IT’S EASTER WEEK – a time, since human cultural life began up in the northern hemisphere, when men and women and their families 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 (when most of life in those early days was nasty, brutish and short) 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 it was a valuable thing to own one candle; when literal life and death was a matter of the success of the next harvest.
No wonder then that this celebration, of this time, was so important to the agricultural societies we came out of that it still lingers today in a different form. As Easter.
IN THOSE EARLY DAYS, the spring celebration was everywhere—and in forms that still sound familiar today.
It was observed in China, where it was called a “Festival of Gratitude to Tien.” Tien, of course, being “the Holy One,” always spoken of as one with God, existing with him from all eternity, "before anything was made." The story might sound familiar:
"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."1
The celebration was observed in early non-Roman 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 at all familiar.
Hebrews too used eggs as part of their feast of the Passover, and the custom prevailed as the celebrations changed. The manner of their changing says much about the manner in which the new religion, Christianity, usurped one of its forebears:
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.2
This usurpation of earlier celebrations caused great problems in early Christian communities. 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 [in Constantinople and beyond]. The [Christians of Roman] Asia 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.'3
Christianity having become a state-enforced religion, the usurpation was violent.
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 Christians.
As Voltaire would say about now,
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.
More to come tomorrow …
1. L. Maria Child recounts the litany in The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages.
2. Thomas Doane tells the story in his Bible Myths and their Parallels in other Religions.
3. This and the next quote come from Charles Freeman’s excellent New History of Early Christianity.