We are coming up fast on Easter! Well, that’s what we generally call it. When I stop to think about it for a minute before the word gets out of my mouth, I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. I have known folk who won’t set foot in a congregation that uses the word – Easter. I have known a few who insist that everyone who calls it Easter is bound for hell.
I understand the difficulty. In case you didn’t know – Easter is a remnant word from the old pagan religions – the cult of fertility goddesses. In the Old Testament the fertility goddess is called Ishtar and great efforts were undertaken to cut down all her sacred groves and get the Israelites to stop all the sexually immoral practices associated with her cult. Moving west in time and space, the name Ishtar underwent some phonetic reworking – Astart, Oester, etc. There is no doubt at all that ‘Easter’ is a syllabic recollection of ‘Ishtar’ et al. And, as soon as you think of it, bunnies and eggs as elements of the Easter celebration are carried over from pagan fertility cult celebrations. Those same folk I mentioned above are death on Easter Egg hunts as well.
How did we get here?! How did the name and cultic apparatus of the old fertility goddesses end up as fixtures of a Christian celebration – perhaps the most holy of all Christian celebrations? On purpose as it turns out. For many centuries, the church strategically co-opted the pagan holidays wherever the gospel was planted. There were different degrees of the practice. All over Central and South America, statues of the fertility goddesses were simply renamed ‘Mary’ by the Catholic Church. (They did put clothes on some of them.) This was thought of as ‘baptizing’ the pagan elements. It was also strategically easier to lead pagan populations to Christianity if they were allowed to keep as much as possible of what was familiar and comforting to them of their old religion. Similarly, some missionaries to Haiti were known to characterize the island nation as 99% catholic and 100% voodoo.
Hmmmmm. On the one hand, the Apostle John wrote to a more ‘barbarian crowd’ in his gospel and epistles. And he managed to stress terms like ‘the light’, ‘the word’ and ‘the truth’ all of which these particular pagans were already intimately familiar with only John infused the old terms with the truth of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, John also manages, especially in the epistles, to draw some lines about elements of the paganism of these new converts that could not be imported into the church. One can follow the same logic through the Gospel according to Matthew – written to a more strictly Jewish crowd.
The line can be hard to define, much less hold.
Christmas, like Easter, absorbed the pagan Saturnalia – including some of the familiar elements of the pagan celebration – like decorated trees. But at least the name ‘Saturn’ was tossed and the celebration called ‘Christ-Day’. Easter, beginning with the name, is a more flagrant importation of intact pagan elements into the Christian celebration. Halloween even more so – but that’s another blog.
Is it a problem? As noted – all things considered – I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. But I have never refused to let my children or grandchildren join in egg hunts. I say to myself, ‘Self, God invented the egg – and the whole sexual reproduction thing – before the sinful world got hold of it and tried to turn into something that did not glorify the creator.’ Romans 1 speaks to worshipping the created rather than the creator. Not good. But God made eggs and rabbits and both were included when God pronounced all that He had made – good. If I yield eggs, rabbits, rainbows, the color pink, the whole notion of angels, the motions of the stars, and a thousand other facets of the created world to those who have perverted what God has made by worshipping the created rather than the creator, I will soon run short of symbols or even words with which to show or speak the glory of God.
Are our pagan roots showing? Well, not because we colored and hid eggs. In fact, that whole activity can be invested with deeply profound Christian meaning. Give it a try! I prefer Resurrection Sunday to the use of even a derivative form of Ishtar but I’m not going to draw a line with you on the other side if you continue to call it Easter. Some of Paul’s helpers were named after the pagan gods before their conversion and Paul continued to call them by those names in his epistles. In the end I think our pagan roots only really show when our practices are pagan.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Pastor of Indian Run Christian Church