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 (Manna 56: Holidays)
Origin of Easter
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Origin of Easter

Audrey Chan—Leicester, UK

For many Christians, Easter is a season to commemorate the death, but especially the resurrection, of Christ. In the UK, there is little danger of anyone forgetting this holiday. Each year, at least a month ahead, high street stores and supermarkets remind consumers by displaying a veritable assortment of chocolate eggs and rabbits, greeting cards, and other Easter products.

As Christians in the True Jesus Church, we do not celebrate Easter. But just how much do we know about this festival? Could we confidently explain to others the reasons for our non-observance? Our friends from other churches may well wonder why we seemingly overlook what they view as the most important festival in the Christian calendar. Do we know what to share with our children, to redress some of the messages that they receive in school about Easter?

HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF EASTER

The name “Easter” is linked to the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, known variously as Eostre,1 Ostara,2 or Eastre.3 The Saxon people in Northern Europe dedicated an annual festival to her to give thanks for newness of life after the winter. In the ancient Near East, people used to worship female deities with similar sounding names and who, again, were linked to spring and fertility rites. They include Ishtar in Babylon and Astarte (Ashtaroth) in Phoenicia. It is possible that they were worshipping the same deity, albeit by different names.

History also tells us that when the early missionaries started evangelizing in Northern Europe, they allowed the Anglo-Saxon people to retain their pagan practices to limit any adverse reactions to the Christian message, and to make their conversion easier.4 The missionaries won their converts, and by the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon Christians began commemorating the resurrection of Christ with the festival they called Eastra, later changed to Easter.5

Leading up to this development was the deviation of the post-apostolic church from the biblical truth. Step by step, it altered the original message of Jesus and the apostles. The changes included replacing the Saturday Sabbath with observance of the first day of the week (Sunday) as a weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, known as the “Lord’s Day.”6 This was followed closely by the institution of an annual Christian Passover, the Pascha,7 to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, most likely in the second century.8

At the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, it was decreed that all churches should observe the Christian Pascha on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Today, Christian churches in the West continue the practice decreed at Nicaea and celebrate Easter on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25.

Easter Traditions

The legacy of early missionaries accommodating the pagan customs of the Northern European converts remains to this day—Easter is full of customs linked to spring and fertility rites. In addition, over the centuries, Christians have added numerous other local customs:

·         The Easter rabbit came from the tradition that the goddess Eostre’s favorite animal was the hare. In pagan culture, the hare represents love, growth, and fertility—all of which have obvious associations with spring.

·         Exchanging eggs symbolizes rebirth. In pagan cultures, they are linked to the rising or birth of the new sun. The reappearance of spring after winter was a cause for great celebration. Anglo-Saxon mythology says that Eostre’s hare laid brightly colored eggs for the children. Later on, eggs were associated with the rebirth or resurrection of Christ, perhaps because it was associated with the rock tomb from which He emerged. Many rituals were developed during the medieval period, including decorating, throwing, rolling, or hiding eggs for children to find. The term “Easter egg” entered the English language around 1825, and the first chocolate eggs were introduced around 1880.

·         In England, the making of hot cross buns on Good Friday9 came from Tudor times when they were called “cross buns.” They were made with yeast, currants, and spices and marked with the symbol of the cross. These probably started off as wheat cakes made during pagan spring festivals. In the Bible, we come across the people of Judah preparing such cakes for the “queen of heaven” (Ashtaroth) in the time of Prophet Jeremiah (cf. Jer 7:18).

Other customs include:

·         Wearing a new hat and clothes on Easter Sunday to symbolize rebirth.

·         Eating fish on Good Friday, and all Fridays, by Christians who decreed a day of fasting (or at least refraining from meat) to mark the day that Christ was crucified.

·         Eating lamb, which has been associated with Easter, because Christ was the Paschal Lamb.

IS EASTER BIBLICAL?

Nowhere in the Bible can we find the teaching to observe an annual Christian Pascha or Easter. So, the simple answer to “Is Easter biblical?” is “No.” The origins of Easter reveal that it is actually the product of an evolving early church, religious politics, and acquiescence to pagan culture. It illustrates how significantly the teachings and practices of the church altered shortly after the apostles died.

The Greek church historian Socrates of Constantinople (born in 380) wrote that it most likely evolved from local practice in some churches. He acknowledged that neither Jesus nor the apostles instructed believers to observe this feast:

            …each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast…the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter.10

Returning to the Teachings of the Bible

The Bible does not teach us to observe Easter; what it does tell us is that Jesus instituted a sacrament for believers to keep. During the final Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus broke unleavened bread, telling them that it was His body, and then passed round the cup of the fruit of the vine, indicating that it was His blood (Lk 22:19, 20; Mt 26:29; 1 Cor 5:8, 10:17). In doing this, He gave the meal a whole new significance and methodology.

Jesus particularly instructed,

            “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me….This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor 11:24, 25)

The apostle Paul later wrote,

            “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Cor 11:26)

In other words, Jesus wanted us to keep this sacrament (the Holy Communion, cf. 1 Cor 10:16) to commemorate His death—to remember that He offered up His body for our sake and shed His blood for us.

Importantly, we note that Jesus gave no instructions or instituted any practices for us to follow in relation to the following:

·         the frequency of holding the Holy Communion

·         the need for an annual feast to commemorate either His death or His resurrection

·         the designation of any or all Sundays as days of special significance in light of His resurrection.

Jesus’ words and Paul’s words are “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,” indicating that we are simply to hold the Holy Communion on a regular basis. And each time we do, we have the opportunity to remember the sacrifice and grace of salvation given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Any other requirement falls outside of the truth, as set out in the Bible.

Worshipping the True God

As Christians, we worship the one true God—a jealous God who detests idols (Ex 20:3-5). This accounts for why the Bible repeatedly tells Christians to avoid all things connected with idols (Acts 15:20; 1 Cor 10:14-22; Gal 5:16-21; 1 Jn 5:21). But while no God-fearing Christian would wittingly commit outright idolatry, the fact is, customs long-associated with paganism, including those associated with Easter, have become intermingled with Christian culture. The problem is that it has been all so insidious that most Christians either have not noticed or do not understand its significance.

The actions of the post-apostolic church remind us of the warning given by God to the people of Israel concerning the need not to emulate the Canaanites:

            “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way”… (Deut 12:30, 31)

The Israelites did not heed the warning and became influenced by the surrounding nations, such that they brought idolatrous practices into their worship of God. In doing so, they provoked God’s wrath time and time again.

DEALING WITH EASTER CELEBRATIONS

We know that God wants us, as believers, to remain within the boundary of the truth, which is His word (Jn 19:17). We should not add to it nor deviate from it. Therefore, with regards to Easter, which we know to be unbiblical, the obvious course of action is not to celebrate it and to carry on with life as normal. But this approach is probably more straightforward for some of us than others. For those of us with children, for example, there are issues such as school activities, Easter parades, invitations to egg hunts, and Easter gifts to negotiate. So many of the activities during this particular season seem to focus on youngsters. What can we do?

Easter Products

Firstly, concerning seasonal products, we will do well to bypass them in the shops. There is really no need to buy chocolate Easter eggs or bunnies when there are plenty of other alternatives to satisfy a sweet tooth. And, by explaining to our children the reasons for not celebrating Easter, they will learn not to ask for them.

Some people may argue that chocolate Easter eggs are just confectionary, nothing more. But if we deliberately sought them out and bought them, we would be giving our children mixed messages, setting a poor example to the brothers and sisters around us, and be actively supporting the Easter trade.

However, there are also issues of proportionality and common sense. This means that, should friends give us or our children Easter eggs, there is no need to over-react! We need to be mindful that, in the majority of cases, people give Easter eggs out of seasonal habit rather than because they actually celebrate Easter in a religious way.

So, in the case of those friends we know well enough, we may feel we can decline their gifts graciously while explaining why. In other cases, a polite thanks followed by a brief explanation about why we cannot reciprocate will suffice. It does not need to be a big issue. Hopefully, they will understand and not repeat the gesture the following year. In a multi-cultural society, most people are very accepting of different beliefs. Moreover, it is a good opportunity to start a conversation about Easter and to share our faith. And who knows where it will lead?

Easter Activities

With regards to school and community activities, if we have young children, we can explain to the teacher or relevant person about our faith and what we wish or do not wish our children to participate in. If we have older children, they can explain to the teacher themselves but may need help from us in preparing what to say. Nowadays, schools and other organizations are culturally aware and accommodating and would not force any child to do anything that is against his faith.

There are some obvious activities that you may wish to consider withdrawing your children from—these include church services, egg hunts, or Easter parades. But with regards to school plays, some parents may not mind their children taking part when they involve straightforward re-enactments of Bible stories, or if the event is not celebratory in nature.

State schools in the UK seem to have adopted quite a balanced approach in terms of how to deal with religious festivals—they tend to organize activities in such a way as to inform, rather than to promote or celebrate. But if this is not the case where your children are educated, or if you do not feel comfortable with your children taking part in the activities, then you can always exercise your right to withdraw them from those activities.

From personal experience, I think that children who go to church schools will face greater challenges during the festive seasons because they work to a religious ethos, and parents need to factor this in when selecting a school for their children.     

The best approach of all is to equip our children with the correct information about festivals such as Easter. They need to be aware of what the Bible teaches and what are simply human traditions and add-ons.

The church has an obvious role to play in addressing the issue of festivals as part of the Religious Education curriculum, as do parents. This will serve to counter-balance any erroneous information that they might receive in school and elsewhere and will help them to be able to share their faith to others. Having said this, as parents we also need to equip ourselves with the right knowledge if we are to guide our children and set good examples.

CONCLUSION

Looking into the history of Easter, we find that it evolved from practices within the post-apostolic church, which had strayed from the truth. It is not a festival that was either instituted or taught by Jesus or the apostles. We also see that, over the centuries, people have incorporated pagan practices that are now part and parcel of the way the festival is celebrated.

It is therefore with good reason that the True Jesus Church does not observe Easter. But we need to address practical issues, including how to deal with the social elements of the holiday season and how to guide our children to stay within the truth.

May God grant us His wisdom so that we can do what is pleasing in His sight and glorify Him in our lives.

1.        Bede the Venerable, De Ratione Temporum 1:5 (Peter Quentel for Johann Prael, 1537).

2.        Urlin, E.L., Festival, Holy Days, and Saints’ Days (Gale Research Company, Book Tower, 1979). 

3.        Toller, T. Northcote, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Based on the Manuscript Collections of the Late Joseph Bosworth. (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1898).

4.        Frazer, J., The Golden Bough, p. 361 (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993).

5.        The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed, Harrison, R.K. (Moody Press, 1988).

6.        Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol 4, p603 (Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 1980).

7.        Greek for “Passover”.

8.        Pamphilus, Eusebius, Ecclesiatical History, Book 4, Chapter 14, trans., Cruse, C.F. (Baker Book House, 1994).

9.        Derived from “God’s Day.”

10.     Schaff, P., Socrates and Sozomenus: Ecclesiastical Histories (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886).

 

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Author: Audrey Chan
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