I took a swipe at Valentine’s Day the other month, so it’s only fair that I have a crack at Easter too.
Don’t get me wrong. As someone who follows Jesus, Easter’s the most significant commemoration on my annual calendar. It recalls the death and subsequent ressurection of Jesus, and is the underpinning cornerstone of my faith. As the apostle Paul writes, if the resurrection didn’t really happen, then Christians are to be pitied above all people, the implication being that their faith is futile.
I was having a conversation with a friend not too long ago about ritual, and specifically in terms of its place in a living and dynamic faith. I came down pretty heavily against ritual, but I realised that that’s not right. It’s also not how I really feel. I like ritual, but what I really don’t like is ritual which has lost its meaning. I think ritual with understanding and commitment can enrich and excite and stimulate. Ritual without meaning is just habit. I don’t think it has a lot of purpose. It’s a bit like coffee. It can give you a short-term pick-me-up perhaps, but it’s never going to change your life for the better (not wanting to give good coffee a bad name here).
The word ‘Easter’ in the English has its roots in the name of an alleged pagan fertility goddess Eostre– the veracity of this figure is disputed, but there’s little doubt that as Christianity spread during the first millenium across a broadly pagan Europe, the celebration of the death and rebirth of Jesus became temporaly associated with pagan celebrations of spring- the notion of the rebirth of natural life following the death that accompanies winter. It is worth noting, however, that unlike Christmas, whose timing around the Winter Solstice was almost certainly a deliberate move by the early church to usurp the pagan celebrations of wintertime (yule), the timing of Easter has far more to do with the fall of the Passover, at which time Jesus was said to be crucified and resurrected (which is why on the Gregorian calendar, the date of Easter is not fixed but reflects the Jewish calendar, and which ensures that the cycle is not directly linked to the Spring Equinox either). It is worth noting that many other western languages draw the name of the Easter celebration from the Greek Pascha (e.g. French: Paques and Spanish: Pascua), which in turn derives from the Hebrew name for the Passover festival, Paschal.
Jesus and his disciples didn’t celebrate Easter, but that’s barely surprising, as while Jesus was still with his disciples, ‘Easter’- that is, his death and resurrection- hadn’t happened yet. There are indications that early Christians were celebrating Easter as early as the second century AD, and that it had become a mainstream festival in one form or another within a couple of centuries beyond then. The fact that it’s not canoned in scripture shouldn’t take away from the value of celebrating what the holiday stands for. I want to make that clear. I don’t even want to knock habits that have become associated with easter celebrations- things like covering the altar of churches with flowers, or holding early morning services while the sun rises. Both elements have strong paganistic connotations, but then the essence of paganism is finding the divine in the physical world around us. I believe God has placed messages about His nature and the nature of truth in the created world, and the rebirth of flowers after winter and the rebirth of the sun after the death of night are both apt metaphors for the resurrection of Jesus and the new life which that offers. I just hope people take a step back and pause to reflect on the symbolic value of the ritual and what message it carries, and not just engage in it because it’s something they’ve always done.
My friends in Melbourne have taken to celebrating a Passover dinner together at this time of the year. Last night I couldn’t be with them, courtesy of being on another continent for work, which was sad. We’re none of us Jewish, but Passover is a highly symbolic event in the Christian faith as well, the many layers of which I won’t go into right now. We see our faith as having its roots very firmly in the teachings of the Torah (the early holy books of the Jewish law) and other scriptures which make up the Old Testament, and in many ways I feel celebrating the Passover is a much more natural expression of my faith than Easter. We take it quite seriously and take time to observe the different elements of the traditional Passover meal together, and I find it a very rewarding and enriching time. Stopping to understand the various truths reflected in the different parts of the meal gives the ritual a special meaning both for me as an individual in my walk with God, and also (crucially) a chance to build relationship and community with the people I care about around me- because faith was never meant to be something we walk alone.
All that really just to say, however you celebrate Easter, I hope you have a blessed holiday. For those of you for whom Easter (or Paschal, for that matter) holds a spiritual significance, I hope you take the time to reflect on the value of the traditions and rituals which we sometimes hold dear without ever really thinking about them, and find that an enriching experience. And for the rest of you, well, enjoy your long weekend and try not to show up to work with too big of a hangover on Tuesday morning…
Photo: Smoke from the Santiago volcano near Managua (Nicaragua) hangs before a setting sun while a cross marks the mountain’s peak.