Spring is in the air. The azaleas are blooming, the trees and grass are turning green, and the drone of lawn mowers break the peaceful songs of the birds on Saturday mornings. This is a wonderful time of year as the world awakes from its winter slumber.
In ancient cultures, Spring’s arrival was a comforting reminder that the gods had not forgotten them and would bless the earth with much needed food. In a world in which food reserves were scarce, each harvest could be the difference between life and death. It is not surprising that these ancient people developed elaborate worship ceremonies around the renewal and rebirth of the world in Spring.
Diana of the Ephesians, mentioned in Acts, was a goddess who provided nourishment to the nations. She is one of many goddesses that symbolized fertility and growth among the ancient people. In the temples of many fertility idols, male and female prostitutes would provide part of the “worship” to honor the gods. Outside of the “civilized” empire, the barbaric tribes also celebrated fertility rites to welcome the Spring. Some services were drunken feasts in honor of the gods. It was in this debased environment that the early Christians had to teach the proper worship of the one God.
Under the reign of Constantine, the Roman persecution of Christians stopped. Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Great numbers converted to Christianity because it was fashionable. Many retained their pagan practices. In an attempt to convert the barbarian nations, particularly the Germanic people, well meaning Christians tried to adopt the pagan practices to the Christian worship. This contrasts to the work of Paul who, when he addressed the idolatrous people at the Areopagus in Acts 17, told the people to repent of their idolatry and serve the one true God.
The mix of idolatry and Christianity was disastrous. Instead of leading people to a pure spiritual religion delivered by Jesus and His inspired apostles, it became a physical worldly religion. Instead of converting the idolatrous to Christ, they made the church more idolatrous. They replaced pagan idols with statues of Jesus, the apostles, and venerated saints. As the idols represented various occupations and pursuits, such as farming, hunting, and business, the saints would now have patronage over these things. They also adopted the pagan festivals, giving them a “Christian” meaning.
One of the most celebrated feasts was the feast for Ostara, the goddess of the morning light, or the sun’s return in the Spring. The celebration of life returning from death, Spring arising from Winter, seemed appropriate to adapt to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The new Easter celebration combined the resurrection of Christ with the symbolism of the fertility festivals. These symbols included baby chicks (new life), rabbits (well known for their breeding capability), and eggs, the ultimate symbol of new birth.
Some may note that the word “Easter” appears in the King James Version in Acts 12:4 and therefore must have been celebrated by the church in the first century. To this I quote the noted commentator and scholar, Albert Barnes:
There never was a more absurd or unhappy translation than this. The original is simply after the Passover. The word Easter now denotes the festival observed by many Christian churches in honour of the resurrection of the Saviour. But the original has no reference to that; nor is there the slightest evidence that any such festival was observed at the time when this book was written. The translation is not only unhappy, as it does not convey at all the meaning of the original, but because it may contribute to foster an opinion that such a festival was observed in the times of the apostles. The word Easter is of Saxon origin, and is supposed to be derived from Eostre, the goddess of love, or the Venus of the North, in honour of whom a festival was celebrated by our pagan ancestors in the month of April. (Webster.) As this festival coincided with the Passover of the Jews, and with the feast observed by Christians in honour of the resurrection of Christ, the name came to be used to denote the latter. In the old Anglo-Saxon service-books the term Easter is used frequently to translate the word Passover. In the translation by Wicliffe, the word paske, i.e., passover, is used. But Tindal and Coverdale used the word Easter, and hence it has very improperly crept into our translation. (Clark.) From StudyLight.org
Will the church where I attend have a special Easter pageant or sunrise service? No. We will not recognize the resurrection with any more significance than we do any other worship. The early church did not so we do not. An individual must decide if he wants to celebrate it as a family day with no spiritual significance, where the family can wear new spring clothes, hide eggs, and eat too many jellybeans. However, if one wants to celebrate it as a religious holiday, he must remember that the festival arose from the mind of man, not the mind of God.