How Easter's true message should be one of thankfulness
A former and much-respected editor of this newspaper, Eugene Wason, asked me many years ago to write an editorial about Easter, and he said: "Whatever you do, keep religion out of it!"
Then he began to laugh at the total contradiction of his words, though what he was trying to underline was the holiday atmosphere of Easter rather than the community confrontation, often under religious labels, that was tearing Northern Ireland apart at the height of the Troubles.
Easter, of course, is a time for holidays, even in our weather, for family get-togethers, for rolling your Easter eggs (a custom which began centuries ago as a pagan ritual), and generally for looking forward to the spring and summer.
Nevertheless it is impossible to leave religion out of Easter, because that is what it's all about. This weekend is the most important in the Christian calendar, and people of all denominations and branches of Christianity will crowd into churches across this island, and worldwide, to celebrate the message of Easter. As St Paul noted, if there was no resurrection, "then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain".
The message of Easter is basically one of hope over diversity, of triumph over tragedy, and of good over evil. It is a message that we could do well to heed this year, at a time when Christianity is under severe attack from Muslim militants in many parts of the world, and also facing intellectual challenges from some extreme supporters of secularism in the West.
I have noticed recently a steady stream of letters and criticisms from secularists about some of my pro-Christian comments in this column, but few enough church members raise their heads above the parapet to defend in public what they believe in private.
That is why the Ashers Bakery case is so important. It is not just another example of the Christians and the gays having a very public difference of opinion. It is really about what the law is saying about equality, human rights and the right of conscience in a democracy, and people from all faiths, and none, will be closely watching for the outcome.
In the past year, and well before, Christians in many parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East and Africa, have been suffering severe persecution solely because of their religious beliefs.
Just this week at least 147 students were shot dead by Islamic militants in Kenya. Witnesses said the terrorists singled out Christians. In our part of the world individuals have died because of their perceived religion - such as wearing a Celtic FC jersey, and that was appalling.
Yet, as a community we have no real understanding of what it must be like to live in those parts of the world where any criticism of religion can result in death - though this was brought nearer home this year by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
As Bishop Harold Miller has pointed out: "The message of Easter is one which is absolutely true to our life experience - the good alongside the bad. Easter can never be sentimentalised in the way we manage to sentimentalise Christmas."
By all means enjoy this break, but the true Easter is much more than a holiday.
It is also a time for quiet reflection, for counting our blessings, and for being thankful for the freedom of worship and expression of opinion which we often take for granted.