Easter: The First and Essential Feast

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: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.