This podcast is by special request for someone who has had Easter ‘spoiled’ by adverse teaching.
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, CS Lewis wrote of a small and devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself a poem he’d composed for Easter morning. ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen,’ it began, weaving a commercialised tradition with simple theology into a unity of joyful anticipation.
That child-like innocence of faith transcends, at least for me, all the divisions that occur when some believers aggressively advocate a return to the celebration of Passover while others get defensive about Easter. As for the bunny… Oh, quick, dive for cover. I just mentioned an offensive word.
Is it possible to find a way through these competing views with grace towards all?
First, I think we need to remember that the Council of Jerusalem in the first century did not ask Gentile converts to Christianity to keep the Jewish feasts. They were asked to abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals and blood. (Acts 15:20) Keep the Passover, or keep Easter, as the Lord directs you but do not look down on others who honour the Lord differently.
Second, we need to understand each festival in its own right. Passover and Easter are not variations on the same theme; they are quite different. And they were different from the very beginning. Passover commemorates the hasty meal on the night before the Hebrew slaves left Egypt, the ‘Pesach’. Easter Day, on the other hand, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which happened to occur on another important Jewish feast day, that of First Fruits. The Easter season echoes that of Unleavened Bread.
‘Pesach’ is a difficult word to interpret. Scholars aren’t entirely sure about it. They think it means to leap, to spring, to hop, to pass over. God leaping, springing or hopping isn’t an image that fits immediately and comfortably into my brainspace and I can see why the more dignified ‘pass over’ is the verb of choice.
Now—at least according to Henry Clay Trumbull—the whole idea behind pesach is a reference to the action of a guest accepting a covenant by passing over the blood pooled on the cornerstone at the entrance to a house. The blood was a sign of hospitality and, as described in Exodus, was painted on the lintels and doorposts. It dripped down onto the threshold—the stone of atonement. When a guest passed over the blood, they accepted the at-one-ment, the unity of covenantal defence that the host offered through the sacrificial blood.
Hosts didn’t run through a whole list of covenantal obligations every time they welcomed a guest into their house: instead of ticking off various responsibilities for the different parties in the covenant, there was simply a cultural understanding that, if you accepted the covenant with all it entailed, then you would pass over the blood. If you didn’t accept it, then you dashed your foot against the cornerstone.
Now Trumbull suggests that, as a consequence of misunderstanding the hospitality rites spread almost universally across the ancient world, we have failed to recognise that the blood of the first Passover was a sign of welcome to honour God as the guest who would become the covenant defender of the household. It’s not the angel of Death who passes over, it is God.
This is clear when the Israelites are instructed to tell any children who inquire about the meaning of the Passover in the future that: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when He struck down the Egyptians.’ (Exodus 12:27 NIV)
Passover is about covenantal defence. It is an archetypal threshold covenant.
Easter, on the other hand, is about a return from the dead. According to the English monk, Bede, the name is said to go back to an Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. But by his time, the seventh century, all customs associated with her had died out. Despite modern pagans inventing ceremonies involving bunnies and eggs, there is no indication whatsoever that this was the case. In Bede’s time, little more than the name was left.
It’s been my repeated experience that God watches over words and names so that, however their meanings twist and turn over the centuries, they still retain some sense of their original meaning and also some pointer to His intention for them. So, although many people say ‘Easter’ goes back to Eostre and then to the name of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, I’m always interested in what God, the creator of words, the inventor of names and the lord of meaning has to say on the subject.
More than twenty years ago, I did considerable research on the Anglo-Saxon element ‘eo’. It occurred in words as varied as giant, tree, horse and, of course, Eostre. It was slipped into The Lord of The Rings through the names of the horse-lords of Rohan—Éomer, Éowyn, Éomund and Eorl—as well as the giant tree-shepherds, the Ents, which Tolkien acknowledged to have been inspired by an early English poem where the eoten, giants, were mentioned.
Now the inclusion of giant and Eostre suggest that ‘eo’ had a mythic underpinning and, at the time, that drew my mind to meteoric impacts. Giants and trees: today we might call them mushroom clouds because an atomic bomb is the only reasonable modern parallel we have for the devastating results of these earth-shattering blows from space. (I admit the inclusion of horse in this mix baffled me for a long while but The Celtic Gods: Comets in Irish Mythology by Patrick McCafferty and Mike Baillie had a particularly neat explanation for it.)
Now I may well be wrong but eventually I concluded that the reason the word ‘Easter’ has mysteriously lasted for so long, despite everything, is because the root meaning of ‘Eostre’ is the star that passes over. (Easy enough, therefore, to be mistaken for a goddess.) It consequently has a subtle link back to Pesach, the Passover. It’s no longer quite the same as ‘Ishtar’ anymore, because that simply means star. If anyone has a problem with the name Ishtar, then please be consistent and object to Esther as well. Because it’s just a variation on Ishtar.
You’re welcome to disagree but, in my view, we should never ever declare something to be pagan. That is to state that the Enemy’s theft is legitimate. We’re saying to the satan, ‘Yes. That belongs to you.’ And when we assert the origin of something to be pagan, we’re effectively proclaiming, ‘Yes, that always belonged to the Enemy. He made it.’
The satan never creates anything, not words, not numbers, not symbols, not names. He counterfeits. So when we maintain something is pagan or satanic, then instead of taking back what was stolen, we acquiesce in the robbery. Instead of taking a stand to reassert our regency over names and titles, as Jesus continually did, we gift them to the evil one. Instead of exposing the fakes and pointing to the originals they are imitating, we agree that the fraudulent claim is actually genuine.
Of course Ishtar and the resurrection of Jesus are connected. They have to be. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, famously claimed to have descended to the underworld. She wasn’t content to rule the living, she wanted the land of the dead as well. However, in attempting to conquer that domain, she’d been struck down for arrogance. And in order to bring her back to life—after three days, of course—her husband was dragged down as her replacement.
This claim is not a challenge Jesus could leave unaddressed. He not only had to point out that the whole story was stolen by a principality who claimed His throne, He had to show where she got it wrong.
We have this weird idea that Jesus did not take the principalities and powers all that seriously—that He basically ignored them until the Cross. And even then, He was more focussed on His Father and the people who were present at His crucifixion.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Even before He performs His first miracle with its attack on Dionysius, the so-called twice-born True Vine, He had faced three tests from the satan that correspond to the three great transgressions of the angelic hosts across history. This was open warfare right from the start against dozens of godlings and goddesses from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Canaanite pantheons. (And that’s just the ones I recognise—I’m sure they’re all there, if only I was better informed about world religions.)
So Jesus had to prove that Ishtar had zero right to her claims. And besides, He wanted the rights to the title ‘The Morning Star’ back as well as those to the name ‘Ishtar’. As far as I can see, He got it in ‘Easter’—which now points to Him, not to any Mesopotamian goddess.
And so to the bunny. Where on earth did that fluffy rabbit spring from?
Despite many modern claims retro-fitting it into the fertility rites of Eostre, revivification of the earth at springtime and goddess worship, it first peeped out of its warren over a thousand years beyond the time Eostre had vanished so completely only her name was left. If, of course, Easter actually does refer to her name and not to the star that passes over.
Now perhaps I might have been less suspicious about the origin of the bunny had I not discovered it first appeared in the sixteenth century as the Osterhase: the Easter Hare. It sprang up out of some burrow in Alsace on the French–German border and quickly ignited the imaginations of many people until today it is a ubiquitous symbol of Easter.
The sixteenth century is the age of Reformation. Over in England, laws were passed so that writers and artists could no longer describe or depict God. This happens from time to time when the winds of politics shift. In that era, God was considered too sacred to allow free rein to any scruffy individuals who fancied their ability with a quill or a brush. The law was meant to ensure proper reverence would be maintained.
It’s a disaster when people can’t talk about God and the meaning of life. Poets cast about for obvious representations of God: transparent symbols their audiences would immediately recognise. Zeus, for instance! Aphrodite! The emergence of the Greek gods as significant motifs in sixteenth century English poetry is partly in response to the law forbidding specific mention of God.
As I said, people invent transparent symbols. Such as the Osterhase. From Ostern, Easter and Hase, hare. On the surface it’s got nothing to do with God, but scratch just a tiny bit and you realise both Ostern and Hase contain syllables that sound like Os or As, the old Germanic words for god.
And, even better, in a century when hospitality was still covenantal in nature, this motif enabled people to symbolically speak of the Lord of the Passover as a leaping, springing, hopping God would pass over the threshold stone and become the family’s covenant defender.
We’ve lost the ancient understanding of Passover, so we decide the bunny has to have pagan connotations because we simplycan’t imagine anything else.
The traditional aspects of Easter today provide us with a weird combination of resurrection, Passover and First Fruits. Now some people reject tradition simply because it is tradition, and symbols simply because they are symbols. But this was not the attitude of Jesus. He used many traditions of His own time to point to Himself. He used Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to point to Himself as the Light of the World. He fulfilled the expectations of the people about the three national saviours—the royal messiah, the war messiah and the priestly messiah—but in surprising ways. He fulfilled the tradition that the messiah who would be known as the Son of David could be identified by being able to cast out deaf and dumb demons. There were many traditions He fulfilled or utilised, making them a platform to point to Himself.
He even—aghast!—used pagan ritual. The garden scene on the Day of Resurrection between Himself and Mary Magdalene has echoes of Eden, the Song of Songs and also Canaanite religious ritual. When Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas, He said He would come on the clouds of heaven: this is not only a reference to the Son of Man in the prophecy of Daniel, it’s a reference to Baal Hadad, the so-called Cloud-rider, whom Elijah had confronted centuries previously. In warring against Baal Hadad, the king of the Canaanite pantheon, Jesus totally despoiled every claim he had, taking back for the Father all that had been stolen—from titles to liturgies.
We have to stand up to the thefts and the cancellations. We now have the bunny, I strongly suspect, because of a cancellation in the sixteenth century that told the people of that time they couldn’t mention God or Jesus in poetry, song or story. We don’t need to cancel our traditions, we just need to use them—as Jesus did—to point to Himself. Let’s remind ourselves that Jesus, our Saviour, is capable of cleansing the unholy, reclaiming tradition and redeeming all days.
Blessed be His Name.