It’s interesting that, of the two major Christian festivals in the UK – Christmas and Easter – Easter is the only one that’s actually biblical, though its name is not.
Christmas (‘Christ’s Mass’), the traditional celebration of Christ’s birth in the West, was held on a date that originally celebrated the birth of Mithras (the pagan ‘god’ of light) and the Roman deity, Sol Invictus, thanks to the influence of the Roman Emperor Constantine and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Jewish Seder service, commemorated by Jesus and His disciples before His betrayal and arrest, is kept by observant Jews throughout the world, Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile Christians interested in the Hebraic roots of their faith. It recalls the escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, as indicated in Deuteronomy, Exodus, Ezekiel, Leviticus and Numbers.
Among the evocative symbols used today, the meal contains bitter herbs that recall the bitterness of slavery, and a mix of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine that represent the mortar used to make bricks (Exodus 5).
Salt water symbolises the tears of slavery, a roasted lamb shank bone commemorates the paschal sacrifice made on the night God’s chosen people fled from Egypt, and unleavened bread represents the haste in which God’s people left, without having time for their bread to rise (Deuteronomy 16:3). Another symbol, a roasted egg, represents the sacrificial offerings made in the temple.
But, with eggs having been coloured and decorated by ancient pagan communities, it’s not surprising that, thanks to the eventual influence of pagan converts to Christianity, they eventually became a prominent part of the Easter festival.
This may well explain the season’s excessive emphasis on chocolate eggs. Easter, for many, thanks to materialistic imperatives and our love of sugar and spice and all things nice, tends to have more to do with chocaholic consumption than spiritual contemplation.
But why do people celebrate the festival on a different date from that of the Jewish Passover known and celebrated by Jesus in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22?
The early Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, were aware of the Hebrew calendar, and marked Jesus’ death and resurrection by continuing to hold their commemorative meal at the same time as the Jewish Passover.
In 325, however, the First Council of Nicaea formally established independence from the Jewish calendar, and imposed worldwide uniformity, bringing the much-debated issue of when to celebrate the festival to an end.
Sadly, the Council stated that, ‘it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth, let us have nothing in common with this odious people.’
So, while Christians in the West celebrate Easter on one date, Jews celebrate Passover on another – despite the obvious connection between the two.
It’s unfortunate too that the name which UK Christians use for the festival commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection – like the egg and Easter bunny symbols that threaten to supplant it – may also have pagan roots.
The name is said to originate from that of the Saxon goddess of fertility, Eostre. So, because dawn signifies the rebirth of the day, Eostre’s festival was apparently associated with the rebirth of spring.
When the Saxons reached Britain in the 5th century, the fertility rituals involving eggs, chicks and hares came with them. Later, when they converted to Christianity, the Saxons commemorated Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous return to life instead. However, because the date mandated by the Council of Nicaea sometimes coincided with the month of Eostre’s feast (said by the 8th century monk Bede to have been held in April), the church in Britain called the festival ‘Easter’.
Easter, some say, is also connected with the name of the Norse goddess Ostara, whose ‘sacred animal’ was said to be a hare – although there’s little actual evidence for me to pull this particular rabbit out of the hat!
It is however interesting that, although the festival is called Easter in the UK and USA, and in Germany is referred to as Ostern, in other countries Easter is referred to as Påske (Danish and Norwegian), Pasen (Dutch), Pääsiänen (Finnish), Pâques (French), Pascha (Greek, Latin and Polish), Paskah (Indonesian), Pasqua (Italian), Paskha (Russian), Pascua (Spanish) and Påsk (Swedish).
The names, unlike Easter or Ostern, are all derived from the Jewish word Pesach – Passover!
How wonderful it is, this side of the Cross, that Jesus’ sacrificial death not only brings eternal life and provides forgiveness of sin but – throughout the ages – has inspired believers to fight poverty, slavery, illiteracy, poor living conditions and political injustice.
Let’s pray that, this Easter, people will feast on the true meaning of what the festival is really about, rather than totally missing the point and concentrating on the calorific content of expensively overpriced chocolate.
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, and father of Christopher (16) and Emma (13). He is Copywriter and Editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn how MAF’s fleet of 131 light aircraft bring the love of the resurrected Christ to Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, visit www.maf-uk.org