Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Is Easter Biblical?

Below is a "Stylos" article I wrote in March 2005, before the blog began. Food for thought this week before Easter.

If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9 HCSB).

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths (Colossians 2:16 NKJV).

A recent letter to the Editor in the Charlottesville Daily Progress lamented the secularization of "Easter." The store shelves are lined with candy, toy bunnies and chicks, but no crosses, empty tombs, or Bibles. She reported that the puzzled store clerk could not answer her question as to why we celebrate Easter. As with Christmas, therefore, some Christians, in the name of Biblical faithfulness, eschew the "holiday" completely.

Indeed, "Easter" is yet another example (alongside Halloween and Christmas) of the success of past Christian missionaries that has perhaps turned around to bite us in these days. Critics are quick to point out that the English word "Easter" itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring (Eostre). The missionaries took pagan holidays and infused them with Christian meaning. Pagans had long marked the coming of spring with a holiday that celebrated the fertility of nature and its annual awakening from winter slumber. Christians saw a natural opportunity to teach the resurrection. In an increasingly post-Christian society, the pagans now seem to be taking back all the things that were once theirs. So, many now have Easter (candy, new clothes, egg hunts), without all the baggage of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.

In the spirit both of Christian liberty of conscience and Biblical faithfulness, we as individual believers and as believing congregations must be guided by the Lord in making wise decisions as to what to do with Easter. Here are a couple of reasons appropriately to mark the day:

1. It is generally consistent with Biblical tradition that Christians gather
on Sundays as the Lord’s Day
. In a real sense every Sunday is Resurrection (Easter) Sunday. The Biblical pattern establishes the first day of the week as the time for Christians to gather and worship (see John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10). Think about it. Jesus was crucified on a Friday. The cross is central to the Gospel. Why then did the church not begin to meet on Fridays to worship? Because to preach the cross alone would mean a truncated gospel. Jesus was not a good teacher who died a horrific martyr’s death and was merely "raised" in the memory of his close friends after his death. No. His dead and lifeless body, by the power of God, came into a transformed, embodied existence. Paul also said that if we do not preach the risen Jesus then "our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty" (1 Cor 15:14).

2. It provides us with a time to focus on the central Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that is at least approximate to the time of year when that event actually took place. With Christmas, we do not know precisely when Jesus was born. We do know with certainty, however, that Jesus was crucified and raised in the springtime during the annual celebration of the Jewish Passover.

One of the early controversies among Christians who lived beyond Bible times concerned when Easter would be celebrated (called by church historians the "Paschal Controversies"). Some argued that it should be celebrated on the actual date when Jesus was raised (Nisan 14 on the Jewish calendar), whatever that particular day might be (Monday, Tuesday, etc.). Others argued it should always be celebrated on a Sunday to recall the actual day on which Jesus was raised. The latter prevailed, so we celebrate Easter on a Sunday. Another controversy was whether Easter should always be observed at the time of the Jewish Passover or by an alternate lunar plan. Again, the latter opinion prevailed.

So, in accordance with Christian custom but fully aware there is no Biblical mandate for any such annual observance (again, the only Biblical mandate is weekly worship on the Lord’s Day), we celebrate Easter each year on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. In so doing, we are assured an annual occasion to concentrate, with some flourish, specifically on the doctrine of the resurrection. We do this in a season approximate to the time when Christ was crucified, buried, and raised. In addition, we may also make strategic evangelistic use of the season to share with non-believers the good deposit of truth concerning Jesus Christ with which we have been entrusted.

Is Easter Biblical? Yes and No. Yes, it is always Biblical for believers to gather on the Lord’s Day and remember the resurrection. No, we have no Biblical mandate and are, therefore, under no obligation to make this an annual event. Christians, as always, are to be guided by a Biblically informed and Spirit led conscience as to if and how to participate in Easter. Some do this by avoiding the name "Easter " at all and use the alternative "Resurrection Sunday." Others see no problem with using the more culturally accepted title of "Easter" as long as it is infused with real Christian meaning (i. e., it’s not all about egg hunts and bunnies). In Colossians 2:16, Paul addresses questions such as these that were on the hearts and minds of the believers who were also walking the tight rope of being in the world but not of it: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths." His words offer appropriate guidance in our age as well.
JTR

1 comment:

Lonnie said...

Jeff,

Thanks for this article. I think like most NeoPagans, I'd just rather people to finally acknowledge the source of some of these traditions. Whether they decide to continue following them or not, doesn't really matter to me.

I also personally feel that is proof that there are no "pure" cultural traditions or religions. Even the days of the week are derived from the names of Viking gods (Today being "Thor's Day). All faiths borrowed things from somewhere else. In the case of Christianity, they adopted a huge number of cultural traditions from Celtic and Germanic people to facilitate conversion. In some cases, they went even as far as adopting Celtic gods* as saints (This happened in the New World too, especially in Latin America). Going back even further, it's clear that Babylonian civilization and myths were a big influence on the old Testament. For example, the story of Noah's Ark is taken almost directly from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's also clear that this process has happened in reverse as well, with some elements of Wicca being derived from Gnostic Christianity and Jewish Mysticism.

It terms of faith, I figure people can either choose to deny the historical evidence that this is indeed the case, ignore it, or they can accept it as "validation" that different cultures witnessed the same events, or viewed the world in similar ways. I don't particularly see it as a challenge to faith that religions apparently arise from multiple sources. Besides, efforts to purify religion from the "taint" of other religions and cultures almost always become messy or even violent. Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia are extreme examples of such a thing...

*One clear instance is that of Saint Brigit, the patron saint of Ireland, who was clearly a cannonized version of the goddess Brigid, associated with wells and fountains. Incidently, she's also the reason behind wishing wells. People have just forgotten who they are wishing to...