Is Easter pagan?

Every so often, people feel the need to instruct me about how Christian feasts were “hijacked” or “stolen” or “copied” (or some other derogatory verb) from what they presume were peaceful pagan peoples.

The problem with this argument is that it has just enough historical accuracy to be absolutely wrong. And so we need to address this—especially as Catholic ecologists who spend a great deal of our time with nature. But, I need your indulgence because I just came home from the Easter Vigil—and as always this night has me soaring. Now we rejoice! With Lent over, death defeated and life renewed, we live in joy and hope for the new creation promised to us!

And so, to the topic at hand: What does one say when their coworker, friend, neighbor or relative smugly asserts that your whole faith is a lie, one that lifted its celebrations from pre-Christian cultures?

Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
You water the mountains from your palace;
the earth is replete with the fruit of your works.
You raise grass for the cattle,
and vegetation for man’s use,
Producing bread from the earth. (Ps. 104)

Well, from that Psalm passage from tonight’s Mass, we know that Christianity did not sever itself from the Jewish gratitude for all creation. And as we also heard proclaimed tonight: God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. (Gen. 1:31)

Christianity loves nature because God made it and human life needs it to survive and to grow and to love one another and the God who made it and us. Which brings us to the Holy Father’s homily for this evening’s Vigil Mass. In it he says this:

At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being. Now, one might ask: is it really important to speak also of creation during the Easter Vigil? Could we not begin with the events in which God calls man, forms a people for himself and creates his history with men upon the earth? The answer has to be: no. To omit the creation would be to misunderstand the very history of God with men, to diminish it, to lose sight of its true order of greatness. The sweep of history established by God reaches back to the origins, back to creation. Our profession of faith begins with the words: “We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”. If we omit the beginning of the Credo, the whole history of salvation becomes too limited and too small. The Church is not some kind of association that concerns itself with man’s religious needs but is limited to that objective. No, she brings man into contact with God and thus with the source of all things. Therefore we relate to God as Creator, and so we have a responsibility for creation. Our responsibility extends as far as creation because it comes from the Creator. Only because God created everything can he give us life and direct our lives. Life in the Church’s faith involves more than a set of feelings and sentiments and perhaps moral obligations. It embraces man in his entirety, from his origins to his eternal destiny. Only because creation belongs to God can we place ourselves completely in his hands. And only because he is the Creator can he give us life for ever. Joy over creation, thanksgiving for creation and responsibility for it all belong together.

(It gets better from there. You should read the entire homily.)

Christians do not worship nature, and we do not give praise to “the Universe,” as some of my lapsed Catholic relatives do (rather than using the “G” word). While some pre-Christian, pagan faiths in and around what would become Europe did worship nature, they quickly abandoned those preliminary, incomplete belief systems when they heard the mature Word of God proclaimed to them. Yes, nature has a Creator, and that Creator is love, and this Creator saves His people and the cosmos in which they live.

I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the netherworld;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit. (Ps. 30)

Reams have been written about the spread of Christianity. Those early days saw the faith multiply quickly and emphatically because its message of love reoriented lives. Christians were the first to sell their property to build and staff orphanages, and hospitals, and homes for lepers; the charity exhibited was (and still is) profound and well documented, even by non-Christians. By seeing such radical, self-sacrificing love of neighbor in practice, more people and whole cultures left behind their uncertain desires for some intangible “inner awakening,” or other spiritual belief systems that subordinated human dignity.

Now, were all Christians (way back then or today) perfect lovers to their neighbors? Of course not. We never are on this Earth. But the evidence is clear: Christianity’s sweeping love of God and neighbor drew people to it. And yet, given the warrior, tribal mentalities and practices of so many of those (supposedly peaceful) pre-Christian tribes within Europe, it’s no wonder, even millennia later, we’re still exorcising our aggressive ways. But I shudder to think what the world would be like without the Sermon on the Mount and the Sacramental grace to transform us from self-absorbed warriors to something better.

Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye. (Ps. 19)

And so, to Easter. The natural order of God’s creation—its cycles and seasons—were well known to all cultures. How could they not be? From these events came celebrations—because it's in our human nature to celebrate life and light and food for one’s people and water for crops. All this is well and good—or rather, good enough until you hear this proclaimed:

We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6)

If you ascent to this, you realize that the Source of life is a better object of one’s love and worship then the created world. And so, no matter what the meanings of one’s feasts—be it the vernal equinox, the first fruits, or the return of a migrating food source—when one encounters the love of Christians living the drastic Gospel of Jesus Christ, then lives change and the world becomes both bigger and, at the same time, exceedingly more intimate. History has documented well that when cultures converted to faith in the Risen Christ, they gave their very best, and that included their feasts, their traditions, their song, their hearts and their souls.

Whatever the term Easter signified in earlier days—and no matter what pagan fertility symbols were thought to contribute to the human condition—it all found true meaning when folded into Christianity’s celebration of the Christ’s resurrection.

So the answer is, no, Easter is not pagan. It has a funny name, which may or may not be of pagan origin, but its Christian meaning is centered on the Creator, who

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2)
From this passage of scripture, we give the last words to the Holy Father, who this evening concluded his homily thus:
The world had changed. This man who had died was now living with a life that was no longer threatened by any death. A new form of life had been inaugurated, a new dimension of creation. The first day, according to the Genesis account, is the day on which creation begins. Now it was the day of creation in a new way, it had become the day of the new creation. We celebrate the first day. And in so doing we celebrate God the Creator and his creation. Yes, we believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth. And we celebrate the God who was made man, who suffered, died, was buried and rose again. We celebrate the definitive victory of the Creator and of his creation. We celebrate this day as the origin and the goal of our existence. We celebrate it because now, thanks to the risen Lord, it is definitively established that reason is stronger than unreason, truth stronger than lies, love stronger than death. We celebrate the first day because we know that the black line drawn across creation does not last for ever. We celebrate it because we know that those words from the end of the creation account have now been definitively fulfilled: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Amen.
And in this digital age, below is the Holy Father's blessing at Easter Sunday's Urbi et Orb ("To the City of Rome and the World") message in St. Peter's Square. HAPPY EASTER!

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.