He is Risen!
Last time, we saw how Constantine and the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea changed the time Easter was celebrated. Today, I would like to look at the significance of this change.
The date chosen for Easter was the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, rather than associating the day with Passover. It was also the time the word ‘Passover’ was replaced with the word ‘Easter’. It is unlikely to be coincidence that this date coincided with the ancient day to honour Oestre (also spelled Eastre and pronounced ‘Easter’), the goddess of Spring, renewal and fertility/new birth:
“The name [Easter] probably comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom was dedicated a month corresponding to April....Traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in coloured Easter eggs, originally painted with bright colours to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts...” – [Encarta Encyclopaedia].
So while Constantine and the Bishops did not wish to be associated with the Jews and a Jewish festival, they were quite content to be associated with a pagan festival.
In fact, we can see from letters written later that the coincidence of the dates and times was deliberate:
Pope Gregory I “verified the practice of the conversion from Passover to Easter in a letter to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Pope suggests that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards Christianity instead of to their indigenous gods, whom the Pope refers to as "devils". "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God... It would have been suicide for the Christian missionaries to celebrate their holy days with observances that did not coincide with celebrations that already existed. To save lives, the missionaries, in a devious clandestine manner, spread their religious message slowly throughout the populations by allowing them to continue to celebrate pagan feasts, but to do so in a Christian manner. Even the name of the ancient celebration, Eastre was adopted and eventually changed to its modern spelling, Easter.” (Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, "Ecclesiastic History of the English People")
And thus we see the start of the paganising of the Christian church. The Apostles and believers of the New Testament, along with the believers in the church pre-Constantine, would have recoiled at this association:
Tertullian had much to say on this subject:
“furthermore, you Christians have no acquaintance with the festivals of the Gentiles.”
“What less of a defilement does he incur on that ground than does a business...that is publicly consecrated to an idol? The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s as the Saturnalia is Saturn’s...Likewise, New Year’s gifts must be caught at. The Septimontium must be kept. And all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted. The schools must be wreathed with flowers...The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian teacher?"
“We must now address the subject of holidays and other extraordinary festivities. We sometimes excuse these to our wantonness, sometimes to our timidity – in opposition to the common faith and discipline. The first point, indeed, on which I will join issue is this: whether a servant of God should share with the very nations themselves in matters of this kind – either in dress, food, or in any other kind of festivity....”There is no communion between light and darkness”, between life and death...If men have consecrated for themselves this custom from superstition, why do you participate in festivities consecrated to idols?”
“The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! There are New Year gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect!...For even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” [Emphasis in the original]
Origen agreed with him:
“The so-called public festivals can in no way be shown to harmonise with the service of God. Rather, on the contrary, they prove to have been devised by men for the purpose of commemorating some human events – or to set forth certain qualities of water, earth, or the fruits of the earth. Accordingly, it is clear that those who wish to offer an enlightened worship to the Divine Being will act according to sound reason and not take part in the public feasts.”
If that was their view, then how much would they have detested the paganising of the church in this way, a deliberate act, by those who were supposed to be leading the very church of God?
So how and when should we celebrate Easter? For my own part, there is a compelling argument that we should celebrate the resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover. This would be the day of the feast of first fruits, in the Jewish calendar, which supports the idea of Jesus being the first fruits from the dead. But I would not begrudge those who wished to celebrate it at Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. However, I believe that it is entirely inappropriate for Christians to attempt to worship God at a time set apart for the honouring of a pagan goddess. Oestre is depicted with a hare and surrounded by eggs as symbols of life and fertility. Today, Christians exchange ‘Easter eggs’ and talk of the ‘Easter bunny’ as if it is just a pleasant diversion. But it is quite clear both from Scripture and the early writings (pre-Constantine) that such mingling of paganism with Godly worship is to be avoided.
The early church did not celebrate with chocolate, eggs, bunnies or any other paraphernalia. They spent the day before Easter (ie the day they celebrated the resurrection) in fasting and prayer. They even stayed up all night, praying on their knees (as a sign of their penitence) and reading their Bibles. Then at sunrise, they rose from their knees and began a joyous celebration, which lasted all day, including an assembling of themselves together, whether they held that day on the Sunday following Passover, or on another day, associated with the Passover itself.
“They will assemble together at easter, that most blessed day of ours. And let them rejoice!” [Commodianus (c240AD)]
“you have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection...” [Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD)]
“it is your duty, brethren...to observe the days of Easter exactly...You should not, through ignorance, celebrate Easter twice in the same year, or celebrate this day of the resurrection of our Lord on any day other than a Sunday.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]
“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions]
Christians should not be adding pagan rituals to their celebrations, such as Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, sunrise services and even calling it ‘Easter’. And it seems appropriate to celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday following Passover, as the symbolism of the feast of firstfruits is important to the Christian message. Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does!
Next article: The Necessity of the Cross