Easter  

Easter is the most holy season of the Christian year and marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. As such, the central message of the Christian faith is played out during this time. This message is that Christ has power to defeat death and that eternal life is a freely given gift of God. As Christians, we die in Christ and we are reborn in Christ.

Moving a little deeper into the theology, Christ is portrayed as the sacrificial lamb that took the sins of the entire tribe to let them start afresh in the new year. This sacrificial lamb was eaten as part of a ritual meal, which originally commemorated the ‘first fruits’ of the new agricultural year. In Exodus, we read that the Israelites were instructed to mark the doors of their houses with the blood of a sacrificial spring lamb to avoid being killed as the ‘Angel of Death’ passed over. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross fulfilled the requirements of all previous ‘blood offerings’ and so such sacrifices do not form part of the Christian religion. But the association of his ‘once-given for all-time’ sacrifice with the Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) has led to the season being given this name, usually as some derivation of the Latin word Pascha. Christ as the sacrificial or Paschal lamb remains a powerful part of Christian imagery.

But, as with Christmas, Easter has roots that lie way back in our culture. Bede tells us that the ancient Anglo Saxons worshipped a goddess called Eostre. As with her continental ‘sister’, Ostara, Eostre evokes a sense of the ‘east’, the direction from which the sun rises and the new day dawns. Eostre’s season was roughly April and was strongly associated with spring time and the on-set of the new agricultural year. Eostre was the time of renewal and rebirth as well as being strongly associated with fertility, not least the start of the lambing season. As folk Christians, we see Eostre as an Angel of Rebirth and new Life – the Angel of Easter!

It is easy to see how this was absorbed into the Christian calendar. Many of the older North European traditions were absorbed with it, including the imagery of eggs and rabbits as symbols of fertility and new life. Eostre is not an Angel of death, but an Angel of life. She brings forth the sun and the warmth of spring. It is no wonder that she remains a most powerful symbol of Easter – one that in many ways has proven more powerful than even Christ on the Cross. This should not worry us for she is also a powerful symbol of the central message of Christianity as it speaks to us – Christ is Risen! Our folk Easter therefore focuses not on the death of Jesus as do some traditions, but on His Rebirth. The resurrection is also transformative in that it offers us a new life in the sense of a fresh start and a different way of seeing things through the eyes of Christ.

The lamb itself was probably the most powerful symbol of new life. Our pre-Christian ancestors did not have a concept of ‘sin’ in the Christian sense and so did not need rituals to absolve themselves from it. So the lamb was a symbol of purity, new life and renewal rather than having any sense of a ‘sin offering’. It is interesting that it is this ‘fertility’ symbolism rather than the ‘sin symbolism’ that remains the most powerful imagery of our Easter.

Moreover, and unlike Christmas, the imagery of our ‘folk’ Easter with its emphasis on rebirth and renewal has remained more separate to the formal religious events of the period. In other words, there is a greater difference between your experience of Easter if you attend the various religious ceremonies of the Church than if you do not.

The run up to Easter starts with the fasting season of Lent as we prepare ourselves for the most holy part of the Christian calendar. One week before Easter Sunday, we celebrate Palm (or Passion) Sunday – the triumphal entry of Christ into the City of Jerusalem. It is customary on this day to be blessed by being sprinkled with holy water from a palm and then being given the palm. This is followed by a solemn procession around the Church and then back into it through the main entrance to signify Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

This kicks off ‘Holy Week’ which is a liturgical preparation for the key events known as the ‘Passion’ – which is derived from Pascha and means sacrifice. Most people do not engage much, if at all, with the services of Holy Week as our focus is on the joy of Easter day itself. But it is important to have an understanding of the events that lead up to this joy, especially if we are to understand the significance of the light defeating the darkness.

·        Holy Monday is associated with biblical stories of ‘the cursing of the fig tree’ which withers because it has not sufficiently brought forth the fruits of repentance, the ‘questioning of Jesus’ authority by the Temple Priests and the expulsion of money changers from the Temple. 

·        Holy Tuesday foretells the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot during the ‘Last Supper’. The Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the parable of the ten virgins; five of whom are rewarded for being prepared for the arrival of the bride groom and five of whom are disowned for not being prepared. This is a reference to the need for constant vigilance as we await the second coming of Christ an important sub-theme of the Easter season.

·        Holy Wednesday focuses on the anointing of Jesus with expensive oils and the plot by Judas to betray Him and to deliver Him to the Jewish authorities. A Chrism service may be celebrated on this day in which holy oils are blessed for treating the sick. Holy Wednesday is often completed within the Anglican tradition by a celebration of ‘Tenebrae’ which is a series of readings and responses as the candles in Church are gradually extinguished in preparation for the darkness of Christ’s death.

·        Maundy Thursday commemorates the last Supper of Christ. The origin of the term ‘Maundy’ is not known for certain. Many scholars believe it is derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’, meaning ‘obligation’ and relating to the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. As a sign this, it has become associated with the practice of foot washing following in the practice of Christ at the Last Supper.

However, an alternative theory (and one that ASA hold to) is that it is derived from the Maundy baskets, or purses, of money that the king of England distributed to the poor on this day. This custom is still practiced by the monarch.

On the evening of Maundy Thursday, the Eucharist is celebrated and Church bells rung. Altars are stripped of their cloths and crucifixes are removed or covered.

·        Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the Cross. In England, as in much of the Anglo-sphere, it is a public holiday. The Book of Common Prayer does not include a specific form of service for Good Friday, but custom has developed a three hour service, known as the ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’, which includes readings outlining the passion story. More recently, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ have been re-introduced especially into High Church services.

Hot Cross buns are typically eaten on Good Friday, though they are as likely to be eaten on any day around this period. These are spiced, sweet buns, made with currents or sultanas and have a pastry cross on their top. They are cut in half, toasted and eaten with just butter.

Holy (or Easter) Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb and the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. There is no formal liturgy for the day, but readings are often said commemorating the burial of Jesus. At nightfall (or around 6.00pm) the Easter Vigil begins and continues through the night until dawn.

On Holy Saturday, we are also encouraged to meditate upon the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. This ‘Anglo Saxon’ term refers to the triumphant descent of Christ into hell, as His earthly body lies in the tomb, and His bringing the souls of the righteous dead back out of Hell with Him. This story is referred to in two Anglo Saxon era poems (Cædmon and Cynewulf) as well as in Aelfric's homilies. So it was clearly an important part of the faith for our ancestors.

The end of the vigil is marked by lighting candles, including the new pascal Candle), symbolising the victory of light over darkness. Statues and crucifixes are unveiled and Easter Sunday has begun!

Easter Sunday marks the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of eternal life of all those who follow Him. This is the one Sunday practicing Anglicans are expected to observe. Even though most do not attend Church even on Easter Sunday, numbers are usually significantly higher than usual. There are several joyful Easter hymns which are sung, one of the most common being ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’.

Although not common these days, hard boiled eggs are still decorated (usually on Holy Saturday) and exchanged on Easter Sunday. Rolling these eggs down steep slopes as a race remains popular in many parts of rural England.

More common, are chocolate eggs, often with sweets inside them. Traditionally, these are hidden around the garden by parents and the children then ‘hunt’ the eggs on Easter morning.

In some parts of England, mainly in the south-west, lightly spiced Easter biscuits with currents in them are exchanged.

Another traditional food item eaten over Easter is the ‘Simnel cake’. The word Simnel is thought to be derived from Latin word ‘Simila’ meaning finely ground and they may originally have been a bread. Traditionally they were baked in the middle of Lent for what is known as ‘Refreshment’ or ‘Simnel’ Sunday – and is now better known as Mothering Sunday. Simnel cakes are a bit like a lighter version of Christmas cake and seem to be enjoying a comeback over recent years. Traditionally, they are decorated with eleven marzipan balls representing the eleven apostles, excluding Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ. However, you do often see them with twelve marzipan balls, representing Jesus and the eleven apostles. 

 

The tradition of ‘Pace Egg Plays’ was common throughout the land, but died out following the First World War because so many of the men who took part in them had been killed. But the tradition is now experiencing something of a revival and this is to be strongly supported as a classic English Folk Christian custom.

 

The word ‘Pace’ is derived from Pascha, literally meaning Easter. So these are local ‘Easter’ plays. But they are not Passion plays as such, and only have a fairly basic link to the Easter story. In fact, they are more in the mould of a Pantomime, pitching the hero, often St George, against the Villain, often the Black Prince or the Bold Slasher. As St George smites all challengers, the fool (known as ‘Toss Pott’ – a term still used for a person acting foolishly) rejoices at George’s victories. However, George is eventually killed (all cry ‘boo’) but then brought back to life again by a quack doctor (all cry ‘hurrah’).

Morris Men and Women come out of hibernation around Easter tide. In fact, they will have been practicing hard during the winter months and now keen to dance in public.

 

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