Easter Eggs, Easter and Pretty Good Incarnational Theology
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Omne vivum ex ovo. This old Latin proverb means, “all life comes from an egg.” From Ancient India to Polynesia, from Iran, Greece, and Phonecia to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, from Central America to the west coast of South America, we find myths of creation from an egg. This is one of those “majority opinion does not determine truth” things. But, unless you are completely secularized and devoid of any symbolic sense, eggs surely are a symbol of the regenerative power. This might be a test of your secularization (Godlessness). Are eggs nothing more than high protein and bad cholesterol to you? If so you rank 10 on the Godlessness/anti-Creational meter.
Well, we have an amalgamation in our culture of Christianity, Custom, Secularism, and vestiges of Paganism. Our symbols are ladies’ hats, lambs, rabbits, lilies, crosses, and of course new clothes.
It is not surprising. After all, we are basically post-Christian Secularists who find meaning by the barnacles of Custom and traces of Paganism. But how might we think as Biblical Christians? How might we renew our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) and thus know the will of God?
Most of you probably know that C.S. Lewis was strongly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. One of their lifelong points of discussion was the connection between Christianity and mythology. As a teenager Lewis had abandoned Christianity. But, he changed his mind on the night of September 19, 1931, when he invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dinner with him. By the time Tolkien left at 3 a.m., Lewis had reconciled in his own mind the relationship between Christianity and paganism. A month later, Lewis wrote the following letter:
If I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it. Again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in the Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose what it meant. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. One must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth where the others are men's myths; i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of the poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’ namely, the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. (From C.S.Lewis letter to Arthur Greeves, 18/10/1931) [To delve deeper, I would also recommend reading Pilgrim’s Regress, a book Lewis thought his worst, but is his greatest philosophical achievement.]
Resurrection and spring are related, both in paganism and in the incarnational world. Consider the poem by Anne Campbell,
The world is ready for the Spring,
The winter has been long and cold.
The birds will soon fly home to sing
Of April glories they behold.
The world has need of Eastertide.
It has been plunged in Lenten gloom.
But now upon the countryside,
The bashful crocuses will bloom.
(From the Detroit News , March 26, 1948)
We hear from time to time that some Reformed Christians are quite hostile to holidays/holydays. George Gillespie’s, A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland (1637) says,
That which has been said against all the controverted ceremonies in general, I will now instance of festival days in particular and prove, both out of the law and gospel, that they take away our liberty which God has given us, and which no human power can take from us. Out of the law we frame this argument: If the law of God permits us to work all the six days of the week, the law of man cannot inhibit us.
Even the great Princeton Theologian in the American Presbyterian tradition, Samuel Miller argued,
We believe, and teach, in our public formularies, that there is no day, under the Gospel dispensation, commanded to be kept holy, except the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
In the case of Christmas, we learned that while we tend to think that the early Church compromised with paganism in choosing December 25—of course we are so spiritual and they were so gnostic and paganized!—in fact their choice was Biblically robust.
December 25th as the date of the Christ's birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine's time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ's birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ's death.
If we celebrate Christmas, then on the darkest night of the year Christ was born and light increases each day. I would say that is not a bad theology of the birth of Jesus.
After all, a literal rendering of Genesis 1:14-15 is clear: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate between day and night, to be signs, to designate [mo’ed] religious festivals, and to mark days and years.”
Can we say the same for Easter Eggs? Assuming a Christian conception of time, Yes! Eggs were abstained from during the solemn fast of Lent (forty days, not counting Sundays). After a difficult fast from eggs, on Easter Sunday, eggs were given and eaten, both as part of the feasting and as gifts for family, friends, and servants. That was the Christian (Western) tradition. It is fitting that our Easter breakfast is filled with egg dishes—Quiche, Strata, etc. Perhaps in an era of future sanctification we will also abstain from eggs during Lent.
History is messy. We heartily rehearse the Nicene Creed. What Christian would deny it? But the same Church Council that fixed the date of Easter to the Sunday after the first full moon of spring, canonized the orthodox view of the Deity of Christ. The Nicene Council, 325 A.D., was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine. He started the traditional Easter Parade and ordered every citizen to wear their clothing to observe the Holy Day.
There are many Christian legends which place eggs in Easter. The Poles have quite a few legends about it. One Polish legend concerns Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer). It tells of a time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color. Another legend tells of when Mary Magdalen went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, lo, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors. Another says that on the first Good Friday a man was taking a basket of eggs to market to sell. On the way he put the basket down and ran to help Christ carry the cross. When he returned, the eggs were supposedly decorated in beautiful colors and designs. Hence, the Easter Egg basket. We find that all other Eastern Europeans, Czechs, Romanians and Ukrainians followed these traditions. Now let us rejoice that our faith does not rest in the veracity of these legends.
Whether such legends have any truth is difficult to determine but it is certainly the case that Easter Eggs have a long and venerable history in Christendom. It is, I think, quite surprising to find that Easter Eggs were customary in the East and the West and in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions.
We know, for example, that decorating and coloring eggs for Easter was the custom in England during the Middle Ages. There is an historical document from the household accounts of Edward I, for the year 1290 which recorded an expenditure of eighteen pence for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
Further, in the Russian Orthodox tradition we have those most famous of Easter Eggs made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Fabergé. In 1883 the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Fabergé to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie. The first Fabergé egg was an egg within an egg. It had an outside shell of platinum and enameled white which opened to reveal a smaller gold egg. The smaller egg, in turn, opened to display a golden chicken and a jeweled replica of the Imperial crown. The Czar ordered the Faberge firm to design many more eggs to be delivered every Easter. In later years Nicholas II, Alexander's son, continued the custom. Fifty-seven eggs were made in all. Fabergé's creations were ingenious, ranging from large clocks in ovoid shapes to elaborately decorated eggs embedded with jewels, displaying the wealth of the Russian Czars.
From a Reformation point of view, the Fabergé family is quite interesting that late in the 1600's the Protestant Fabergé family fled Catholic France and settled in Germany to escape religious persecution after the Edict of Nantes is revoked in 1685. A couple of generations later, Gustav Fabergé, father of the famous Carl Fabergé went to St. Petersburg and learns goldsmithing under Master Andreas Ferdinand Spiegel.
One can have a pagan interpretation of all things Easter:
The Discover Channel reports: “The roots of the holiest day in the Christian calendar appear to lie in a pagan spring festival that celebrated the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, known as Eostre or Eastre....Second-century Christians encountering such pagan rites sought therefore to incorporate them into the church's observance of the resurrection of Christ, in much the same way as Christmas was imposed on festivities marking the winter solstice.”
“Outdoor Sunrise Services, once popular around Detroit, can be traced back to the ancient spring rituals of building bonfires at dawn to symbolize the triumph of light and life over death and darkness.”
But on the other hand, consider the meaning of the position of the sun. In 2005 the Vernal equinox occurred on March 20th and Easter on March 27th. In the Vernal or Spring Equinox, the Sun is at its lowest path in the sky on the Winter Solstice. After that day the Sun follows a higher and higher path through the sky each day until it is in the sky for exactly 12 hours. On the Spring Equinox the Sun rises exactly in the east and travels through the sky for 12 hours and sets exactly in the west. On the Equinox this is the motion of the Sun through the sky for everyone on earth. Every place on earth experiences a 12 hour day twice a year on the Spring and Fall Equinox. After the Spring Equinox, the Sun still continues to follow a higher and higher path through the sky, with the days growing longer and longer, until it reaches it highest point in the sky on the Summer Solstice. Again, I would say this is pretty good theology of a Resurrection.