Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter: Christian Holy Day, or Pagan Holiday?

Facebook is an interesting phenomenon. A number of you know well about the pros and cons of it. On the one hand, people can let it become a royal waste of time. They can be consumed by a “virtual world” and sink further and further away from the real world. On the other hand, it can be a great place to keep up with friends from high school, college, church and work. It can be a way to keep in touch with people from around the country and even the world. Facebook can be a great place to encourage people in their faith and find encouragement in your own faith. - And, apparently, Facebook can be credited (or blamed) for resulting in this article!

You see, this article is my response to two different posts from my Facebook “friends.” The first post was one of those “copy this and post it to your status” type of posts. - By and large, I don’t really like those. Much of the time they imply or out and out declare that if you don’t copy and paste it, somehow you aren’t really a Christian, or you’re ashamed of Jesus. - By God’s grace, I am a Christian, and I am not ashamed of Jesus . . . but I don’t like those types of posts, and I don’t copy, re-post, or forward them. - Having said that, I’m about to re-post it here(!):

Facebook challenge. . .During this couple of weeks before Easter, I am out to prove that my friends will repost, I hope I am right!!! Easter is not about bunnies and chocolate eggs. Let’s lift up God’s name and make a statement!! When Jesus died on the cross he was thinking of You and Me. If you are not ashamed to call Jesus Christ your savior, copy and repost. I’m not ashamed.

The second Facebook post comes from a friend from high school. In this post, she is responding to everyone who has been copying and re-posting the post, above. And, oh yeah, I should mention, on her Facebook profile, under “Religious Views,” she self-identifies as “Wiccan/Pagan.” And, unlike some, it seems that she has read a bit on the subject, and she is, therefore, often able to offer some informed critiques (sometimes stinging critiques!) of some who claim to be Christians. - Here is her response to the post, above:

For those posting the thing about Easter not being about bunnies and chocolate, you’re half way right. It’s not about the chocolate, even though the ancient Azte[c] people thought of chocolate as an [aphrodisiac]. Easter is a Pagan fertility holiday meant to celebrate the return of life to the earth during Spring. Rabbits, bunnies if you like, are extremely fertile, and eggs are also symbols of fertility.

She goes on to comment: “In particular, it is a Celtic Pagan holiday, though other ancient civilizations around th[e] world have had their own version of it.”

So who’s right? What are we to make of this? Is Easter really a Pagan holiday, or a Christian Holy Day? What about all of those bunnies and Easter eggs? Are they Pagan or Christian or secular?

When we take a good, hard, honest look at it, I would suggest that both, those who have made the first post, and my friend from high school, are correct. - “But how can they both be correct?” you may ask. And am I, a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, saying that Easter is a Pagan day? - Well, let’s take a look.

“Ben” Obi Wan Kenobi once told Luke Skywalker (in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi) that, “. . . many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” - It really sounds a lot like a post-modern denial of any absolute truth. Nevertheless, our position (our point of view) and the position (or point of view) of the person we are addressing does make a difference.

It is clear that the original Facebook post was intended to address the issues of the secularization and the commercialization of a Christian Holy Day, viz., Easter.

Most of us like candy, I think. It may not be good for you, but, often times it sure tastes good! However, for a number of people, especially children, Easter is looked at solely as a time when they get Easter Baskets filled with candy. It is a time for hunting eggs filled with . . . candy, and, also, the possibility of winning prizes. Then, of course, for those who do attend worship on Easter Sunday, there is the “need” to purchase new, Easter clothes. - Easter has become a huge money making event. It has become commercialized.

Likewise, it is a fact that many families, inside and outside of the Church, celebrate Easter. This is the case, very much like it is the case for Christmas. You see, just as one can celebrate Christmas with trees, decorations, reindeer, Santa Clause and presents, one can celebrate Easter with bunnies, Easter baskets, and eggs; all without the mention of Jesus (save in the name “Christ-mas”). Easter, like Christmas, has not only become commercialized, it has also become secularized.

To this reality, a number of people on Facebook have declared, “Easter is not about chocolate and bunnies, it is about the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!”

But then, in walks my friend and a growing number of people just like her. She is not the secularist, or the one promoting commercialization. She hears the protests of my other Facebook “friends,” but she hears it from the “point of view” of a Wiccan/Pagan. And, in doing so, she brings to light certain aspects of the Easter celebration about which many Christians may not even be aware. Why is there such a thing as an Easter Bunny? Why Easter eggs, and why do we even call it Easter? She wants us to know the answer to these questions. In fact, reading between the lines, it maybe that she (or, at least a number of contemporary Pagans) is not too happy that we Christians have “stolen” this “Pagan celebration.”

Is she right in her claims? - Well, to large extent, she is! - But before you pull out those stones, let me talk a bit about it.

First, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus by the Church was not “stolen” from any Pagan group. Since the resurrection of Christ is central to the Christian faith, there should be no surprise that its celebration has existed from the earliest days of the Church. In fact, even in the New Testament, we see evidence of the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ in Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians (5:7-8). In this passage Paul makes the connection between Christ’s passion/resurrection and the Jewish Passover, or Feast of Unleavened Bread. There, Paul says, “. . . For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival” (NRSV)1.

In fact, it should be noted that, outside of the English speaking world, the celebration is still called by the ancient name which Christians used for centuries. It is still referred to as the Pascha. Pascha is the Hebrew word for Passover. The Greek and Latin languages continued with that same word. Other European languages have used titles derived from it, as well (e.g., French: paques; Spanish: pascua; Dutch: pasen; and Scottish: pask). They can all still proclaim, with Paul, in the midst of the Eucharistic Sacrament, “Christ our Pascha (Passover) is sacrificed for us.” It makes no sense to declare, “Christ our Easter is sacrificed for us.”2

As you might be able to tell, I would highly agree with those who would argue that Christians ought to reclaim the ancient terminology over against the English term, Easter. - So, where did this term, Easter, come from, and why does the English speaking world use it in reference to the celebration of Christ’s victory of sin, death, hell and the grave?

Well, back to my friend’s post. She is, indeed, correct that the term, Easter, originates from within the Pagan world. It comes as an Old English adaptation of Eastre, which, according to George Gibson, is the name of the Teutonic goddess of spring and dawn.3 In other words, it was connected to a Pagan Spring festival that did focus on the return of life to the Earth. So, what about some of the symbols of Easter?

We know that eggs were used in rituals and ceremonies. They were sometimes hung in pagan temples and used for mystical purposes. However, when Christians adopted them as a symbol for the Paschal (Easter!) celebration, they took on new meanings. For some they symbolized eternal life, because they hold the hope of things to come. For others, they symbolized the tomb, which was emptied when Jesus was resurrected. In fact, it is said that early Christians made it a rule that eggs could not be eaten during the 40 days of Lent. It also became customary to decorate the eggs and prepare them as gifts to be given on Easter Sunday. When an egg was exchanged, the giver would say, “Christ is risen,” and the receiver would respond, “Christ is risen indeed!”4

My guess is (without doing all of the research) my friend is probably essentially correct about the use of “bunnies,” etc. Certainly, she is correct that ancient civilizations from around the world have celebrated, not only the spring, but also the times of harvest. Perhaps some of those celebrations could be rightly considered Pagan, but some were simply seasonal/cultural celebrations. Even Jewish religious celebrations included seasonal celebrations, as well.

But why would Christians take on Pagan practices?

To begin, let’s recognize that Easter is not the only example of this practice. A good example (and explanation) is found in the practice of St. Patrick. Patrick was taken as a slave to Ireland. After his escape, he entered holy orders and returned to Ireland as a bishop and a missionary. As the Pagans of Ireland converted to Christ and the Christian faith, Patrick did some very interesting things. He “Christianized” or “sanctified” a number of the things that had previously been associated with their Pagan culture. For example, Patrick built Christian churches for those converts on sites that they had viewed as sacred prior to their conversion. He placed Pagan, “holy” wells under the protection of Christian saints. And he carved crosses on what the former Pagans previously considered to be sacred symbols. - As I said, he “Christianized” or “sanctified” certain aspects of the old, Pagan life of these newly converted Christians.

One can look at this practice, to use Obi Wan Kenobi’s words, from more than one “point of view.” From a Pagan point of view, what Patrick did (and what the Church has done) may be viewed as “stealing” their sacred objects, symbols and celebrations (though I would suggest that, in Patrick’s case, the missionary efforts of one former slave resulting in the transformation of a nation could not be construed as “stealing,” but as an example of the grace of God). On the other hand, from the Christus Victor point of view, Patrick’s practice (and that of the Church throughout history) was a demonstration of Christ’s victory over the various gods, which are really no gods at all. And from a pastoral point of view, Patrick (and the Church) assisted the new converts in their new found faith by affirming that God had been at work even in the midst of their previously Pagan (mis)understandings.

I would suggest that these types of approaches to various faiths can be seen, even in the pages of the New Testament. St. Paul’s approach to the people of Athens, as recorded in Acts 17:16-34, is a great example. While in Athens, Paul discovered, among the various idols, temples and altars, an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” Paul responded by declaring to the people, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you,” and he went on to proclaim to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He even quoted of their own poets in an affirming manner, pointing them ahead to God in Christ Jesus. In fact, the New Testament, itself, demonstrates that Jesus not only fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, but “filled them full” of new and added meaning.

What Paul did, and what the Church has done, fits nicely with what we Wesleyans refer to as Prevenient Grace (the grace that goes before). We believe, as one of my seminary professors used to say, that “God is at all times, in all places, calling all people to be reconciled to God.” Paul recognized, not only in the Athenians desire to look beyond themselves and to worship, but especially in this altar to an unknown god, the Prevenient Grace of God reaching out and drawing them to God’s self.

We Christians, especially we Wesleyan types, would do well to look and try to discern where God is at work drawing people by grace. What can we affirm? What is there in other faiths, sincerely held, that we see pointing ahead to Jesus?

It seems obvious that Christians encountering certain Pagan objects and practices would see in them the voice of God pointing ahead to Christ, and that many of these various things that were formerly a part of the new Christian convert’s “old life” would be adapted with new, added meaning and significance in Christ. Of course, Christians would see anything that pointed to new, or renewed life, as being symbols of the One who is the Author of Life; the One who promises to us a new life; life abundant and life eternal!

Unfortunately, much of the Church (at least, here in the U.S.) has lost this perspective of Prevenient Grace. The first of the Facebook posts, above, demonstrates that our mindset has been to defend and argue against the encroaching secularism and consumerism of our age. I think that there is validity in this. However, I think that the Church can do other things to “keep Christ in Christmas” and Easter. For example, I suggested, last winter, that one way to keep Christ in Christmas is to observe Advent as a season of preparation (rather than being sucked into the secular celebration of Christmas beginning even before Thanksgiving), and then celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas leading to Epiphany. Another suggestion was to “keep the Mas(s) in Christmas,” a well. That is, gather with the Church to worship on Christmas (Eve and/or Day), rather than treat it as just a “family holiday.”

For Easter, I would suggest the same kinds of things. Observe the season of Lent. Participate in the Holy Week services of Passion/Palm Sunday, Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil/Sunrise service. In the ancient Church’s great paschal celebration, they viewed the services of Thursday through Easter morning, as one celebration. And then, since Easter is not just one day, celebrate the Great Fifty Days from Easter morning until Pentecost Sunday. - And, of course, reclaim the Paschal terminology. (A bit of a pet peeve of mine is that the Christian radio stations do not seem to help, but rather hinder us in this effort!)

Beyond “keeping Christ in” the various Christian holy days, we Christians are going to have to realize that the post-modern, twenty-first century in which we now live is becoming more like the days of the ancient Church than the days of the modern Church. We will encounter, more and more, those around us of various faiths; some are those that we are somewhat familiar with (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.), but others are newer to us, though with their own ancient origins (e.g., Wicca and the various forms of Paganism).

As we encounter these friends, neighbors and even family members, we are going to have to learn to prayerfully discern where God is already at work drawing them. What can we affirm? At what points can aspects of their faith be seen to point ahead to Christ who is the fullness of God? That is to say, where/what is their “altar to an unknown god,” and where is God’s Prevenient Grace already at work? By prayerfully discerning where God is already at work, we will be in a better position to be able to share with them our faith in Jesus Christ. (And, it should be noted, “sharing” one’s faith with friends, neighbors, family, etc. implies a relationship of love, not an argumentative “drive-by” encounter.)

So, what do we conclude? Is Easter a Christian holy day or a Pagan holiday? It “depends greatly on our own point of view.” For my “Pagan” friend, it is, indeed a Pagan celebration. But, for those of us who have experienced new life through the grace of God, by faith, it is the glorious celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Therefore, let us be bold to proclaim: “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!!!”

1. Cf., While, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. Revised Ed. Abingdon P. Nashville. 1991.

2. Cf., Duba, Arlo. “Recovering the Word Pacha” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. V: The Services of the Christian Year. Robert E. Webber, Ed. Star Song P. Nashville. 1994.

3. Gibson, George M. The Story of the Christian Year. Abingdon-Cokesbury P. Nashville. p. 79-81.

4. Faith Connections, Bible Curriculum, Preteen Teacher’s book. Vol. 10, Number3. Bristol House (Word Action). p. 45. 2011.

1 comment:

Simian Czar said...

Writing in Christian History, Anthony McRoy argues that outside of a reference by the Venerable Bede, there is no evidence that Germanic / Anglo-Saxon people ever worshipped a spring deity with a name like "Easter." He suggests that the name is morel likely simply a Anglo-German name for a spring month in the calendar. See http://bit.ly/fXq6Xk