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: Catholic school teachers are ‘ministers’, SCOTUS rules

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.