Thursday, April 25, 2019

Is It OK to Call Easter "Easter"?

Within certain Christian circles, there's an undercurrent of debate as to what we should call the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Should it be "Easter" or "Resurrection Sunday"? Most English-speakers have always called it Easter, and still do. But there are some Christians who make the case that we should only call it "Resurrection Sunday" (or some similar name) because "Easter" is derived from a pagan festival honoring the Germanic fertility goddess Eostre. The historical claim being made there is, as you'll come to see, highly debatable. This post is mostly written for the benefit of people who have always called it "Easter" and are wondering if they can still do so in good conscience. If, however, you're the sort who wants to call it "Resurrection Sunday" just for the sake of clarity and not out of a burdensome sense of anti-pagan legalism, well, that's fine too.

But I'm going to start things off by tipping my hand a bit. I'm more a fan of grace than I am of legalism, so my feeling is that unless you're actually spending the day performing acts of worship for an ancient fertility goddess, you're probably OK. (It's similar to my feelings on Halloween, which you can read about here and here.) Now let's assess the case made against Easter:

Eostre, who has apparently mistimed her jump and is about to crush her tiny worshipers
- First, let's start by assuming the "Eostre" etymology is correct (a notion that we'll debunk a bit later on). Even if that were the case, the use of the name would not be problematic for Christians, especially since it comes out of early-medieval Christianity, which had a fairly robust theology of Christ's triumph over pagan culture. You see, the use of the name has never implied any doctrinal relativism. That is to say, as far back as we can see in the historical record, there has never been a case of Christians calling this holiday "Easter" because they're actually using it to secretly celebrate a pagan goddess instead of celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Rather, the name appears from some Germanic origin (again, we'll discuss the etymology arguments below), and people go on worshiping Jesus on that day. Regardless of what name it is called by, this holiday, in its Christian context, has always and exclusively been a celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead. In a very similar manner, I can call the day of this writing "Thursday" and still do all my regular Thursday things without ever once worshiping the pagan god Thor. The early medieval church actually liked to take over old pagan stuff and use it for Christian purposes, partly as an expression of the triumph of Christ over the old pagan order. They would intentionally take the foundations of pagan temples and build churches on them. Why? Because Jesus triumphed over the demonic powers behind all false gods when he died on the cross and rose again, so we can build monuments to his victory right on top of every pagan tradition we find. I'm rather a fan of this outlook, far more than of our modern-Christian practice of eschewing anything associated with other religions just because they haven't always been exclusively Christian symbols. As Paul said, "We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ!" If Easter really did come from Eostre, it's possible that early Germanic Christians kept the name of the holiday so that they could taunt the vanquished goddess by turning her day over to the celebration of Christ's victory over her.

Freya, showing here a good use for cats that for some reason has fallen out of practice
- And if we're going to get nitpicky about it, then the "Resurrection Sunday" folks have to stop using "Sunday" (and really, all names for the days of the week), because it relates to the Greco-Roman practice of honoring the sun, moon, and planets, which were also reverenced as gods. Further, they can't call Good Friday by that name, because it alludes to the Norse goddess Freya. (I guess they could just call it "Good Day," but that could get confusing in places like Australia.) And to make it even worse, if you really wanted to be consistent on this issue, you'd have to stop calling God "God," because that comes from the old pagan Germanic word for deity. So, if you're not going to do "Easter," you at least have to drop the "Sunday" reference too, and just go with "Resurrection Day" or the traditional "Pascha" (the latter option is one I actually like). Or you could make up your own name, perhaps by following the "Christmas" pattern, and call it "Risemas." Anyway, the point here is that the argument against Easter is a little bit too nitpicky on cultural grounds, and not really very compelling on theological grounds. 

- Now, the historical argument: does the name "Easter" actually come from "Eostre"? Possibly, but there's plenty of room for doubt. The first suggestion of this comes from a great historian of the early-medieval church, the Venerable Bede, who throws Eostre out as a possible etymology. However, this association strikes a lot of historians as actually being pretty unlikely (and Bede, by his own admission, was sometimes fond of making guesses to fill in the gaps in his stories). Some make the case that a stronger association can be found in the early Germanic word for "east," which is very similar to "Easter" and "Eostre." Just as we still do today, ancient Christians often celebrated Easter Sunday with early-morning services oriented toward the rising sun (in fact, all churches used to be oriented toward the east simply as a matter of tradition and symbolism). If this latter theory is correct, then Easter got its name simply because it was the day that Christians got up early, faced east, and had a sunrise service. 

Ishtar, tragically frozen in carbonite, Han Solo-style, for the past four thousand years
- Let's disabuse ourselves of a few other ridiculous Easter-myths while we're at it. If you poke around the open cesspool of the Internet for awhile, you might run across the theory that Easter has something to do with the pagan Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. As far as any serious historians know, there's no direct link whatsoever between the two. Such arguments are usually just trying to make the case that the resurrection story itself was foreshadowed by ancient myths that bore some vanishingly vague similarities--i.e., a goddess dies and then somehow comes back--but such myths are clearly myths, none of them even pretending to be read within a real historical context, as the account of Jesus' resurrection is. To associate Easter with the Ishtar myth is a little bit like saying that the Gospels must have been George Lucas' main inspiration in having his devilish villain Darth Maul come back into the Star Wars story (in the cartoon series) even after his apparent death in The Phantom Menace.

Easter bunnies on their way to a nefarious pagan ritual
- What about eggs and bunnies? So, it's actually true that eggs and bunnies were pagan symbols once upon a time. That's also true of the sun, moon, stars, trees, flowers, clouds, wind, water, fire, mountains, valleys, rocks, and basically every species of animal you can think of. (Check out Dr. Boli's satirical list of pagan Easter associations here.) But, again: to my knowledge, no "Easter worshipers" (to use an apparently up-and-coming PC term for Christians) are currently using bunnies and eggs in pagan fertility rituals, so it seems like their pagan significance is a little moot at this point in history.  Eggs, for their part, actually do have a plausible Christian connection to Easter celebrations--since the time of the early church, the egg has been a Christian symbol of both new life and eternity. In fact, an egg is one of the symbolic foods regularly present at Jewish Passover feasts (that is, the feast that corresponds with our Easter), and some scholars have suggested that its presence in the Passover liturgy actually hails back to the influence of early Jewish Christian practice in the first and second centuries AD. Bunnies, as far as I can tell, have no connection to Christian symbolism, other than the fact that God made them. (One could stretch the argument and say that the way bunnies hop in and out of holes in the ground is a reminder of Jesus popping out of the tomb, but we're getting a little ridiculous at that point.) Anyway, to my mind, there's a legitimate Christian association with the egg at Easter, but not the bunny. I don't have anything against bunnies as a cultural symbol at Eastertime (except where they're used as a substitute for the actual meaning of Easter), but I don't have much use for bunny-symbolism in Christian celebrations of the holiday.

- The bottom line is this: Easter is a day for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can call it whatever you like, as long as that's its meaning. However, if you find yourself amongst a group of Christians who are nervous that Eostre might somehow reclaim the day for herself, then go along with them and call it Resurrection Sunday, or Risemas, or go early-church on them and call it Pascha. As the Apostle Paul taught us, minor disputes like these are not worth endangering the unity of the Body: if you find yourself in that situation, go along with the restrictions practiced by the weaker brother, so as not to offend his sensibilities regarding the faith. But aside from that situation, as long as you're celebrating Jesus' resurrection, then you can call it both "Easter" and "Sunday" (two possible pagan references in one!) to commemorate Jesus' triumph over Eostre, Sol Invictus, and all the powers of false gods everywhere. And you can still do that Easter egg hunt, too.

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