What does Easter mean to you?

ishtarToday it is Easter Sunday. I wonder what that means to you? For many millions of people Easter is about chocolate, about bunnies and the Asda Chick (you’re better off with Asda). But actually, you’re not better off with the Asda Chick at all. You’re better off with the Christian message of hope that Easter brings.

The myth of Ishtar

This year there has been an attempt to undermine the Christian festival of Easter with a Facebook meme. You’ve probably seen this posted to the Facebook profiles of some of your friends. As is so often the case, however, there is very little truth in this particular meme. Easter, we are told, “was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. This is a somewhat dodgy assertion, since the name ‘Easter’ has no connection at all with Ishtar, other than sounding vaguely similar. The name Easter (which is peculiar to the English language) probably comes from ‘Eostre’,who was apparently an Anglo Saxon goddess. I say apparently because there is almost no evidence at all to support this idea. The only reference we have to Eostre is to be found in the writing of the English monk Bede, who writing in the eighth century, commented that during Eosturmonap (the month of April), pagan Anglo Saxons had held feasts in Eostre’s honour, but that this tradition had been replaced by a Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

So it is not a certainty that anyone, Pagan or otherwise, believed in Eostre. It is therefore not the case that a pagan celebration was “changed to represent Easter.” The only connection between the possible pagan festivities and the Christian festival is the timing. It just so happened that in England Christians celebrated Christ’s death and resurrection in a month that retained a pagan name. (Much like, for example, July is named after Julius Caesar, but that doesn’t mean that we celebrate the successes of the legendary Roman during this month).

Constantine and Easter

Constantine is also referred to in this Facebook meme. Apparently after “he decided to Christianise the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus.” This is just plain wrong. Firstly it is unlikely that Constantine, would have known much about Eosturmonap (despite the rather dodgy belief of some that he was born in England), since the name of the month in which the English celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus was not used widely beyond these shores. Constantine would probably have known the Christian festival by the name Latin name, Pascha. It is also unlikely that he would have had any knowledge of the possible Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre from which the name of the month derives. The idea, therefore, that Constantine sought to change a pagan festival “to represent Jesus” has little truth. What is true is that at the Council of Nicaea, which he summoned in 325, two rules were laid down regarding Easter. The first established the date of the Christian festival independently of the Jewish calendar, which had previously been used by Christians to set the date. The second tried to establish worldwide uniformity of the date, so that Christians all celebrated the date on the same year. These were certainly not about “changing Easter to represent Jesus.”

The roots of Easter

Apparently, at its roots, Easter “is all about celebrating fertility and sex.” Now if that’s how you want to celebrate Easter, be my guest. Don’t think for one minute, though, that you are continuing some ancient tradition. The roots of the Easter festival of today (which perhaps be would be better off referring to by the Latin, Pascha, to avoid confusion), lie in a deserted garden in Jerusalem. In this garden there was a tomb. Jesus, having been crucified and killed on Good Friday was buried in this tomb. Three days later, some of Jesus’ female followers visited the tomb to embalm his body, only to discover that it was not there. In their shock, an angel appeared to the women and told them “do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”

Jesus, having died, rose again, smashing through death and defeating it. Death could not hold him in the ground. Death was not the end. Death was only the beginning. In the same way, for those who follow Jesus, death is not the end but the beginning. Just as Jesus was raised to life by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will raise to new life all of Jesus’ followers after their bodily deaths.

This is the true root of Easter, that thanks to Jesus death cannot hold us. We do not need to fear death because Christ has defeated it for us.

And today, you’re not better off with Asda. You’re better off with Jesus.