It’s that time of year again when I, as a pastor, get asked repeatedly about Easter. Some wonder whether our church is going to be having some type of Easter celebration – and, if not, why? – while others ask me about whether their children should take part in various Easter festivities.
Usually, my response reflects a great deal of ambivalence. I grew up in a home where Easter was not celebrated at all. We hardly made mention of it, except when we happened to be in the homes of other family members who took a more active posture during the day. Avoidance of Easter was not done in a shame-based, legalistic manner, though. It was just something we didn’t do.
All this is to say is that I have not spent a lot of time thinking about Easter. And each year, when I sit down to plan my preaching schedule, it does not even enter my thinking to check when Easter might be.
But this year I have had opportunity to do a little more reflecting on the subject and come to some (perhaps) interesting conclusions. So here are a few random and not so random thoughts on Easter.
1. One of the bigger challenges I have had is trying to figure out why many Seventh-day Adventists celebrate Christmas but not Easter. There are many, of course, who do not celebrate either, just as there are many who celebrate both. The best answer I was ever able to come up with is that Ellen White encouraged a celebration of a redemptive version of Christmas (free from the secular trappings – see Review and Herald, Dec 9, 1884; Adventist Home, p. 482; etc.) but spoke against Easter. Or so I thought.
While it is still clear to me that she condones the celebration of Christmas (which I have always appreciated), much to my surprise, there is nowhere that Ellen White speaks against Easter. In fact, there is only one place where she even mentions Easter, and it is in the 1888 version of The Great Controversy, where she simply quotes another author who says that “Christians are making a great deal of Lent and Easter,” which “is the old trick of Satan” (p. 386). Interestingly, in the 1911 version of The Great Controversy, this quote is taken out altogether.
Based on this reality, I am starting to come to the conviction that, just as there are positive ways to celebrate Christmas so, too, the same principles could be applied to Easter.
2. Easter celebrations, however, should be devoid of such things as bunnies, eggs, sunrise celebrations, and so forth. These things have nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ and their origins are completely pagan and adopted by Roman Catholicism.
This has been brought home to me, actually, by a children’s book that a parent lent to me. She wanted my opinion about it. It is by a secular author who has no agenda to push. It simply details the history of Easter, including the basis for the various symbols. It is very good, revealing the reality that almost all the Easter symbols have their basis in sun-worship and predate Christianity (though there is debate about its original meaning, it seems rather likely that the name “Easter” itself is related to the goddess of the sun). This is the epitome of syncretism – the combining of pagan practices with the worship of God.
The response to this concern, no doubt, would be that the modern celebration of these symbols has nothing to do with their original meaning and are therefore harmless. No one today thinks about worshipping the sun when going on an Easter egg hunt. And, perhaps just as significantly, it is akin to the eating of food offered to idols that Paul didn’t have a problem with (1 Cor 8). Just because one person ascribes a pagan meaning to it doesn’t mean that everyone else does.
There are a couple reasons this type of thinking is misguided. 1) The appeal to Paul’s “food offered to idols” argument is comparing apples and oranges. We eat food to live; it is a necessity. This is not true of searching for Easter eggs. But beyond that, one needs to follow all of Paul’s argument. While he says that there really isn’t a problem eating food that has been offered to idols from an objective perspective, his counsel is to avoid doing so if it is a stumbling block to others. One should not use his or her liberty in a way that would be offensive to another.
Probably a more applicable Pauline scripture to appeal to would be what he writes in Galatians when he laments about how the Galatians have “turned to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage.” What were these “weak” elements? “You observe days and months and seasons and years,” to the point that Paul declared he was “afraid” for the Galatians (Gal 4:9-10).
While many have assumed that Paul was speaking of the Jewish festivals, he elsewhere plainly states that no one should be judged in their celebration of these (Col 2:16). This has led some to conclude that Paul was frustrated with the fact that some of the believers in Galatia were moving back into their pagan practices and celebrations, rather than speaking against a celebration of the Jewish festivals.
2) The origination of a practice or institution cannot be discounted, however much we like to think it can. When we try to divorce a practice from its foundation we strip it of its context, thus rendering it meaningless. (I read an article on this recently from a very thoughtful individual – who was not even arguing from a Christian perspective – but I have no idea where it was!) It becomes empty, arbitrary and absurd ritual.
Furthermore, why would we want to celebrate a practice that we are forced to divorce from its original meaning anyway? Why not engage in those behaviors where we not only acknowledge the original meaning but also celebrate it? This supplies the greatest meaning; the most fulfilling experience. Engaging in these empty Easter practices is like a person in Great Britain celebrating the Fourth of July – all the while maintaining that it doesn’t really matter why it was originally celebrated.
Beyond this, however, it seems to me that there are many of us who would have a negative reaction if we discovered that the original reason for Easter – or any celebration – was based upon some terribly atrocious practice with which we greatly disagreed. If you discovered that Easter was originally observed as a celebration of husbands who beat their wives, would this make a difference to you? It no doubt would.
Of course, this seems a little extreme – yet all I am attempting to demonstrate is that we all have a line and we would appeal to the moral high ground in some circumstances. What we have failed to recognize is that the pagan practices upon which these Easter celebrations were originally based is just as morally reprehensible as celebrating domestic abuse.
3. Which leads me to my overall point: the problem with the pagan associations of Easter is not simply that they are pagan, per se, but that the underlying reasons for pagan practices are so morally bankrupt. This cannot be underscored enough. All pagan ritual, practice, and observation is based upon man’s attempt at earning salvation and appeasing the gods. The Bible demonstrates it, Ellen White echoes it (“The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion,” [The Desire of Ages, p. 35]) and intuition confirms it. (Another helpful resource is John N. Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths, who speaks of the ancient Near Eastern religious belief systems that maintained the concept of continuity: you engage in certain behaviors because you are trying to get the gods to act the same way. There is a continuity between your behavior and the gods’ behavior.)
Unfortunately, Christianity, very early in its infancy, did not reject these deplorable practices but baptized them – practices that are all founded upon shame, guilt, and salvation by works. Thus, the practice of Lent – a 40-day observation leading up to Easter which was originally an acknowledgment of one’s sin and an attempt at showing one was serious about God – at least for a season. It starts with Ash Wednesday, when believers have ashes placed on their foreheads in the form of a cross, signifying their sorrow for sin. Originally, only really sinful people who were guilty of heinous sins received ashes. They would then wear sackcloth and hair shirts, and walked around barefoot for all of Lent.
It sounds really grace-based, doesn’t it? And yet, many Protestants – including those in my own faith-community – have started to embrace Lent in various forms – all the while, whether understood or not, promulgating a practice that has shame and man-initiated works as its currency and basis.
4. All this is not to say that if one celebrates the pagan practices of Easter, or follows Catholicism in its rituals of Lent, that he or she is a terrible person and doomed for hell. It is simply an appeal to celebrate the grace and righteousness of Christ, and engage in practices that do not have to be divorced from their context. We should pursue more meaning for our lives, not less. So let’s fully celebrate the love and grace of Christ in ways that don’t have to contradict their foundation. Similarly, self-denial is a daily, moment-by-moment experience, motivated by the love of Christ – not something that we resort to for 40 days of the year.
So, yes, let us acknowledge the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on Easter (or perhaps more appropriately, during Passover) – and every day – but let us liberate it from its shame-based, righteousness by works associations. Christ died to free us from such empty rituals.