The Meaning of Sacrifice at Easter

Extract from The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life by Jonathan Rowson (Bloomsbury 2019). The audio extract of this chapter is available here.

In the Christian tradition, the time between Good Friday when Christ was crucified and his resurrection on Easter Sunday is a moment of repose between despair and hope. That struggle with despair and hope defines the human condition, and Easter Saturday can therefore be seen as a microcosm of our whole lives. Perhaps the reason we don’t hear much about Easter Saturday is that we live it every day.

It saddens me that people in public life have become so chary about speaking about spiritual matters, by which I mean questions about the ultimate nature, meaning and purpose of existence. Much of the population are now in an uncomfortable spiritual place, feeling neither religious nor particularly antireligious, and seeking a spiritual perspective that is intellectually robust and personally meaningful, but not knowing how to get there.

If the reader is wondering by this point in the book whether I ‘believe in God’, I am fond of Jonathan Safran Foer’s response: ‘I am not only agnostic about the answer, I am agnostic about the question.’ When it comes to the entirety of your world view, your spiritual sensibility and your cosmological framework, ‘belief’ is every bit as loaded and ambiguous and unhelpful a term as God. So if somebody put a gun to my head and asked: ‘Do you believe in God, yes or no?’, I would first say: ‘Please define your terms.’ Then if they began to pull back the trigger and said: ‘Last chance!’ I would say: ‘OK, yes! But can we please talk about it afterwards?’

This kind of spiritual equivocation might now be the position of the silent majority of the population. Like many in a globalized and technologically advanced world, my spiritual outlook is varied because my life has been varied. I would say I am culturally Christian, intellectually Buddhist, temperamentally skeptical and domestically Hindu.

Emotionally and aesthetically I feel Christian because I grew up thinking that the individual is sacred, people are flawed and churches are beautiful. Psychologically and philosophically I think Buddhist because I recognize the contingent and interdependent nature of life and think living well means gradually transforming delusion into wisdom by finding and forging the right path. Through seven years of higher education I have learned to assess ideas skeptically and rationally, so I am not particularly credulous. There is a lot of narcissistic nonsense out there masquerading as spiritual insight, and the atheist often makes the most sense. And partly because I’m married to Siva, partly because the iconography is so charming and partly because my meditation practice is Vedantic, I am partly Hindu. For instance, sometimes I find myself lighting incense near Indian deities, and occasionally chanting their names, but not because I believe in them as such.

I was thinking a lot about these matters in the Easter of 2014, and not just because I was working on public understandings of spirituality in a professional capacity in my day job at the RSA. I was also becoming increasingly irritated, perhaps even mildly enraged, by Easter looking like a time of friendly bunny rabbits and colorfully wrapped chocolate eggs. That year the whole shebang just seemed unbearably hollow and shallow and I was pining for fullness and depth.

Eggs and bunnies colonized Easter because its defining story gradually became an explanatory vacuum. The idea that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, often stated as a self-evident truth, makes absolutely no sense at first blush, and then the idea that there is hope for us because he was resurrected does not appear to clarify matters. Even if you trust the historical record enough to establish the where and the when of the event, the other big questions do not have easy answers — Who? What? How? Why?

I struggle with the who. The idea that Jesus was not just a Palestinian Jew with radical politics who told good stories but a cosmic linchpin who was uniquely placed to connect human beings to the divine seems a stretch. Only in recent years have I realized that you need to grasp the what to understand the who, and the how to understand the what, and the why to understand the how.

The ‘what’ of the Easter story is sacrifice, a notion that every strong chess player knows intimately. We sacrifice regularly, sometimes several times in one game. We give up our pawns and pieces and even queens for the sake of greater goals, sometimes short term, and sometimes long. A true sacrifice in chess happens when you cannot be sure if you will ever regain the material you have given away, but trust in the dynamic qualities of your position to compensate for the loss. Chess teaches you that a sacrifice is not simply about giving something up, and nor is it a simple trade of one kind of value for another. You can feel it at the board when you have sacrificed something. You are in a liminal space that is unstable and will soon change, characterised by a state of self-conscious anticipation as you await some kind of transformation.

Just as I believe chess can be seen as a meta-metaphor, i.e. a metaphor that contains many metaphors, and through which the meaning and significance of metaphor (rather than just chess) is revealed, the Easter sacrifice can be seen as a meta-sacrifice, illuminating the role of sacrifice more generally. The story is dark and difficult because when Jesus purportedly rises from the dead he is still wounded. This is not a story about everything being OK in the end. The agonising death and abject humiliation of the crucifixion was not a grand cosmic gimmick or part of a theological set piece. In this sense the story represents the ultimate sacrifice, to undergo agonising pain and feel utterly dejected and forsaken, all for the sake of others; in this case for the sake of all others.

If the what of the Easter story is sacrifice, the ‘how’ is something about what sacrifice does.

Sacrifice literally means to make sacred, and while sacred things are not necessarily morally good they do operate as touchstones of value that are considered absolute, and not instrumental (for instance, in Nazi Germany the swastika may not have been described as sacred, but it functioned as a sacred symbol). In chess that might mean giving away pieces to get at the opponent’s king — the ultimate prize. Just as the king is of infinite value, things that are held sacred are not for sale; they are qualitatively different, and that is partly why the idea of sacrifice is culturally muted in a consumerist society, where the emphasis is on one kind of value and the default aim is to consume more stuff.

Sacrifice, by contrast, is more about emptying than filling, and more about giving oneself away rather than holding on to who we are and what we have. The literary theorist Terry Eagleton describes sacrifice as the transition from weakness to power, in which self-dispossession is a condition for self-fulfilment. The Easter story is the epitome of this idea of sacrifice, namely that we have to empty ourselves to be filled with something else; to lose our lives as we know them to live in a qualitatively different way, and perhaps even suffer in the process. Sacrifice is meaningful, but it is not about happiness.

The what and the how of the story mean nothing without the why, which I confess I don’t fully understand, but it no longer feels completely absurd. When sin is understood in Francis Spufford’s sense of ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’, the idea of being saved from our sins becomes more psychological than metaphysical; it’s about being at peace with our struggle to be good, rather than sitting on the wrong side of the scales of cosmic justice. And then when we consider the human inclination to scapegoat others to shield ourselves from our knowledge of our propensity to fuck things up, rather than accept that we are deeply flawed, the idea that a sacrifice might be a necessary source of renewal seems plausible. And if that’s so, the idea that one particular sacrifice could be cosmically significant enough to readjust our relationship to the divine seems merely elaborate rather than incoherent. And then when we consider our tendency to self-justify, to rationalise and explain away the mistakes we have made, the notion that we may not have to do this comes as a blessed relief. The why of the Easter story, encapsulated in a line by Rowan Williams, is therefore this: ‘Something has happened that makes self-justification unnecessary.’

I am far from sure what to make of all that, but I learned from chess that we need to take sacrifices seriously, no matter where they lead.

Another aspect of the Easter story that I see as a chess player is the importance of seeing one move further. On the Easter Saturday, it looked as if a putative God had struggled to be just, and that in light of parental neglect of celestial proportions, the terrestrial bad guys had got away with torturing and killing his only son. Whether or not it is true, the story of the resurrection says that we should always try to look deeper, and see further.

That experience of reaching beyond one’s grasp and feeling oneself grow in the process is a beautiful moment for any chess player. Just as Thoreau once wrote that men go fishing all their lives without realising that it’s not fish they are after, many chess players play chess all their lives without realising that it’s not checkmate they are after. The time we invest in the game is a sacrifice in aid of those moments of self-forgetting and self-realisation that are most deeply fulfilling.

From The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life by Jonathan Rowson (Bloomsbury 2019) p269–273.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store