Background of Easter and its Traditions

17 BACKGROUND OF EASTER AND ITS TRADITIONS (Hussain M. Sajid M.D.) Among the Christian holidays, Easter holds special significance as it denotes the events of the crucifixion and atonement, the basic creed of Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus rose again from the dead three days and three nights after he was crucified. Easter is celebrated on one Sunday morning each spring. The faithful arise early on this day, watch the sunrise and some, because of their forty days of partial abstinence called Lent will be over, will rejoice and participate in a religious service. Strange as it may seem, other festivities of this presumably religious day include chocolate rabbits, coloured eggs, egg-hunting and egg rolling games. Free thinking Christian scholars in bewilderment have often questioned all these incongruous activities. Why rabbits? Why not a puppy or a kitten? Rabbits do not lay eggs, and then why eggs, why not oranges or onions etc., because they also roll. Easter and its associated festivities, in this age of reasoning and enlightment, beg for an explanation and a systematic analysis of this religious tradition. The questions to be answered are simple as well as multiple, such as what is Easter? When was Easter initiated in history? Is there any scriptural evidence to celebrate this religious rite? Why is it always celebrated on Sunday? Why not on some other day of the week and how is the cuddly little innocent bunny rabbit, supposedly a magnificent egg-laying rabbit, attached to Easter? Is it a true scientific fact or a fable touching the horizons of mythology? Christian faith contends that Sunday was the day on which Christ rose from the dead and that his ressurection is the very reason for observing Easter. But, to add further to this predicament, the scriptures do not support the contention that Christ’s resurrection occured on a Sunday. Easter rites start with Lent. The origin and the significance of Lent itself is shrouded in obscurity. According to the, Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary: “The origin of the penitential season of Lent is obscure, its length has varied in different ages, but the principle of a fast of forty days (Lat; Quadragesima, It; Quaresima, Fr; Careme.) has been recognized since the fourth century.” Hoeh, in Plain Truth 1983 states: 18 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS “The Lent was observed 2,000 years before Christ was born. The source of the word Lent is an old English word Lencten meaning the ‘spring’ of the year as the Lent was originally celebrated with the coming of the spring season. These days it has been changed to winter. The Bible is silent about Lent. It did not originate with Christ. None of the apostles celebrated it, not even Paul or Peter”. About a hundred years after the death of the last of the twelve apostles, we find mention of Lent and Easter in a letter written by Irenaeus, a bishop from Gaul (the old name of France in the days of the Roman Empire) to the bishop of Rome which mentions the controversies in these words: “For the controversy is not only concerning the day (Easter) but also concerning the very manner of the Fast, for some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more, and some forty.” There was nothing certain or definite about Easter and Lent at that time. Jesus and the apostles had not addressed this question as none of them practised it and the coming generations were left in darkness and without guidance to the design of their own mind wanderings, even though the observance of these customs had originated long before the birth of Jesus. “And this variety in its observance ” continued Irenaeus” has not originated in our times, but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to private fancy. (Eusebius: Church History; Book 5, Chap: 24) It clearly denotes that Lent was not commanded by God but rather it came in to the Church through custom and private fancy. It is also apparent that Christians adopted these customs from their gentile neighbours. At this point the question arises, when did the Christian Church ‘adopt the celebration of the customs of Lent and Easter? The answer is provided by Cassion, a Catholic prelate of the fifth century. He writes “As long as the perfection of the primitive church remained inviolable there was no observance of lent, but when men began to decline from the apostolical fervour of devotion — then the priests in general agreed to recall them from secular cares by a canonical indication of fasting — (Antiq uities of the Christian Church; Book 21, Chapter I). Cassion’s time was much closer than the time of the present day authorities. He leaves no doubt that fasting was decided upon and imposed by the priests after the days of the apostles and the early Church. This was BACKGROUND OF EASTER AND ITS TRADITIONS 19 not based upon any religious creed or the practice of Jesus or any of his apostles, rather it was politically motivated to secure converts from amongst the gentiles. The Catholic Encyclopaedia records: “In any case it is certain from the Festival Letters of St. Athanasius that in 331 A.D. he enjoined upon his flock a period of forty days of fasting preliminary to Holy Week, and second that in 339 A.D. after having travelled to Rome and over the greater part of Europe, he wrote in the strongest terms to urge this observance of Lent upon the people under his jurisdiction. ” The name Easter may have come from Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring, or from the Teutonic festival of spring called Eastur. (The World Book Encycl; Vol. VI, page 25) Rev. Alexander Hislop in tracing the worship of a goddess Mother and her Divine Son writes on pages 20 and 21 of his book The Two Babylons: ” The origin of that mother, so widely worshipped, there is reason to believe, was Semiramis, who was worshipped by the Babylonians, and other eastern nations under the name of Rhea, the great Goddess Mother. Certain feasts were celebrated connected with the only begotten divine son of the virgin mother — The feast of Astarte or Ishtar, the queen of the heavens or the virgin goddess of spring and fruitfulness, was observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the “Spring Equinox” —– The Vernal Equinox occured at that time when the sun in its elliptical revolution, as it passed the Equator, made the shape of a cross in the constellation of Aries or the ‘Lamb’. This was taken as the triumph of the Sun-God, whose virgin queen had succeeded in rescuing her only begotten son, who had sacrificed his life to the powers of darkness to save humanity and send him to heaven to look after his believers. Therefore, he became ‘Aries’ or ‘The Lamb of the Heavens’. This event is celebrated with hot-cross buns; the round bun represents the sun and the cross on it as the magical sign made by the sun, which saved the savio.ur from the imprisonment of the forces of the darkness.” The name for Easter in some languages come from the Hebrew ‘Pesah’. Spanish speaking people call Easter, ‘Pascua’. The Italians call Easter, Pasqua and the French, the ‘Pasques’. Many customs connected with the Easter season come from the pagan festivals of spring. Others stem from the Passover celebration.” (The World Book Encycl; Vol. VI p 26). “The triumph of the Sun-God was, therefore 20 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS and quite naturally ascribed to the influence of Aries (the Lamb of the Heavens). The Lamb thus became the symbol of the Rising Saviour and his passage from the underworld into the height of heaven.” . (Pagan and Christian Creed, p 39). In ‘The Golden Bough’ p 348-356, Frazer writes about the Phrygian virgin-born son of God who was bled to death hanging crucified from a pine-tree. His blood renewed the fertility of the earth and thus brought new life to humanity. He also rose from the dead. Frazer states: “In celebrating his death and resurrection, his image was fastened to a pine-tree cut in a form of a cross on March 24th and the day was called “The Day of Blood” since on that day the deity was bled to death. The image was then laid in a tomb, when there was wailing and mourning. But the coming night changed their sorrow to joy. The tomb was found empty on the next morning i.e. 25th March, when the festival of the resurrection was celebrated. These rituals included a baptism of blood and a sacramental meal”. “Easter decorations and paintings often include the figure of a lamb as a symbol of Jesus. The World Encyclopaedia offers another interpretation that this symbol is adopted by the Christian Church from the Jews on erroneous grounds and remarks “the symbol of the lamb comes from the Jewish Pesah (Passover Holiday). The Jews sacrificed a lamb, called a paschal lamb, during their traditional Passover ceremony in the Temple in Jerusalem. Early Christians interpreted the sacrifice of the paschal lamb as a forecast of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Surely a far fetched irrational interpretation. ” Eggs represent the new life that returns to nature about Easter time. The custom of exchanging eggs began in ancient times. The ancient Egyptians and Persians often dyed eggs in spring colours and gave them to their friends as gifts. The Persians believed that the earth had hatched from a giant egg! It was but natural for such ritual and dogmas to find their natural niche amongst dogmas of Trinity and bodily Resurrection. Early Christians of Mesopotamia were first to use coloured eggs for Easter. The story behind the Easter Bunny is even more incredible and defies any rhyme and reason for adoption by a religion which claims to be established by God, The All Wise and the Source of All Wisdom. Many children are made to believe that an Easter Bunny brings their share of Easter eggs and this man made ritual is played in Washington on the lawn of the White House every year by mature and supposedly honest truth-speaking adults in the presence of the news media. BACKGROUND OF EASTER AND ITS TRADITIONS The World Book Encyclopaedia states: “This belief probably comes from Germany. One legend says that a poor woman dyed some eggs during a famine, and hid them in a nest as an Easter gift for her children. Just as the children discovered the nest, a big rabbit leaped away. The story spread that the rabbit had brought the Easter eggs.” 21 Was it in Jerusalem, the place of the alleged resurrection of Jesus, that the first Easter was celebrated? No, it was rather Rome. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, was influenced by Roman customs. It was at Rome that not only Easter, but also Lent entered the Church. Neither the apostles nor the Gospels imposed these customs. Socrates Scholastic us (4th century A.D.) wrote in his Ecclesiastical History: “Neither the apostles, therefore nor the Gospels, have anywhere imposed Easter. Wherefore in as much as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labour, each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure has by a prevalent custom celebrated Easter ….. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast …. just as many other customs have been established in individual localities according to usage, so also the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the indiviqual peculiarities of the people in as much as none of the apostle legislated on the matter. And that the observance orginated not by legislation, but as a custom, the facts themselves indicate.” (Ecclesiastical History, Chap; 22). Irenaeus admits in his famous letters that Lent and Easter entered the Christian Church at Rome during the time of Bishop Xystus of Rome and the name Easter denoting spring was retained to designate the festival of the Resurrection. About the middle of second century a long drawn out dispute occurred between Western and Eastern Churches over the exact date for the. early church, a subject on which Bede wrote two volumes. The Eastern Church terminated Lent fasting and began Easter celebration on the 14th day of Jewish month, Nisan, thus linking wifh the Jewish feast celebrating the Exodus from Egypt B.C. They were called Quartodecimans (quartus decimus, fourteenth) by the Western Church. The Western Church celebrated Easter on the Sunday following the 22 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS 14th day of the full moon of the equinox. The Church of Antioch continued to celebrate at a different date, on the first Sunday after the 14th day of Nisan: “It was at this stage (in the tenth year of Co mm od us’ reign i.e. around 189 A.D.) that a controversy of great significance took place, because all the Asians dioceses thought that in accordance with ancient custom they ought to observe the 14th day of the lunar month (14th Nisan, the day of the Passover Full Moon) as the beginning of the Paschal festival — But nowhere else in the world was it customary to arrange their celebration in that way — so Synod and conferences of bishops were convened, presided by Bishop Theophilus of Caesarea and Narcissus of Jerusalem and at Rome by Bishop Victor.” (The History of the Church by Eusebius, Book 5; 23:1, p 229-230) The discussion waxed hot and by harsh measures Pope Victor (189-189 A.D.) terminated the quartodeciman controversy by threatening with excommunication all those who failed to comply with the Roman custom. The General Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. paved the way to a final settlement. At the fiirst Council of religious heads at Nicaea, not the Pope of Rome but Constantine in his capacity as Pontifax Maximus issued a number of regulations to be observed by the members of the Church. These regulations among others include that the birthday of Christos or Christ should b~ celebrated at the Winter Solistice, the birthday of Nimrod-Mithra and called it “X-Mas”. He also decided on which Dies Solis or Sun-God’s day of the year Easter should be regularly held, and God instead of being one and alone as taught by Jesus was reduced to a ‘Trinity in Unity’ according to Nimrod’s teachings as in Mithraism. Inspite of these threatening measures there was no harmony in observance of Easter. Eusebius further relates in The History of the Church Book 5; 14: 1 that: “The Asian bishops who insisted that they must observe the custom transmitted to them long ago were headed by Polycrates, who in the letter which he wrote to Victor and the Roman Church set out in the following terms the traditions he had received ‘we for our part keep the day scrupulously, without addition or substraction.’ Polcrates mentions the names of many Church fathers and martyrs and states that all of these kept the fourteenth day of the month as the beginning of the Paschal Festival, in accordance with the Gospel BACKGROUND OF EASTER AND ITS TRADITIONS (John XII 1-12 shows that the crucifixion took place on Passover day, which was always 14th Nisan.) not deviating in the last but following the rule of the Faith. Last of all I too, Polycrates, the least of you all, act according to the tradition of my family, some members of which I have actually followed; for seven of them were bishops and I am the eighth, and my family have always kept the day when the people put away the leaven. So I, my friends, after spending sixty-five years in the Lord’s service and conversing with Christians from all parts of the world and going carefully through all Holy Scriptures, am not scared of threats.” 23 Referring to the bishops who were with him and who wrote and shared his opinion, he writes: “I could have mentioned the bishops who are with me and whom I summoned in response to your request. If I write their names, the list will be very long, — they approve my letter. ” There upon Victor, head of the Roman church, attempted at one stroke to cut ·off· from the common unity all the Asian Dioceses, together with the neighbouring churches, on the ground of heterodoxy. He condemned them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there. But this was not to the taste of all the bishops. We still possess the words of these men, who very sternly rebuked Victor, among them was Irenaeus, who wrote on behalf of the christians for whom he was responsible in Gaul: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the feast. — Such variations in the observance did not originate in our own days, but very much earlier, in the times of our forefathers, who apparently disregarding strict accuracy — in their naive simplicity kept up a practice which they fiixed for the time to come.” “Lent, though it was celebrated for a varying length of time, one or two days or for several weeks, traditioI)Hlly was always called the cclehration of 40 days according to the original length of the fast, traced to ancient Babylon 4000 years ~go.” (Ninevah and Bahylon; hy Layard; Ch: 4, p 93) It was not until the 8th century after Christ that the final number of 40 days was fastened on the whole Church from Ireland to Asia Minor. 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Bede provides us with the lively account of this dispute and the scholarly way in which this whole dispute was set to rest. He states that the local Royal household in Northumbria was split down the middle. The queen had gone over to Roman customs. The King was still using Celtic ways. As a result, he explains: “When the king had ended Lent and was keeping Easter, the queen and her household was still fasting”. Enough to ruin any family’s Easter. The matter was resolved when the king called a meeting at Whi’tby, in 664 A.D., between the two sides. Oddly they both agreed to accept his decision, and he decided for Rome or his wife. (Bede; A History of the English Church and People). Up to the 12th century every day within the Eastern Octave (the eight days immediately following the fast) was a holy day of obligation. Today, however, in most countries even Easter Monday and Tuesday have been abolished as days of obligations. Frazer in his famous book “The Golden Bough” has compared the similarities between the ceremonies of the pagan goddess Adonis and those of Easter. He writes: “The whole custom … sepulchre as well as plates of sprouting grain … may be nothing but a continuation, under a different name, of the worship of Adonis. Nor are these Sicilian and Calabrian customs the only Easter ceremonies which resemble the rites 0 Adonis … When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully continued to plant the seed of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis.” (page 400) . “Under the names of Osiris, Tammy, Adonis and Attis, the people of Egypt and Western Asia represented the yearly decay and revival of life, especially of vegetable life, which they personified as a god who annually died and rose again from the dead. The worship of Adonis was practised by the Semitic peoples of Babylonia and Syrian and the Greeks borrowed it from them as early as 7th century B.c. The true name of the deity was Tammuz; the appellation of Adonis is merely the Semitic Adon, ‘Lord’ a title of honour by which his worshippers addressed him. But the Greeks through a misunderstanding converted the title of honour into a proper name.” (p378). BACKGROUND OF EASTER AND ITS TRADITIONS He further states: “The tragical story and the meloncholy rites of Adonis are betterknownto us from the description of Greek writers or the brief references of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the temple.” 25 Christianity, in its evangelical zeal to secure as many converts as possible from other religions even compromised its own basic tenets, formulated pagan rites as its own thus making Christianity more palatable to accept. In the process Christianity borrows extensively from other nations irrespective that may it be a heathen or a pagan or a Jewish custom. The tragedy is that it has done its best to legitimise these borrowed customs and festivals as its own and made them parts of its liturgy. THE DOOR OF REVELATION Do not think that the Revelation from God is not possible in the future: that it was possible only in the past: do not think that the holy spirit cannot come down now. I tell you truly that every door can be closed but the door for the coming down of the holy spirit. Open all the doors of your heart to receive it. With your own hands you remove yourself to a distance from that sun when you close the window through which light can enter. Therefore, get up at once and throw this window open, so that the light of the sun should, of its own accord, enter your heart the simplicity and invevitability of a natural process. When God has not closed the doors of His blessings upon the world, when in fact He has multiplied them even more than before, do you venture to presume that he has closed upon you the doors of his spiritual blessings, even at a time when they were needed most! No, no; not at all. Rather has that door been opened beyond any possible shadow of doubt. (HAZRAT MIRZA GHULAM AHMAD)

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