of the Washing of the Feet” from Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful, which reenacts the Last Supper in a racially divided South Africa. Masefield’s poem “The Everlasting Mercy” describes the narrator’s conversion and joy in Easter.
However, this anthology has serious flaws. First, stories like “The Coming of the King,” “Robert of Sicily,” and “The Death of the Lizard” (from The Great Divorce) are not connected to Holy Week. Others only narrate a character’s sacrifice. In Gorky’s “The Flaming Heart of Danko,” Danko rips his heart from his body to guide his people out of a dark forest. After they step into sunlight, he dies. In “The Atonement,” a good king exchanges places with his traitorous mother and sisters by taking their punishment. In “The Deserted Mine,” an old man dies after leading trapped miners to sunlight and safety by following Jesus’ footsteps. Finally, in “The King and Death,” a warrior king fights Death, personified as a rider on a horse, by rescuing people in mortal danger. Jesus Christ not only fought death by sacrificing himself, but he also fought sin and hell and rose again victorious. Only with Jesus does Good Friday lead to Easter Sunday.
Second, the stories that do describe Holy Week focus mostly on Good Friday. Lagerlof’s “Saint Veronica’s Kerchief” and “Robin Redbreast,” plus selections from Cotton Patch Gospel and Ben Hur, are examples. I enjoyed “The Way to the Cross,” from Ben Hur, but I wish the editors had included Wallace’s description of Easter. “How the Donkeys Got the Spirit of Contradiction,” a comical look at Palm Sunday, was a refreshing change. The most fitting story was “John,” an emotional portrait of the beloved disciple before he discovers an empty tomb, although I disliked the author’s depiction of him as nervous and faithless. Still, this book had too many sacrifices and too few resurrections. “Good Friday Stories” would have made a more apt title.
Finally, some stories contain Catholic mysticism and theology. In the Grimm fairytale “Mary’s Child,” the Virgin Mary takes a girl to heaven, gives her thirteen keys, and tells her not to use one. The girl is cast out of heaven, her earthly children later snatched from her, after she disobeys and lies. The story focuses rightly on confession and repentance, but portrays Mary as forgiver of sin. “The Legend of Christophorus” doesn’t do this much; the title character finds Jesus through charity instead of repentance. Meanwhile, “Saint Veronica’s Kerchief” captures Jesus’ image on the Via Dolorosa before curing Emperor Tiberius of leprosy. The story, set in Judea and Rome, is intriguing enough without this mystical ending. “Robin Redbreast,” in which a grey robin earns his name by pulling a thorn from Jesus’ brow, is little better. Animals can’t earn their names, just as we humans can’t earn heaven. Relieving Jesus’ suffering on the cross isn’t a good deed either. Lagerlof even recounts a creation legend in which Jesus names the animals. But scripture says that Adam names them (Genesis 2:19-20). Why must we endure bad theology? Does Plough even care?
What saddens me most are the omissions. What’s an Easter anthology without Henry van Dyke’s “The Other Wise Man” (1896) or “Redemption” and “Easter Wings” by metaphysical poet George Herbert? Why weren’t portions from the gospels included too? The Bible alone records Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, so reprinting Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, or John 18-20 should be obvious. Lyrics to recent Christian songs are heavenly too – “Via Dolorosa,” “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” “Arise My Love,” etc. So I think I can produce a better Easter anthology than Plough.
[Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.]