Monday, 14 April 2014

Easter Week, 1: Its beginnings

It’s Easter Week – a time, since human cultural life began up in the northern hemisphere, when men and women came together to celebrate.

To celebrate what?

Why, to celebrate spring, of course. The end of winter; the onset of new life; of fertility and rebirth; the end of winter’s cold and darkness and the start of longer days, more sun, summer harvests and a time when living is easy. Or, at least, easier.

Imagine this week thousands of years ago, long before lighting and heating and modern refrigeration and all the first world delights and problems of today, back when the ownership of one candle was a valuable thing, and the success of a harvest meant the difference between life and death.

No wonder then that this celebration, of this time, was so important it still lingers today in a different form.

This  celebration was observed in China, called a “Festival of Gratitude to Tien.” Tien, of course, was the Holy One,always spoken of as one with God, existing with him from all eternity, "before anything was made." L. Maria Child, author of The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages, recounts the litany:

"The common people sacrifice their lives to gain bread; the philosophers to gain reputation; the nobility to perpetuate their families. The Holy One (Tien) does not seek himself, but the good of others. He dies to save the world."

It was observed in Europe, Saxon pagans celebrating annually in honour of the goddess Ostri, or Eostre with a week’s indulgence in all kinds of sports, called carne-e-vale, followed by a fast of forty days.

Persians and Egyptians celebrated this time as the start of the Solar New Year with the giving of eggs as a fertility symbols, usually stained with colours from dye-woods or herbs. The Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, love, and sex was Ishtar (pronounced “Easter”). Ishtar’s Sunday commemorated the resurrection of her consort, a god called "Tammuz," believed to be the only begotten son of the moon-goddess and the sun-god. It was celebrated with rabbits and eggs, and sacred cakes with the marking of a "T" or cross on the top.

Stop me if any of this is sounding familiar.

Hebrews too used eggs as part of their feast of the Passover, and the custom prevailed as the celebrations changed. Thomas Doane tells the story in his Bible Myths and their Parallels in other Religions:

In the earliest times, the Christians did not celebrate the resurrection of their Lord from the grave. They made the Jewish Passover their chief festival, celebrating it on the same day as the Jews, the 14th of Nisan, no matter in what part of the week that day might fall. Believing, according to the tradition, that Jesus on the eve of his death had eaten the Passover with his disciples, they regarded such a solemnity as a commemoration of the Supper and not as a memorial of the Resurrection. But in proportion as Christianity more and more separated itself from Judaism and imbibed paganism, this way of looking at the matter became less easy. A new tradition gained currency among the Roman Christians to the effect that Jesus before his death had not eaten the Passover, but had died on the very day of the Passover, thus substituting himself for the Paschal Lamb. The great Christian festival was then made the Resurrection of Jesus, and was celebrated on the first pagan holiday—Sun-day—after the Passover.

This usurpation earlier celebrations caused great problems in early Xian communities, explains Charles Freeman in his New History of Early Christianity. One simple problem was the date, one reason the current Easter festivities make no sense in terms of correlating Easter with the Passover that Jesus was, according to gospel writers, in Jerusalem to celebrate.

Although the matter is only recorded in a letter of Constantine, there was also agreement that the date of Easter would be fixed according to the custom of Rome (where the date was decided with reference to the lunar calendar) rather than Asia. The Asians still tied the feast to the Jewish Passover, an interesting example of the continuing Christian links with Jewish tradition, with the result that Easter usually failed to fall on a Sunday. Constantine, in contrast, rejected a feast which was celebrated `in accordance with the practice of the Jews ... Having sullied their own hands with a heinous crime [the death of Jesus] , such men are, as one would expect, mentally blind.'

And this points to some of the violence associated with the usurpation.

The Jews were particularly hard hit. Many Christians still attended the synagogues or, in defiance of Nicaea, celebrated Easter on the same day as the Passover. John Chrysostom was furious. A series of sermons that he preached in 386 in Antioch is shocking in its tasteless denunciations of the synagogues as equivalent to brothels or dens of thieves. Accusing the Jews of every kind of perversity (including, of course, the murder of Christ) John dredged his way through the Old Testament in search of any displeasure shown by God to Israel, often taking texts out of context to do so. These oratorical campaigns became part of the new Christian ideology. In 415, Severus, the bishop of Mahon in Minorca, set on fire a synagogue filled with its congregation after they had refused to debate with him.

Nice people, these early Xians.

As Voltaire would say about now,

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

More posts in this series:

1 comment:

  1. The evidence that the Christian celebration of Easter/Pascha has any relation to pagan festivals is actually pretty scant. Easter was the original Anglo-Saxon name of the month of April, and is etymologically related to sunrise and dawn.


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