Dear Friends in Christ,
This year Christians of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Churches will celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on the same day. This only happens every so many years as the eastern and western churches have a different method of calculating the date of Easter. Also this year, the Jewish celebration of Passover occurs just prior, on March 30th.
The English word Easter and the German equivalent, Ostern, come from a common origin, which to the Norsemen meant the season of the growing sun, the season of new birth. The word was used by our ancestors to designate the celebration of the Spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This observation of the natural order was easily transferred to the spiritual meaning of Easter, the new life of the Risen Christ as the eternal and uncreated Light.
But in most other nations the feast is called Pasch, or some derivation of that, which comes from the Hebrew word pesach, meaning Passover, commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. There is a significant link between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter because Jesus was crucified at the time of Passover. And so from the beginning of the Christian tradition Christ’s death and resurrection was regarded as the Christian Passover, bringing liberation from the bondage of evil and the awakening to new and eternal life.
Today in America we are likely to debate the “true” meaning of Easter, whether it is a nature celebration that was subsequently co-opted by religion, or a spiritual reality that is imaged in the natural order. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Speaking of chickens and and eggs, and bunnies and spring lambs, and other fertility symbols, we often see these combined with a purple cross in our cultural imagery of the season. As American society becomes more religiously diverse, the nation’s population has had to grapple with how to define its religious holidays.
A recent study explored Americans’ definition of the Easter holiday, asking a nationwide, representative sample of American adults how they would describe what Easter means to them, personally. The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning. Two out of every three Americans mention some type of theistic religious element. In all, 42% of Americans said that the meaning of Easter was the resurrection of Jesus or that it signifies Christ death and return to life.
Do we need to have an either/or approach to the significance to this season? I like to opt for the both /and way of understanding this feast of new life each Spring.
As a human being whose feet are firmly planted on this now greening Earth, I can not help but celebrate the miracle of rebirth and renewal that is taking place right before my eyes at this time of the year in Lake County. That which seemed cold and dead is surging with warmth and life! That which was dark and gray is now bursting with light and color! But as a spiritually aware being, I celebrate the deeper reality that this season awakens in me. In the seemingly lifeless bulbs in my garden that now awaken to flower, I see the promise of life that is ongoing.
Just as our Jewish sisters and brothers recall the story of their Passover from bondage in Egypt as a way to experience their deliverance in the present, retelling the story of Jesus’ rising to a new experience of life two thousand years ago enables us to be aware of the potential we have to live into this new life.
At Christmas I wrote about the mystery of “God becoming human in order to bring humanity to the realization of its divinity:” Easter points to the other dimension of that mystery, that our ultimate union with God will not be at the expense of our own person. Just as his disciples witnessed the experience of divine life in the risen Christ, they also recognized the human Jesus who they knew and loved.
Our celebrating the resurrection of Jesus is not just the remembering of an event that happened two thousand years ago, but the affirmation of what is happening to us in the present. Thus, at the conclusion of the Apostles’ Creed that we at St. John’s will solemnly affirm in the renewal of our Baptismal Vows on Easter Sunday, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.
As an Easter people, we renew our commitment to Jesus Christ and vow in the words of our Baptismal Covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self... and strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being....”
I hope you will be able to join us at St. John’s at 10 o’clock .on Easter Sunday Morning to celebrate the joy and hope that we share in our belief in the Risen Christ.
However you celebrate this season, may you experience the promise of rebirth and the renewal of life and love!
Fr. Leo M. Joseph+ O.S.F.