EGGS AND BUNNIES
Now that Easter has passed, let me confide that every Easter somebody asks me, “What do eggs and bunnies have to do with Easter?” The easy answer is – nothing. Easter is of course the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, the sacrificial act of God in bringing about the salvation of humanity. You know all this because you have been listening to my preaching for the last eight weeks. (Haven't you?)
The longer answer is that they are symbols that have been adopted into the Christian understanding of Easter, only, unfortunately, to be hi-jacked by the world of commerce to wrest some more dollars from your clutches. The thing we need to accept is that they have become so enmeshed with the popular idea of Easter that we are probably saddled with them for good.
So, where did they arise from?
Religious practices of decorating eggs precedes Christianity by many thousands of years. Ostrich eggs with engraved decoration that are as much as 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. Decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.
The earliest decorated eggs in Christianity were in Mesopotamia (today's Iran) where eggs were dyed red to represent the blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion. An ancient legend that may be behind this practice arose in the Eastern Church that Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned brilliant red when she saw the risen Christ. Some icons of Mary represent her carrying an egg. Another tradition is that the egg represents the boulder of the tomb of Jesus. When Greek Easter arrives in May, look in Greek Bakers to see flat plaited loaves with a red egg baked into their centre.
This custom of red eggs spread to the western church in the Middle Ages, but was adapted to make the eggs represent the resurrection. In many European traditions, eggs are painted, dyed or printed with extremely intricate designs and patterns. When I visited Sweden in 1979, I was roped in to paint designs on eggs, which were then hung in a tree, much as we decorate trees at Christmas. As my Swedish is negligible, I never understood the reasons given to me for this tradition.
The egg has been a symbol of life for most world cultures. Creation myths as far spread as Egypt, India, Asia and the Pacific islands involve an egg, laid by a cosmic serpent or bird, breaking open, in some cases the emerging yolk becoming the sun, to spill life into the world. In legends such as that of the phoenix, the egg represented resurrection or recreation, as the bird bursts into fire, then emerges from its own egg in the ashes. Such traditions appear to lay behind the Christian adoption of the egg as a symbol of Christ's resurrection.
A much simpler tradition about the Easter Egg is that eggs were a food that was not eaten in the Lenten Fast. For this reason, pancakes are made on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, to clear away the eggs in the pantry. At Easter, to celebrate the end of the Lent and the breaking of the fast, eggs were a central part of the feast.
A point to remember in all this is that every one of the egg symbolisms I have written of here are traditions, legends or folklore. None has any basis in the Biblical story of Easter. As symbols, however, they play a role in reminding us of the meaning of Easter. As life emerges from a lifeless egg, so Christ emerged from the lifeless tomb. Christ's sweet gift to the world was to be redeemed by our God, and given the gift of eternal life. Breaking an Easter Egg and tasting the sweet chocolate melt in your mouth is fine – if you remember the divine gift it symbolises.
The Easter Bunny, originally the Easter Hare, that distributes the Easter Eggs, appears also to have found its way into the Christian Easter tradition from more ancient folklores and myths. Because of their ability to procreate rapidly, the hare and rabbit have been considered a life or fertility symbol in most cultures that knew them. Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring was depicted having the head of a hare, and most scholars believe was the major influence in the origin of the myths of the Easter Hare. In the northern hemisphere, of course, Easter always occurs in Spring. The happy coincidence then is that as buds emerge on trees, and life re-emerges after the snows of Winter, Christians celebrate Christ's life emerging from the tomb.
In some European traditions around the time of the Reformation, the Easter hare acted as a sort of judge, assessing whether children had been good over Lent, and rewarding the well-behaved child with eggs, sweets and even toys. In this, the character bore notable resemblance to the Santa Claus myths arising about the same time, of bringing rewards on the eve of their festival.
So there we have it. Both symbols gathered up by Christian communities and given a role in teaching and reminding us of the meaning of Easter. Enjoy any sweet Easter treats you have remaining, and let the lingering sweet taste of chocolate remind you of the gift of love God offered you on that first Easter.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)