Is your Easter pagan? Cheapened? Or beyond comprehension?

(“Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection”, by Eugene Bernand 1898)

It is not uncommon to hear people say – to Jesus followers – that Easter is Pagan.   Such talk is – vague. We would do well to ask people if they are referring to the origins of the word “Easter”, the commercialized eggs and rabbits, or the Christian remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. Christians, the world over, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus throughout the year, but especially on Easter, known more widely as Pascha. This practice goes back to the earliest days of the church… and its celebration at this time of year was connected with the timing of Passover, not Spring fertility festivals.

It is helpful here to look up the “Quartodeciman” controversy. This Scrabble dominating word comes from the Latin word for fourteen in Leviticus 23:5 (Lev 23:5 mense primo quartadecima die mensis ad vesperum phase Domini est) – On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover.  Early Christians like Polycarp reported that John had taught them to practice the annual remembrance of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection on 14 Nissan, the Jewish calendar day associated with Passover in Leviticus. Other Christians, from Rome, eventually insisted that Christians should celebrate the resurrection on the closest Sunday after this day. Nisan 14 did not always fall on a Sunday. Polycarp traveled to Rome in the 160’s and discussed this with a bishop there named Anicetus. They agreed to disagree on this occasion. Later, in good Christian fashion, subsequent believers over it.  Christians in the East who maintained their celebration on the 14th of Nisan were called something like fourteener’s or quartodecmians.
The point here is that Christians have always celebrated the Resurrection annually – around Mar/April – based on Passover timing. This was in complete independence of any German or Anglo-Saxon spring rituals. As the gospel spread and Christianity moved into various cultures, this dating no doubt intersected other festivals that were in fact, Pagan. The story there is less clear. Venerable Bede has a famous comment in the 8th century about the name Easter as a name/time having Pagan origins in the name of the month we call April. In a recent Christianity Today article Anthony McRoy gives the famous quote from Bede and puts a question mark over the accuracy of this story. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/april/was-easter-borrowed-from-pagan-holiday.html
It is helpful to distinguish between the practice of celebrating the resurrection of the Savior and the “word” used to label this date (i.e. Eastern, Resurrection Sunday, Pascha). Furthermore, there is always the obvious point that the name of the Easter celebration in non-Germanic languages is not Easter, but rather a cognate of the word Pascha… which relates to Aramaic/Hebrew words for Passover like pesach.
As to Eastern bunnies and painted eggs… well…. you can figure that one out.
The threat to followers of Jesus in this country is not that they might participate in a pagan ritual this Spring. That is a simplistic understanding of intentionality. It seems no more possible to do that than that you might honor the Norse gods by naming the days of the week after them (Thursday, Friday). No, the danger is more subtle. If a mother hands a child a chocolate bunny and some eggs to hide, the danger isn’t that somewhere inside the child’s heart is planted a desire to pay a little homage to the gods of fertility.
No, the danger is that the reality of what we confess happened in history – is cheapened by commercialization – candy, gifts, games, meals, new clothes. Funzies. The God beyond deep space, the maker of galaxies, took up a body to die for humans, for sin, for righteousness. This is mind bending. Yet it is, if not guarded, cheapened by our eagerness for Hershey chocolates and Bob’s Buffet.
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In the cross and resurrection, we are reminded that the God who knows the locations of all the electrons in the cosmos – took flesh upon himself, that he might take your sin in his own body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). This is profoundly personal; again it borders on unbelievable. God is like this?  It doesn’t seem right, but then again, God is not like us. His hunger for righteousness goes far deeper than ours. His pleasure in revelation. In touching hearts.  In the end, the cross and resurrection are not about us; not initially. It certainly is not about chocolate eggs and pastel colors. The cross and resurrection are first about God’s goodness. Because God is good, infinitely good, he comes to earth, takes our sin, dies our death for us.  But this is God in flesh. Death cannot hold the prince of life. He comes back from among the dead. In grace he takes believers with him; through grave, resurrection, and ascension to his throne. In his eyes we are already seated there (Ephesians 2:6). The age to come has broken in upon us, and in Christ, we have a foretaste of what is coming. [1]
At your home this year, what is Easter about? Probably not pagan gods. Hopefully not candy and bunnies. Something beyond comprehension has happened. The God of Passover (i.e. pascha) has done something greater still. He has come. He has died. He has risen. He has taken believers with him!
[1] Biblical eschatology portrays the ultimate future of Christ and the believer on a renewed earth, not a disembodied heaven. However we also have language about being seated in the heavenlies in Christ.

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