Anglican Newsletter - April
April 2014 Newsletter
It will come as no surprise to most of you that Easter is a variation of Eostre, which was the name for the Saxon pagan festival of Spring that was taken over by the early Christians in Britain. This is the popular conception, but it is very loosely and poorly supported by any firm written traditions. It does not matter too much, but wherever it came from it is firmly linked to the idea of Spring and new birth and has successfully implanted itself in the English language wherever it is spoken.
Elsewhere, the name for Easter is a variation on the old Hebrew word for the Passover – pesah, which became pasha in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), pashka in Greek, pascha in Latin and, one among various modern variations, pâques in French. In the English speaking Churches, reference is frequently made to the paschal lamb – a direct reference to the sacrifice of a lamb at the Jewish feast of the Passover and reverting to the mediaeval Latin of the Church
Most of you know that at Easter, Christians celebrate the rising from the dead of Jesus two days after he had been executed by the Romans. Israel was then part of the Roman Empire and the local Jewish hierarchy, who could not execute anyone themselves for religious reasons found a way to have a troublemaker executed by the Roman military. Resurrection of mythical heroes is not an uncommon story with ancient peoples. The difference here is that we are not talking about pre-historical times but only 2,000 odd years ago and that the event is so well documented, although signally NOT in Roman records. There is a big debate over the historicity of the Resurrection but I am not sure that that is interesting to you or even to most faithful Christians.
What is interesting to me is why we have this festival every year – what is it for – does the intrusion of the Easter Bunny (etc, etc) matter? Indeed why do and did the pagans want to have a festival every year to celebrate Spring, when it was pretty evidently at work without their help? Well 11th May (or any other date that means nothing to you – and I apologise to all those for whom 11th May is really special) happens every year and we don’t actually much notice! Autumn happens every year and all that some of us note is that from the Autumnal Equinox the days become shorter than the nights. So we have to make an effort if we are to remember the significance of a regularly occurring event or date.
Most famously, Christmas Day is now celebrated throughout most of the world, whether or not as a Christian festival. And there is no way you can ignore that it is happening. Without Christmas, that first Easter Day would have passed unmarked, but without Easter that first Christmas would have been irrelevant and forgotten. For Christians, Easter is actually the more (actually the most) important day in our calendar. However, like all other human beings, we do need reminders of what is important and so we have special things to do and we have the advantage of being reminded, whether we like it or not, by all the peripheral fluff around Easter.
But this carries with it the enormous risk that while we do remember, we don’t bother to remember why! The whole thing is cheapened by too much exposure or something. We don’t remember that we are celebrating the awful weakness and behaviour of mankind in history and in general and the overcoming of that poverty of spirit by one man, giving every single one of us hope that we can do as much or at least attempt to do so. You don’t have to be a Christian or a Muslim or Jew, Sikh or whatever to understand that over our history mankind has done some pretty terrible things. It has also done some amazingly wonderful things. Somehow, however, we seem unable as one to seek to shift the balance towards the wonderful and away from the shameful.
If to you, Jesus Christ is a silly myth, then all I would ask is that you rub out the word ‘silly’. Consider that even if he is a myth, the story is a wonderful one, which should encourage and fortify and uplift anyone who reads or hears it.
It is interesting that most fundamentalist Christians, as they pound their pulpits, quote endlessly from the Biblical Prophets and Epistles, which are sermons, which preach to their readers (even as I am doing now!). But there are very few sermons reported of Jesus in the Biblical books about him (the Gospels). Jesus endlessly told stories, leaving the hearers to draw their conclusions. Or he did things for people and left the watchers to draw their conclusions. Occasionally he explained himself, but most of the time he did not preach in the ordinary meaning of that word. Just as St Francis of Assisi told his disciples ‘Go out into the world and preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words’.
The Easter festival is necessary because we too easily forget that it is reminder of how we CAN start again – that last year’s poor harvest is history, we can have a glorious spring and summer now. Unfortunately, it seems that we need to be reminded of this every year My concern is that it is too frequent – it is easy to be become blasé. Perhaps, like the Oberramagau Passion Play, we should only remember it every 10 years and so make its impact more meaningful.
Moreover, if, like Christmas, this has become a pagan festival again as well, then maybe we should be grateful, as Christians, that at least some non-believers will be curious to find out what they are celebrating and why.
In any event, I do my personal best every year to think through the three days of Easter from Good Friday to Easter Day and to remember what happened those 2,000 years ago and what, extraordinarily, they mean and should mean to me.
Good Friday is, of course, like the Cape of Good Hope, a name that covers a multitude of deep meanings – that needs separate coverage on another occasion – and by someone else.