Easter: The First and Essential Feast

Jared Staudt

Ask anyone, “What’s the most important celebration of the year?” and the answer seems clear: Christmas. Presents, decorations, music, and Santa. It’d be hard to top that, right? Even from a religious perspective, God becoming man, dwindled to infancy (as the poet Hopkins put it), invites us to meet him in the intimacy of the manger scene.

Yet, from the depth of darkness, all the misery of human life throughout history, we hear a voice:

I was dead but now I live.

The child of Christmas came into the world only to die for us. And not only to die, but to take up his life again in a new and transformed way.

“I will not die, but live” (Psalm 118:7). Jesus says this not only for himself but for all those who receive his new life: we were dead in sin and have found life in Christ. The Resurrection introduced a new force into the world, turning everything upside down, or, more accurately, right side up. We are redeemed from the slavery instituted by Adam’s sin. Death, the consequence of sin and the ultimate cause of fear, has been destroyed:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
(1 Cor 15:54-55).

Easter is the only reason we can celebrate. Without Easter, we would all be fatalists: death would have the last word. We couldn’t celebrate Christmas or any other feast, knowing that in the end all will fade into darkness. Paul himself points out that “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Easter is the essential celebration that passes on its life to every other feast.

We could even say that the Church is Easter. The Church’s mission consists in spreading its spiritual force through the world like leaven. The Church does two things to share Christ’s victory. First, it gives testimony, in unbroken succession from the apostles, the ones who directly witnessed the Lord in his resurrected life: “And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:32). Secondly, it celebrates! “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival” (1 Cor 5:7). The Church exists to celebrate the Resurrection, especially at Mass, the principal way of transmitting the grace of Jesus’s new life.

We see this immediately in Acts of the Apostles. The first community met for the Eucharist, not only on the Jewish Sabbath day, Saturday, but on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day of the new creation. The Church celebrated Easter (originally called Pascha, Christ’s Passover) every single week. Easter is also the first great liturgical feast, remembered not simply during the Passover (as its days of the week changes), but every year on a Sunday: the Sunday following the first full moon after the start of spring. The Germanic word “Easter” points to this connection to “spring” in its original context, the resurrection of life in nature’s annual cycle, as well as to the East, the source of the rising sun, which begins to give more light during this season.

The celebration of Pascha, however, to use Easter’s Latin name, arose to draw Christians into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. It marked the day of initiation — Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion — for Christian converts. In fact, Lent arose originally as part of the preparation for Baptism at Easter, a practice extended to the whole Church to renew baptismal promises each year. The rites of initiation truly served as the Christian Passover: sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection by passing through the water and eating the flesh of the Passover lamb, Christ’s body given for us on the Cross. The oil signifies a share in the royal life of Christ, an anointing with his own Spirit to live a resurrected life.

Pieter Aertsen, The Egg Dance, 1557.

When it comes to traditions related to Easter, after 40 days of fasting, food is the focus. The celebration may take second place for many people, because we don’t have as many compelling traditions (and the Easter Bunny just doesn’t cut it). One longstanding tradition that still survives focuses on eggs. Animal products couldn’t be eaten during Lent and the reintroduction of eggs at the Easter feast also served as a great symbol of the Resurrection. Western art portrays Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection in the Gospels, carrying ointment to anoint Jesus’ body, but in the East, she carries an egg. Traditions speak of her carrying a basket of eggs to the tomb, while another speaks of her proclaiming the Resurrection to the emperor using the egg as a symbol. In both accounts, the eggs miraculously turn red, leading to the practice of dying and decorating eggs, perfected by the Ukrainian pysanka tradition. Today we have Easter egg hunts, but in the Middle Ages they had egg dances. The game entailed safely knocking an egg out of a bowl and then trying to get it back in again. Pieter Aertsen’s depiction of the dance, painted in 1557, shows the many obstacles thrown in to make the game even more interesting.

Other symbols of Easter also involve items the women would have carried to the tomb: candles, ointment, and flowers. The procession into Church with the Pascal candle recalls the first procession on Easter morning, with the light moving throughout the Church to overcome the world’s darkness. The ointment meant for Jesus’ body now seals the neophytes with the Holy Spirit at their Baptism and Confirmation, giving them a share in Christ’s divine life, showing how all the members of the body share in the victory of Christ. The flowers placed at the grave for mourning, now turn into a symbol of life through their blossoms and scent. Although we cannot join the Triduum celebration directly this year, we can make our home a sanctuary with colored eggs, candles, and flowers.

Easter is the most important celebration of the year. We all need something to cheer us during this crisis. So, let’s celebrate the best we can!

 

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.