Every year around Easter time, there’s a spate of articles and Facebook posts that seek to disprove Christianity. This year, there were two: that Jesus had a wife, and that Easter is really just worship of the pagan deities Ishtar and Eostre. Fr. Stephen Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire, had the definitive response to the Jesus’ wife argument.
|Easter Bunny Postcard, 1907|
David Bates, meanwhile, has addressed the Easter-Ishtar-Eostre thing in a piece called Easter: The Pagan Conspiracy. After pointing out that virtually every other major language calls Easter “Pascha,” meaning “Passover,” David points out that the linguistic connection between Easter and Eostre isn’t really that shocking:
In fact, all the days of the week in English come from the names of either Norse or Graeco-Roman gods:
Monday: The Moon
Sunday: The Sun
Let’s try some other names. What do you call the first month of the year? “January”?! Pagan! Why do you worship the Roman god Janus?! As with the days of the week, I could go on and on, but the point is clear: the complaint about “pagan origins” is rarely applied consistently to all the places where pagan words are still used.
But having said all that, what about the bits of ancient pagan celebrations that have found their way into modern Christian celebrations? What’s the problem, exactly? As David points out, the Greek word that Scripture uses for “Gospel” (evangelion) “was originally used for edicts of the (pagan) Emperors.”
The early Christians referred to this as raiding the Egyptians, a reference to Exodus 3:21-22, in which the Jews received gold, silver, jewelry, etc., from their Egyptian captors before the Exodus. The idea is simple: if the pagans have something nice, and it can be used in the service of the true faith, why not? This is true whether we’re talking about terminology, physical objects, or cultural practices.
One reason for this is pastoral. If a group of non-Christians have a long tradition of celebrating at a certain time or in a certain manner, and then they convert to Christianity, it makes sense to offer them a way to take what was good about their old customs. Pope Gregory talked about this back in 601 A.D., in a letter to an abbot named Mellitus, who was heading to Britain to convert the English pagans. He sent him with these instructions, to pass along to St. Augustine of Canterbury:
Pope Gregory I
Howbeit, when Almighty God has led, you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys.
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use, in His own worship, of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, commanding them in His sacrifice to kill animals, to the end that, with changed hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; and although the animals were the same as those which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to the true God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.
That’s it in a nutshell: even if the externals look the same, the internals are different. On the surface, someone may not be able to tell the difference between an Englishman celebrating a Christianity feast or a pagan fest, but God doesn’t judge by these outward appearances. Offering sacrifice to Baal and to God looked the same, but the intention (and thus, the act) was a world apart.
There are a lot of legitimate threats facing Christians today. Worrying that the way you worship God on Easter looks too much like the way your pagan ancestors worshipped a false god is a problem you don’t need to add to the list.
Having said that, I should mention that there are good reason to reject the Easter Bunny mythos. It’s a stupid and pointless holiday tradition. Was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead not good enough? We needed one more day to celebrate gluttony and materialism, and another excuse to lie to our kids on (and about) the holiest day of the year? Everything that I’ve said against Santa Claus applies to the Easter Bunny as well.