The meaning of Easter

By Mike Tudoreanu

(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

American culture seems to have acquired what could be called a list of official consumer holidays. To find out which holiday is next, you only need to enter a supermarket. Chances are there will be at least one aisle decked out in the colors of the upcoming holiday, helpfully informing you of the various soulless material possessions that you need to buy in order to properly celebrate the occasion.

An alien visitor who had never encountered this culture and its various holidays may describe them as follows: First is Valentine’s Day, which celebrates candy, flowers and 19th century notions of romance. Later, some parts of the country celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday about getting drunk and breaking stuff. Next comes Easter, which is about eggs, chocolate and rabbits. Afterwards there are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, when children are expected to show their love for their parents by taking advantage of special discounts on gifts. Next is the Fourth of July, a day to appreciate all things flammable and explosive.

This is followed by a relatively long dry spell, containing perhaps only Labor Day, until we get to the three most important holidays of the year: Halloween (combining candy, alcohol and dressing up), Thanksgiving (or Black Friday Eve, when people are paradoxically expected to eat vast amounts of food and also get ready for shopping the following day) and finally Christmas.

This last one is the greatest holiday of the year, a sort of apotheosis of shopping and materialism, dominated by the symbolism of an elderly Coca-Cola mascot forcing himself into people’s homes to offer them goods produced by slave labor in his workshop. Very appropriate symbolism.

Some of these holidays were originally religious in nature (Christmas, Easter, etc.), others were tied to secular nationalism (Thanksgiving, Independence Day) and a few were actually invented by retailers to promote shopping (Mother’s Day and Father’s Day). But, regardless of origin, today they have all become little more than occasions to celebrate material wealth. Some have even seen a major shift in their primary symbolism over the course of the 20th century – away from the somber, the introspective and the spiritual, toward the bright, the cheerful and the funny.

Of course, not all holidays had deep meanings to begin with, but those that did have been largely stripped of them, thanks to consumer capitalism. In fact, when it comes to Christian holidays, the commercial aspect has eclipsed the religious meaning to such an extent that many Christians now consider Christmas to be their most important religious holiday of the year (because it comes with the biggest shopping season and most media attention).

But, in fact, the most important Christian holiday – by far – is the one that just took place on Sunday. In English it is called Easter, from a Germanic word adopted by medieval Christian missionaries in Northern Europe. In the original Greek and Latin spoken by the early Christians it is called Pascha, a word derived from the Hebrew name of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

It may seem strange to write about the importance of a Christian holiday in a country where most people are, at least nominally, Christians. But the sort of Christianity that is practiced in the United States is drifting dangerously far from its roots, becoming increasingly politicized and self-congratulatory, as if its two main tenets were to vote for conservative politicians (who are usually the ones promoting the most un-Christian policies) and feel good about yourself because you are saved. Well, neither of the two have anything to do with Christianity and reflecting on the importance and meaning of Easter (or Pascha) can help us understand why.

First of all, Easter is not a spring festival. It is not about eggs and rabbits (these are symbols that were added to it in Northern Europe to help with missionary activity). Easter is about overcoming death through self-sacrifice. The season before Easter – known as Lent – is supposed to be mournful and somber, commemorating the suffering of Jesus Christ. In early Christianity it was a season of fasting and today the Orthodox Church continues to observe it by fasting from foods containing animal products. Part of this practice also survives in the Catholic Church in the form of giving up meat on Fridays (except for fish) and many other Christians “giving something up” for Lent. In general, the Christian practice is to anticipate a holiday (especially Easter) by abstaining from material things of various kinds – in other words, doing the opposite of shopping.

Giving up material pleasures for Lent is done not only as a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, but also as a reminder of the suffering of human beings throughout the world and throughout history. It is an expression of solidarity with all of humanity, especially the least fortunate. And it is also a way to train oneself in self-discipline.

After the Lenten season – with its remembrance of suffering and its culmination in death on Holy Friday – comes Easter Sunday itself, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Of course, everyone knows that Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead on the day that we call Easter Sunday. But what does it mean? What’s the point? Is it that Jesus came back to give special brownie points to His followers?

No. The point is that through self-sacrifice comes victory. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” says one ancient hymn. All of Christianity is about self-sacrificial love, starting with the example set by its founder. It’s not about feeling pleased with yourself, it’s not about thinking you are special or better or set apart from others – those are actually sins – and it’s certainly not about being self-sufficient or independent. Christianity is very much about being dependent on others and having others depend on you. It is about giving up everything, if necessary, for the well-being of others.

The holiday of Easter is to remind us that sacrifice is not in vain, that love – not romantic love, mind you, but self-sacrificial love of humanity at the expense of the self – conquers all in the end.

So, this Easter season (for the true season of celebration comes after the holiday, not before it), regardless of your faith or lack thereof, remember that one day you will die, but that through love comes immortality.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]