Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday

As there is no fixed date for Easter, I have not included one in the above "Title".  BUT it does usually come sometime in early April.  More about that ("the Easter Rule") below.  But it is the celebration in the Christian religion of the day when Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, following His crucifixion by the Roman authorities in Judea. This idea that Christ was crucified by the Romans and that in this way he paid for the sins of mankind,  that he overcame death and was resurrected into eternal life is central to the faith of Christians all over the world. As it is a faith belief, I will not attempt to document it as historical fact, although there is a very great deal about the life and death of Jesus Christ that can in fact be documented.   That it was merely the end of His life as a human being who walked among us,  and the beginning of His eternal life after His physical death must remain a point of faith for me and Christians like me (depiction of the resurrection of Jesus by Bernhard Plockhorst, 19th century).   That said, let's move on to a bit about Easter traditions.....

Easter From the Second Century in Rome

The fact that easter became a festival of holy days is an example of the early church's successful practice of co-opting popular pagan holidays (like Christmas for example), and making them part of regular christian life and traditions.  Christian missionaries who fanned out across Europe in the Second Century faced many customs and pagan beliefs already in place.  These missionaries tried to avoid interfering with these practices too much, preferring to tranform these practices into traditions which harmonized as seamlessly as possible with Christian doctrines.  This was for the very practical reason of avoiding persecution.  If the Christian rite was held at the same time and in a similar way as the pagan rite, then the new Christians might possibly survive long enough to spread the word.  The old festival of "Eastre" which celebrated the coming of the spring came at about the same as the new Christian's celebration of Christ's resurrection.  So the early missionaries simply held their "Eastre" celebrations at that same time, and thus avoided much of the persecution which might have come their way.   For years "Easter" (as it came to be spelled) was held variously on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.  But in 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea, which had been convened  by the Roman Emperor Constantine (above, Emperor from 306 to 337) who had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire isued the "Easter Rule" which stated that Easter was to be celebrated on "the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox." Therefore, Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25. 

 The Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, etc.

Our old friend "the Easter Bunny" originates  from the fact that according to the English historian, the Venerable Bede (an English Monk at the Northumbrian monestary of Saint Peter), the goddess of Eastre was worshiped by the Anglo-Saxons in the person of her earthly incarnation or symbol, the hare. The idea of the Easter Hare spread eventually to the Germans, who brought it to America in the 18'th & 19'th centuries.  The tradition was disdained by the Quakers, and other groups who thought that a white rabbit was rather a frivolous symbol for a serious event like Easter. Only after the Civil War with all of it's murderous destruction did the tradition of Easter, with it's emphasis on life after death, and with it the easter Bunny come to be celebrated throughout the country.  The Easter Egg goes waaaay back in time. The Egyptians placed eggs in their tombs and the Greeks placed them on top of graves. Tradition has it that Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Christ's cross to Mt. Calvary earned his living as an egg merchant. When he returned to his farm after the crucifixion he found that his eggs had all turned a fabulous array of colors.  So it was easy for the early church to come up with this symbol for Easter. This tradition went in all manner of directions.  During the 1880's in Germany,  for example Easter eggs were actually a substitute in some areas for a birth certificate.  The egg would be dyed a solid color, and the child's name and birthdate would then be etched into the shell with a sharp tool.  Eggs of this type would actually be honored in courts as evidence of the child's age and identity.  And of course there were the fabulous jewel encrusted Faberge' eggs which were created by Peter Carl Faberge' for the Russian royal family beginning in 1886 (one of which is pictured above). Of the 50 eggs made by Faberge' through 1918, 42 have survived in museums around the world, and are valued well into the millions! But it is the symbolic value of life renewed that makes the colored Easter egg so appropriate for this holiest day in the Christian calender! So HAPPY EASTER!!

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by Charles Panati, Harper & Row, New York,


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