Here's a story for you. Once upon a time, a Goddess of the Dawn named Eostre found a bird whose wings froze over the Winter, and helped it by turning it into either a rabbit or a hare. Now, neither rabbits nor hares lay eggs, but this one, having been a bird, could, and there you have the Eostre Bunny. Or if you speak German, a hare, the Osterhase.
Eostre had a festival in her honour, and Venerable Bede, a Benedictine English monk writing in the 8th Century in De temporum ratione (On the calculating of time), said she had the whole month named after her, Eostre Month, Easter month -- Eostur-monath in his original, a Latinised version of the many variants on her name -- the lunar month corresponding to the Roman month of opening, Aprilis, or April as we say in English now . The Grimm Brothers, maybe better known now for their children's stories, were scholars of Germanic mythology and Jacob Grimm called her Ostara in his Deutsche Mythologie in 1835.
So what do we have here? A pre-Christian Spring festival celebrating fertility and new life and awakenings, that got morphed into a Christian observance about a risen god but really is properly celebrated with bunnies and eggs and joy and happy gatherings, taking its place among the various celebrations in world culture that Winter is over and Spring is here? Yes, and no.
Holy Week began with Palm Sunday, seeing the crowds joyously welcoming the controversial teacher who just maybe was the Messiah, which is the person sent by God to remove the oppression of his people, then currently the Romans, and inaugurate the Messianic era of universal peace. We saw that if we are really honest, it wasn't just the crowd that day but we too who want such a messiah, the one after which we will never again have to watch the news, get that phone call, or visit, or letter, or results from the physician, and wonder how a loving God could let such things happen, or try to explain how bad things can happen to good people -- like us, of course.
And we saw that when no such things began to happen, but rather that this supposed messiah began to suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and ended up being executed for blasphemy, the crowds were gone, after the palm branches turned to shouts of "Away with him". And if we are really honest again, we see that is still our response.
Along with Christmas, churches typically draw their best crowds at Easter. He is risen! Everything is in white, great music, a big service, the empty tomb story, pancakes or brunch in the fellowship hall, everybody is happy! And the message is -- Away with him!
The truth is for many Easter is Palm Sunday all over again, with lilies instead of palms. Now we can have the messiah we want for real! And the story of Jesus' resurrection becomes, from among the many available, the myth we happen to find culturally acceptable to start saying universal Springtime stuff about life, new life, eternal life, whatever, some sort of affirmation that everything is really OK after all in spite of the figurative Romans that plague us. So we put him back on the donkey and start cheering all over again for the messiah we want. But, as the great spiritual song asks, were you there when they crucified my Lord? Where were the crowds on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services?
Let my people go, Moses said to Pharaoh before the original form of Passover. What was that? Let my people go because it's the right thing to do, let my people go because their condition is an affront to human dignity and a social wrong, let my people go because they have a right to self determination?
Absolutely nothing of the sort. Moses was not told to tell Pharaoh to let the people go, period. He was told to tell the reason too -- Let my people go, that they may sacrifice to me! The people are to be let go for one reason, and one reason only, that they may gather with God according to his instruction, and apart from that they may as well remain in slavery! Their social and political freedom was not sought for its own value, but derived its value from allowing them to heed the word of God.
The deliverance was hard to bear for the delivered. They lost sight of the fact that freedom is not freedom if it is not to heed the word of God, that it is not about a comfortable life here, victorious living, everything turning out in a way we want. And despite having seen powerful acts of God they began to wonder what sort of madness this is. Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die? They began to pine after their days in Egypt, even slavery looking better than this! And when the moment came and Moses went up to receive the Law, they fashioned a god more to their liking.
They? Us. Do we not, no less than they, turn away when it doesn't go as we think it should, or hoped it would? Do we not, no less than they, begin to wonder what we are doing in church and wish we could just live in the world like everyone else? Do we not, no less than they, begin to build gods of our own when God seems to take too long or be too far away? Do we not, no less than they, want to listen to ourselves when God's pastor presents the Law? And do we not, no less than they, shout "Away with him!" when the Gospel is shown in a suffering and death for our sin rather than a sure-fire recipe for victorious and purposeful living?
We want Easter, but without Good Friday. We want Passover, but not to receive the Law. It cannot be. They come from God as parts of one whole, connected by God and meaningless apart from that. In the Law, God commanded the Passover. But it does not stand alone. Part of the Passover is to count the days until the celebration of the reason for the Passover, the giving of the Law. This is called counting the Omer. Just as God connected the call to be let go with the reception of the Law in the message he gave to Moses, so he connects the observance of the letting go, Passover, with the observance of the giving of the Law, called Pentecost, in the Law he gave through Moses.
What? Pentecost? In the Law? But that's a Christian thing, the birthday of the church, isn't it? In the Law, God commanded three major observances: Pesach, or Passover; Shavuoth, or Pentecost; Sukkoth, or Tabernacles, also called Booths, which is preceded by the Days of Awe which includes Rosh Ha-Shanah or New Years and Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. And the time between Pesach and Shavuoth, Passover and Pentecost, is ritually counted. The word Pentecost is because of that, from the Greek for fiftieth, the number of days. The counting of the Omer is connected in the observance God commanded as it was connected in the historical events.
This is why Acts speaks of all the people being in town for Pentecost -- there already was one! "Easter" does not stand alone. And if it is isolated from that within which it stands and made to stand alone, it is not Easter but something else. The women who went out that first Easter went out not in joy to find their risen Lord but to tend to the body of a dead man. And when they found he was risen, they hurried to tell the Apostles -- who did not believe them. (You can't make this sort of stuff up -- here's the biggest news ever, but first shown not to those in the Office of Holy Ministry but to the women, who were told to go tell them!) No pancakes, no lilies.
Instead, the Passover seder becomes at Jesus' institution the mystery -- or, using the English cognate for the Latin for the Greek word for mystery, the sacrament -- of his body and blood which we are now to observe, and then he gives his body and blood as the full and final Passover lamb so that those sprinkled with his blood will be passed over by death and saved, and then he rises from the dead, which at the time, far from being a nice family day with lots of good thoughts, produces fear, doubt and confusion, which continues through the counting of the Omer until the observance of the giving of the Law, when he then bestows the Spirit.
That is the story. Deliverance from bondage and death in Egypt, a trek toward the reason for the deliverance, the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Passover seder and its lamb (Pesach), counting the Omer, Pentecost (Shavuoth). The Last Seder and Death of the Paschal lamb and his resurrection from the dead, God himself counting the Omer, the giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Pascha, Paschaltide, Pentecost. That is the story of salvation we celebrate during this time.
We can take it as God gave it, with the seder giving way to and becoming the mass, the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb giving way to and becoming the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb Jesus, and the giving of the Law giving way to and becoming the giving of the Spirit. Then we have the religion of the Christ, Christianity; then we have Law and Gospel -- the Good News.
Or we can turn it into news more like we want to hear. We can turn it into hailing this great guy and teacher who showed us how to live so that we feel right with God and things go well with our fellow men and things don't get messy with all this about sin and death. We can call that sin and death stuff our metaphorical way among other ways of understanding that we're OK and there's a loving God who only wants us to try to be a good person. Then we have the religion of Man, an Easter no different really than the one about Eostre that might as well use the same name because the only difference is that a story about a goddess who helped a frozen bird become a happy bunny is replaced by a story about a dying and rising god who helps us become happy, successful and purposeful people as the metaphor for nice Springtime thoughts about ourselves.
So what do we have here? Yes, while Eostre herself is largely forgotten we have what remains of a pre-Christian festival called Easter celebrating fertility and new life and awakenings, properly celebrated with bunnies and eggs and joy and happy gatherings, taking its place among the various celebrations in world culture that Winter is over and Spring is here. And yes, the name of her festival was appropriated to another religion's observance of the story of a risen god called Jesus which to many who observe it likewise is a myth and metaphor for new life and possibilities and purposes and awakenings suggested by the end of Winter and the arrival of Spring. Pretty much the same idea, just illustrated by a different myth. One often finds the two mixed to-gether. And why not? It's Easter either way.
But for those who follow the liturgy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, it is something completely different, sharing nothing with Easter except two things -- it generally happens around the same time in April, and the name Easter. We would do well to discard the borrowed name in English and do what most languages do, call it by its own name derived from its own sources, Pascha. English is confusing enough being a hybrid language with its Germanic roots and its Greek/Latin overlay through French after the Norman Conquest. We say "moon" from a Germanic root, but don't refer to it as "moonal" but "lunar" from the Latin word for moon, for example. We've already taken the real word for Easter into English as an adjective for it, paschal, so let's use the noun too, Pascha!
For Pascha is exactly what we have here! The Passover seder and lamb and cup of blessing has been changed by the Lamb of God Jesus into the mass where he gives us his body and blood as his pledge and last will and testament of his body and blood, which he then gives for our salvation from our sins that block us from God and from which we cannot free ourselves, and with the full and final sacrifice of the Temple offered, and the Temple which he truly is destroyed by our sins, God raises the Temple on the third day in the bodily resurrection of Jesus so the Temple is fully functioning again but this time with the mercy seat of God now wide open! He is risen and among us, now as then in the laying out of Scripture and fully discerned in the breaking of the bread, not in our doing for him or good feeling about him or service to him but in HIS divine service to us in Word and Sacrament in what we call just that, the Divine Service, or mass.
And now, Passover so transformed. we count the Omer with God until Pentecost is similarly transformed (we'll get to what happened to Tabernacles/Booths/Sukkoth later!), where as the Law was once given to show our sin, now the Spirit will be given to show our Saviour in the Gospel, empowering the Office of Holy Ministry and all Christians with them to be his witnesses from Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth and time!
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