(other eggs are available…)
Egging us on
There are certain battles which are highly predictable. Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, for example. The Doctor against the Master is another which springs to mind. Good versus evil. The use, or misuse, of the apostrophe. Another of them, a modern phenomenon, is the Battle of the Egg. Specifically, the chocolate egg which is quite popular between about February and May, although the smaller varieties may be found all year round. The problem – it has even dragged the Archbishop of York into its orbit this year – is what is this confection called? Traditionally, these are Easter Eggs, symbolic of something or other to do with the Church. And that is where we encounter some difficulty when we try and claim them as our own. For, while it is certainly true that the egg has been used by the Church and the Christian faith for many centuries as a symbol, it is not uniquely associated with the Easter story. No less an authority than the Catholic Encyclopaedia recognises that the egg probably has its origins in paganism as a springtime symbol, associated with new life and rebirth. Indeed, many of the visible trappings of the Church year, such as the holly and ivy of Christmas, carry with them strong scents of the pre-Christian religious beliefs of many European and other countries. The name Easter itself is derived from the pagan fertility goddess Oestre, from whom we also get the word oestrogen, whose sacred animal was a rabbit and symbol was an egg. Sound familiar? Of course, it is only in the Northern European nations that this issue exists – Southern European languages derive their name for the season from the Latin term for the Feast of the Passover, pascha. Even that is not the end of the story, because there is a suspicion that Oestre herself was an invention of the Venerable Bede in 750AD, as there is little or no evidence of this deity being worshipped earlier than that date.
As with so many of these issues, origins lost in the mists of time when there was no printing press and very little literacy, it comes down to what you want to believe. The thing about symbols, you see, is that they are not in of themselves symbolic of anything! It is society which makes the symbol what it is, and different societies may attach differing meanings to the same symbol. Red as a colour, for example, means danger to us, but it means good luck in China. It is tradition which determines the meaning attached to a symbol, as in the case of Easter Eggs. A strong, deep-seated tradition, but simply that. And traditions change.
There is a story in Acts which helps us here. It is the account of Paul at the Areopagus, which is found in Acts chapter 17. Paul was taking the Good News of Jesus to Athens, and the Areopagus, a large rocky outcrop, functioned as a sort of court. It was here that Paul tried to explain Jesus and the resurrection, to people who were used to worshipping a range of gods, and who came from a different culture than the very Jewish Paul. He addressed the symbolism of their many objects of worship, suggesting that they showed a very religious people who had been looking hard, but in vain, for the truth. They didn’t really understand his symbolism, however, and very few became believers. Paul was to spend many years preaching to cultures other than his own, improving his ability to tell the story of the Jewish Jesus in a way which non-Jews could comprehend. He says in 1 Corinthians,
I have become all things to all people, so that in all ways I might save some. I do it all because of the gospel, so that I can be a partner in its benefits.
1 Corinthians 9:22-23, New Testament for Everyone
Paul understood the value of making the faith accessible. He could have insisted that all new Christians became Jews first, as many of the disciples, including Peter, appear to have initially favoured. Yet Paul realised that imposing alien symbolism on people would make it harder for them to accept the important message, that Jesus died and rose again, that we might return to a full relationship with God. He also recognised the importance of not insisting that people gave up their own traditions, if they did not fundamentally conflict with the teachings of Jesus. In Paul’s letters we see faith without religion, or at least without religiosity. His are the earliest writings known concerning the faith we now call ‘Christianity’, and they contain very little of the symbolism and tradition which we now associate with the Church.
That, I think, is where the Church in this country finds itself– seeking to find a way to engage with the 21st century on one hand, yet wanting to defend the important things on the other. The difficulty is knowing where to draw the line. If the Church is overly defensive, it risks being seen as out of touch and irrelevant; if it is too accommodating, then the uniqueness of the message of Jesus can be lost in the contemporary noise. And the loud protests over companies missing the word ‘Easter’ from the box, or the National Trust running a ‘Great British Egg Hunt’, which have drawn in not only the Archbishop of York but also the Prime Minister, are a good example of discussion generating a lot more heat than light.
What matters is not the words on the box, or the subject of the wrapping, or even the flavour of the egg itself. What is important is the reason for giving it, and that is to remind the world of the Gospel. The real Easter story is not one of eggs and bunnies, of Bank Holidays and restricted shop opening. Not even of roasted lamb and family meals. It is the story of a love so profound that even death could not contain it. When we feel aggrieved about ‘our traditions’ being messed with, let’s just remember that Jesus was all about messing with tradition – forgiving the guilty and loving the outcast. He even ignored the idea that death was the end, and opened that possibility to the whole world.
This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.
John 3:16, New Testament for Everyone