Sunday, April 5, 2009

Christians and Easter

In Charles Spurgeon's Defense of Calvinism, he begins by saying "it is a great thing to begin the Christian life by believing good solid doctrine". That opening statement has always stood out to me simply because it was just months after I left a desperately messed up church (my first church after conversion) that I was given that sermon to read. The first time I read it I remember thinking along the lines of "yes, it sure would have been". In many ways, it felt like the real part of my Christian faith began about the same time I read that sermon.

I mention that because it was also around that same time that I had really been struggling through the technical details on why we do what we do under the banner of Christian or popular tradition. One of those topics was Easter, and why we do all the things we do at Easter time. More than anything I wanted to be grounded in good, solid doctrine and I knew I wasn't. One of the countless questions I'd asked the pastor at my first church was "why do Christians celebrate Easter?" and I was essentially patted on the head and told to run along. The vast majority of my questions were never answered and it was quite frustrating. So, I studied like mad.

It started out simple enough, but the more I read & researched the more I realized we (Christians in culture, Christian churches in general) had just lumped a bunch of ancient rituals (once practiced by people paying homage to a fertility god, this spring festival celebrating the newness of spring and the gift of life took place at the same time of the year as passover) and traditions into one pile and tried to clean them up or modernize them or make them acceptable in polite society. We tend to do that quite a bit with traditions. We keep the ones we like no matter where they came from or what they were originally used for, and we freshen them up with a modern twist, or we just disregard where they came from and give them our own meaning. It's just the way it is, and what we do. That's not always a bad thing, if done for the right reason.

Well, the zealot in me won that round unfortunately and suddenly I became very dogmatic against Easter (formal) and all the ancient practices that became modern traditions. For several years I railed against Easter to anyone who would listen. I had a lot to learn about balancing my own convictions with seasoning my words with grace. I still have a lot to learn about that, but by His grace I'm not the same rabid zealot I once was. I trust we're all very thankful for that. I know I sure am.

While I still have my convictions about ancient Easter fertility rituals, I no longer feel like its my duty to be the Holy Spirit in anyone's life. Every year though I find myself in conversations about Easter as opposed to Resurrection Sunday, why some Christians do this while others do that, and that sort of thing. I can't answer for anyone but myself, so here are some of the common questions and my answers for the whole "Do You Do Easter?" conversation that seems to take place every year. I hope it serves to benefit someone.

Q: Do you celebrate Easter?

A: No, we celebrate Resurrection Day.

Q: What's the difference?

A: The difference is, we don't participate in the traditional Easter customs such as baskets, colored eggs, new Easter dresses for the girls, etc. Instead we focus on the fact that Jesus did what He said he would do and rose again after 3 days in the grave. The way we "celebrate" that is by going to church and enjoying the fellowship with other believers, hearing a wonderful sermon, praying with one another, singing with one another, and simply sharing the joy of likeminded faith with brothers and sisters in the Lord. If you're not a Christian, that wont sound like much of a celebration. If you are, you know that fellowship is a blessing and joy year-round, and not just on Easter Sunday.

Q: So you don't give your kids Easter Baskets?

A: No.

Q: You don't dye eggs with your kids?

A: No

Q: Isn't that taking away some of the fun for them as kids, since many of their friends do these things?

A: If many of their friends jumped off bridges, should we drive them to the closest one? All smart alecness aside, the answer is no, not participating in a particular tradition for a few hours of a day of the year is not going to "take away their fun". Our kids are blessed to have a trampoline, a pool, swingset, bikes, an xbox, books, crayons, markers, legos, k'nex, cds, dvds, cd-rom games, board games, action figures, dolls, trucks, and all kinds of other kid-type-paraphenalia that they are most definitely never at a loss as to ways to have fun. As for pastel colored jelly beans, egg shaped chocolate and the like, I buy it every year when it goes on sale after Easter, and we all enjoy it. I may even make a large batch of egg salad sandwiches as well (what I used to do with all the colored eggs anyway). No one is "deprived" of fun or food because we don't participate in traditional Easter customs. I often buy the pretty spring dresses WalMart has on sale too, but they're not "for Easter" they are "for wearing" since my girls outgrow their pretty dresses every year and it's a good time to buy while they're on sale.

Q: So you don't celebrate Easter, but you celebrate Christmas with similar ancient pagan rituals that have been modernized. Doesn't that make you a hypocrite?

A: No, it doesn't. First, is there a committee that oversees which holidays you may or may not opt out of? If so, is there a stipulation in the declaration that says if you opt out of one, you must likewise opt out of others? Yeah, didn't think so. Here's the thing; each person is guided by their own conscience. If you are a Christian and you have been convicted by the Holy Spirit not to participate in something, no matter what it is and no matter who else is doing it and why, then you need to follow that conviction and it should simply be respected by fellow believers. By the same token, if you are NOT convicted to stop participating in something and your conscience is NOT burdened by this, then by all means have fun. If it's wrong, eventually the Holy Spirit will work in your heart and let you know it. If its not wrong, then you will simply continue to enjoy it.

We do in fact celebrate Christmas with a tree, and various garlands of greenery and that sort of thing. It's pretty, and we happen to like trees and God created them for us to use and enjoy. We don't bow down and worship it, nor do we pay homage to any kind of foliage god by decorating the house with pine garland at Christmastime, any more than we pay homage to the Lilac gods by bringing in fresh cut flowers in the spring, or having various houseplants during the year. Why the ancients did these things has nothing to do with why we do them. The same can be said for colored eggs and baskets of candies (most modern folks don't partake for the same reasons the ancients did), but for me the one big difference is at Easter time those things truly have nothing to do with the resurrection and in fact greatly distract from that message. Many of us know just how antsy kids get in church on Easter Sunday because they want the service to be over already, so they can get home to that basket of goodies or go on that egg hunt. Indeed, these things are a huge distraction. On the contrary, at Christmastime we can celebrate gift giving and the like with the parallel of God's gift to His church, as well as celebrate the beauty of God's creation and the wonder of the changing of the seasons, by decorating indoors with what is usually found outdoors. In a sense this is redeeming what was once used in the worship false gods, and it's a great lesson to learn. The same can't be applied to Easter, since those traditions have no connection to the resurrection of the Lord at all.

Q: What about Halloween then?

A: Is it October already? It cracks me up how Christmas and Halloween are always chained together with Easter and whether or not you and your family celebrate or don't celebrate. We don't celebrate or participate in Halloween either. No, the kids aren't missing out, as I've explained already they have tons of fun just like kids are supposed to. They also get candy and cookies and various other kinds of treats on a very regular basis, so they don't miss out on that either.

Q. Doesn't the Bible mention Easter, and if it does then why did they celebrate it then?

A. Yes, the KJV of the Bible does mention Easter in Acts 12:4. My Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary has this to say:

"Originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honour of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover. Hence the name came to be given to the festival of the Resurrection of Christ, which occured at the time of the Passover."

There have always been people who have celebrated spring festivals honoring one god or another, but that is definitely not to say that believers ever celebrated in a ritual to Eostre, or any of her other various names. Some say the word Passover should have been used there in place of Easter. From Barnes New Testament Notes:

"There never was a more absurd or unhappy translation than this. The original is simply after the Passover, meta to pasca. The word Easter now denotes the festival observed by many Christian churches in honour of the resurrection of the Saviour. But the original has no reference to that; nor is there the slightest evidence that any such festival was observed at the time when this book was written. The translation is not only unhappy, as it does not convey at all the meaning of the original, but because it may contribute to foster an opinion that such a festival was observed in the times of the apostles. The word Easter is of Saxon origin, and is supposed to be derivedfrom Eostre, the goddess of love, or the Venus of the North, in honour of whom a festival was celebrated by our pagan ancestors in the month of April. (Webster.) As this festival coincided with the Passover of the Jews, and with the feast observed by Christians in honour of the resurrection of Christ, the name came to be used to denote the latter. In the old Anglo-Saxon service-books the term Easter is used frequently to translate the word Passover. In the translation by Wicliffe, the word paske, i.e., passover, is used. But Tindal and Coverdale used the word Easter, and hence it has very improperly crept into our translation. (Clark.) "

That seems like a fitting conclusion to this Q&A. I'm sure I didn't cover all the questions that come up, and if you can think of others please feel free to mention them in the comments.

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