WITH THE EASTER DILEMMA
(Reprinted from K-House e-newsletter)
The Easter Season is here, complete with baskets and cellophane grass and
chocolate bunnies in every store. While we enjoy the chocolate bunnies and
malted eggs, it's pretty obvious that cellophane grass has absolutely nothing to
do with the Resurrection of our Lord. This time of year brings with it the
annual uncomfortable question; what should we – as Christians – celebrate?
The term "Easter" itself alludes to the pagan roots of the holiday. The name
comes from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar (also, Astarte). It was the pagan
preoccupation with fertility that linked rabbits' rapid breeding with the golden
egg of Astarte. Passover, and therefore the Resurrection of Jesus, occur in the
springtime. As Christianity spread, the celebration that Christ had conquered
death came neatly at a time when the pagan world was celebrating the renewal of
nature after the death of winter. And so, today we have Easter egg hunts at
churches across America on Resurrection Sunday.
Is that good? Should we, as Christians, allow remnants of pagan celebrations
into our celebration of Christ? For those who understand that Easter's fuzzy
bunnies are really the residue of ancient Babylonian fertility religions, there
seem to be two general choices.
1. Reject Easter Traditions: Some
Christians separate themselves from the remnants of those old fertility
religions. They remember Christ's Resurrection and forgo all the chocolate and
hard boiled eggs. They may even celebrate Passover and Jesus as the Passover
Lamb. They rejoice that he was raised again as the Firstborn from the dead (Col
1:18) on Sunday, the Feast of Firstfruits.
2: Make Use Of Easter
Traditions: Some Christians, on the other hand, see the Easter
traditions as another opportunity to spread the Gospel. Some may take 12 plastic
eggs, for example, and fill each one with one object from the story of Jesus'
betrayal and death and his raising from the dead. The eggs contain things like
coins, a sponge, nails, and a cross while the last one is empty, representing
the empty tomb. Other people dye eggs, using each color to symbolize a different
aspect of Christ's death and resurrection (red stands for his blood, etc). There
are dozens of ways that Sunday School teachers and parents have incorporated the
current Easter traditions into the celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
Which is the better way?
We do not face this issue only at
Easter. Most Christian holidays have leftover pagan traditions mixed into their
celebrations. Do we stop giving out Valentines because boys and girls paired up
for the (loosely connected) Roman festival of Lupercalia? Do we stop hanging
mistletoe because it was once a part of fertility rights – or throw out
Christmas altogether because the Romans celebrated Saturnalia in late December?
Are those things unholy because they were once connected to paganism? Or can we
use them as opportunities to spread the Gospel to our secular culture? How do we
deal with these things according to the Word of God?
To The Jews
God gave Israel a law and a sacrificial system that would
help them understand how the death of the Messiah could pay for sins. He gave
them the Passover so they could understand that the blood of the Lamb would
protect them from the wrath of God. God gave Israel feasts that stood as
prophetic symbols - as types - of His plan for redemption. The Jews were primed
to understand the purpose and mission of the Messiah, and while the eyes of many
were blinded for a time, Jesus clearly stated that he came to the lost sheep of
the House of Israel (Matt. 15:24).
Yet, Jesus came to save the whole
world. The Gospel was for the Jews first, but also for the Gentiles according to
the Scriptures (Isaiah 49:6, Acts 10:45, Rom. 1:16). The purpose of Israel was
to be a light that shined the truth of God to all peoples.
Also to the Gentiles: When evangelists in the Early Church went out
to preach to the world, though, the pagan nations did not have the same
background that the Jews had. They had sacrificial systems as well, but without
the precious subtleties provided by the Law. They did not have the same feasts
and laws to give them a cultural understanding of the messages they were being
given. The missionaries had to find ways within the existing pagan cultures to
help the gentiles appreciate who Jesus was.
Familiar with the Irish language and culture, St. Patrick worked to make use
of local customs in order to help the pagans of Ireland understand Christianity.
For example, tradition says he used the three-leafed clover, the shamrock, in
order to explain the Trinity. Because the nature-worshiping religions saw the
sun as a powerful symbol, he developed what is known as the Celtic Cross, with a
circle around the central section of the cross. St. Patrick was not alone. Many
early Church evangelists incorporated Christian teachings into existing
celebrations, "Christianizing" those traditions.
Whether that was a good or bad thing has long been the subject of debate.
Some argue that those celebrations are not in the Bible and
that mixing Christian beliefs with pagan traditions is at best distracting and
is at worst a form of bowing the knee to those false gods.
"Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord,
and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you," (2 Cor. 6:17).
Others argue that Christianity has sanctified those celebrations, making the
"Unto the pure all things are pure:" (Titus 1:15).
Paul and Plato:The Apostle Paul, sent by God to
minister to the gentiles, believed in making the most of every opportunity (1
Cor. 9:18-23). Paul is famous for his use of Greek culture to get ideas across
to his Greek audience. He constantly makes allusions to Plato with statements
like, "…which are a shadow of things to come," (Col. 2:17) and "For now we see
through a glass, darkly," (1 Cor. 13:10). Do Paul's frequent allusions to Plato
indicate that Plato himself was inspired by God? No. Rather, Paul made use of
Plato because his Greek audience understood Plato, and he could use Plato's
ideas as tools to help gentile minds understand the truth about our lives in
Was he right to do this? Didn't he run the risk of making
people think he was legitimizing the many unbiblical ideas Plato had? That's a
Yet, Jesus appears to have done the exact same thing.
Jesus makes a puzzling statement in Acts when he interrupts Paul (still "Saul"
at that time) on the road to Damascus. He says, "I am Jesus whom thou
persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," (Acts 9:5).
"Kick against the pricks" is a phrase used multiple times in Greek
plays, including in Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and The
Bacchae by Euripides. In both cases it has to do with a mortal's stubborn
defiance of the deity. In The Bacchae, the mortal Pentheus has the god
Dionysus bound (the chains slip off), refusing to believe that he's a god.
Dionysus tells Pentheus, "Better to yield (me) prayer and sacrifice than kick
against the pricks…" Like Pentheus, Saul was striving to look righteous even
while dealing with his own temptations.
Does this reference mean that
Jesus himself was anything like the god Dionysus? Of course not. It also does
not indicate that Paul would suffer Pentheus' fate of being torn apart by wild
women Yet, "kick against the pricks" would have had instant meaning for Saul
of Tarsus with his education in Greek literature. It would also have had meaning
to those in the Greek culture to whom Paul told his conversion
Tripping Our Brothers: What do we do today?
Hunting Easter eggs hardly makes children think of Babylonian fertility
goddesses, and there is nothing intrinsically evil in eggs or chocolate rabbits.
At the same time, we do have knowledge of the Feasts of Israel, the original
celebrations meant to point the way to Christ. How should we behave?
Here is what Paul says on the matter. "I know, and am persuaded by
the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that
esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean," (Romans 14:14).
Those who genuinely believe it is wrong to give their children Easter
baskets should not do so. Those who are convinced that it's harmless fun,
however, should rejoice in their liberty. Paul says about these sorts of things,
"Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," (Romans 14:5).
And yet, we have a responsibility to not cause our brothers to stumble.
"But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a
stumblingblock…" (1 Cor. 8:9, 11).
We should do nothing that could
harm our fellow Christians or cause them to do something against their own
consciences. We need to do everything we do with the heart of Christ, with love,
and not out of pride or selfishness or judgmentalism. After all, the whole point
of any Christian celebration is to bring glory to God. Let's make sure every
decision we make it focused on that goal.
(And if we can enjoy some excellent food at the same time, then may God be
glorified in that as well!)