When we observe Holy Week and Easter, we are engaging in a world-wide observation of some of the most significant events in Christendom.
Have you ever wondered why, on the calendar, we sometimes observe this Holy Season in March and sometimes in April?
By the second century AD, the Feast of Easter was well established, but there was confusion about when to observe it. Then the Christian Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325. It was at that council in the fourth century that the body of sages determined that the best time to observe Easter was the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. And by way of explanation, the vernal equinox is the beginning day of Spring, the date when day and night are of equal length.
As churches observed the Season of Christ's Passion, his trial, his crucifixion and his resurrection, which we know now as Holy Week, the observances became mixed somewhat with pagan practices already observed in some countries where the story of Jesus was proclaimed.
From St. Bede, often referred to as the Venerable Bede, an eighth century English historian, we learn why our religious celebration is called Easter. In Teutonic mythology, Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. A season was celebrated at the beginning of Spring. When the early English Christians wanted to have more influence on their pagan neighbors, they decided to call the celebration of Christ's resurrection Easter- a name similar to the old goddess Eostre. In that way, the Christians felt that those who were already celebrating a season of rebirth would be more open to hearing and accepting the heart of the gospel story, the death, burial and resurrection of the Christ, the Savior.
Churches today seek to tell anew the gospel story by emphasizing the days of Holy week. Among the most celebrated are Maundy Thursday, the day of the institution of the Lord's Supper with the disciples in the upper room; Good Friday, the day of the death sacrifice of the Son of God; and Sunday, Easter, the Day of Resurrection.
How, then, do we associate Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, and Easter lilies with the Resurrection? We could attribute these to commercialization of a sacred day, as at Christmas we are gung-ho for gift giving. Eggs represent new life and are based on practices common in ancient cultures. An old Latin proverb, translated, means "all life comes from an egg." Eggs became a part of spring festivals and of Easter.
The Easter bunny is also universal and secular in origin. But we should, in all correctness, say the Easter Hare, not the Easter Rabbit. It is commonly held that hares are born with their eyes open, whereas rabbits are born with their eyes closed. The open eyes of the hares, according to legend, were fixed on that full moon following the vernal equinox. Both eggs and hares were symbols of the goddess Eostre, from whom the name Easter was derived.
So common are these customs now that there is a danger that the fun of Easter for children overshadows the significant meaning of the day. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to teach the real truth of Easter. The truth is well illustrated by a story going the rounds now. A teacher gave her nineteen students a plastic easter egg and asked each one to return it with a story of how it represented Easter day. She feared that one child who was a slow learner would not get the significance of the assignment. On the day when each child opened his/her egg and explained its meaning, the little boy brought his empty egg. The teacher knew he had not understood. But then he said, "My egg is empty because the tomb was empty. Jesus rose from the dead." The slow child had really understood the significance of Easter and expressed it in a meaningful way.
Lilies began to be used as Easter decorations in the 1880s in America. Mrs. Thomas P. Sargent saw a beautiful white lily in bloom in Bermuda when she visited there. Taken by its beauty, she brought bulbs back to her home in Philadelphia. There, a nurseryman named William Harris fostered the bulbs which bloomed by Easter. The purity and whiteness of this early-blooming lily became a symbol of the resurrection of the Son of God.
Whatever you experience during Holy Week and Easter, may you be brought closer to the truths of hope and life.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Apr. 5, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.