I originally intended to post this on Easter, but realized too many people would react negatively. So I waited a week, which, in America, means everyone will have forgotten the event for another year.
Christians around the world celebrated Easter last weekend, although the official holiday wasn’t until Monday. It wasn’t even a real “official” holiday. The Federal Government didn’t close down, most banks didn’t close, schools may or may not have closed for half-a-day.
In short, Easter is a “holy day,” not a holiday.
Why does Christmas make the cut and not Easter?
Why does Christmas make the cut and not Easter? Not just because Christmas has become both a secular and Christian celebration, but because it offers more commercial possibilities. In short, there is more stuff to sell at Christmas and more energy devoted to selling it.
Name one Easter carol
Americans didn’t really celebrate Christmas until the mid-nineteenth century. (Puritans frowned on the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth and spent it in worship and prayer, expecting their Catholic employees, who did celebrate, to get to work as usual. Bah, humbug indeed). The government declared Christmas a national holiday in 1870, partially to heal the wounds of the Civil War, by providing a celebration that could bring everyone to the table, and partially to stimulate businesses and strengthen the economy. By then, however, Americans had associated so many secular practices with Christmas (trees, gift giving, and, of course, Santa Claus), they embraced it as a universal holiday. Anyone could celebrate.
We wouldn’t even associate Christmas with Jesus’ birthday, were it not for a press campaign stressing the connection between Jesus, birthdays and gift giving.1 It doesn’t seem to cynical to suggest that promoting gift giving served the best interests of the newspaper’s advertisers.
Easter always focused on a single event, the resurrection. Even the hunt for Easter eggs—and the Easter bunny—symbolized rebirth and resurrection (in part because they were incorporated from pagan fertility rites). The focus on the resurrection limits Easter to serving as a real holy day and not a holiday celebration.
Many Christians won’t see the difference, and, as a result, I always approach Easter with a small degree of sadness. Too often, Christians embrace belief in the resurrection, not as a central doctrine of faith but as an essential profession of faith. If you don’t accept the resurrection, you can’t be admitted into the fellowship. The wedge in my own Episcopal church that fractured in the previous decade may have been over women and gays being admitted into the priesthood, but it began years before when priests could be ordained who see the resurrection as a symbolic—not literal—element of faith.
Resurrection and rebirth
During my early years in the Baptist Church, preacher, evangelist and Sunday School teacher repeated time and time again that you couldn’t be saved if you don’t believe in the resurrection. In fact, they provided with a list of the doctrines we must embrace at the moment we became “born again.”
Over the years I came to realize that being born again must mean something other than embracing a basket filled with doctrines. For the Baptists, being born again was a once-and-done deal. From that moment on you were sealed in the Grace of God. It would be great if you came to church (twice on Sunday, plus Wednesday Bible Study and quarterly Revival), but that was a guideline. Even better if you tithed (or should I say “best” if you tithed). Super duper if you “witnessed” to others. (And no drinking, dancing, smoking and heavy petting).
I came to reject this practice as rebirth. You aren’t truly reborn if you don’t become a different person altogether. From that perspective, I could also understand why some Christians could see Jesus’ resurrection as a symbol for metaphoric rebirth.
I began to suspect that faith requires a commitment to follow a man who might be little more than a fiction in the gospels and allowing his presence to lead others toward the same destination. It didn’t matter where we stepped onto the path, or even the order in which we discovered the signposts.
I came to believe that Christians can follow Jesus without accepting the need for baptism, some might follow Jesus as a guide for moral behavior, and some might follow him believing that resurrection merely represented the need for a new life. If, however, we were all truly reborn, at some point we would embrace (or have the grace to participate in) baptism, service to the poor and recognize that Christ, in some way, still lives within us and not just as a symbol.
Needless to say, I am no longer a Baptist. I joined the Episcopal church which acknowledges that some believers can, like me, embrace the resurrection and others feel less certain. (Or, like our former presiding Bishop John Shelby Spong, accept Christ and deny his return from the grave).
Once we ask this question, it shouldn’t be difficult to see how Easter could become a lightning rod as much as a holy day. When we question the authenticity of another’s faith, for any reason, we begin a slow process of walling off the faith and until it becomes impregnable.
Peter had a vision showing all animals as Kosher. He declared that Gentiles should be accepted into the faith. He wasn’t prepared for Paul to go out and recruit them by the basketful. The church at Jerusalem convened Christianity’s first council around 50 c.e. to resolve the question of Gentiles and the Faith. This was the first (and perhaps last) council to decide questions of doctrine (embracing Mosaic Law as an essential element of faith). Even though evidence indicates belief in the resurrection wasn’t universally embraced by believers,2
Working out our own salvation
Why do so many Christians believe faith can’t be separated from belief in the resurrection? Perhaps because so many of us grew up reciting some version of the Nicene Creed (often called the apostles creed in Protestant churches) which was only codified at the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e.
The earliest versions of the creed are believed to have been developed in second century Rome, but others suggest it isn’t mentioned in correspondence until the following century, only a few years before the Council of Nicea.3 Accordingly the first Western attempt to codify the faith read something like this:
I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh.
The Christian scriptures make no such requirement. In fact, the conditions of salvation depend on the passage. Jesus tells Nicodemus that anyone who “believes in him” will inherit eternal life, (John 3:16) and the apostles go so far as to tell their guard that his belief in Jesus will bring the entire family into the faith (seemingly, no profession of faith on their part required.)4
Why the addition of repentance, or baptism in other passages? Because the conditions of salvation change depending on the follower. When a rich man asks Jesus what he must do, Jesus tells him, “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus’ terms were too steep and the man went away in sorrow. Notice, however, that Jesus didn’t demand that his own followers sell their possessions. He recognized the rich man could never be reborn as long as he clung to his wealth.
The writings eventually incorporated into the New Testament say surprisingly little about the essential beliefs a follower must profess, especially given the popular and detailed indoctrination rites of cults popular at the time, such as gnosticism, Mithrais, Dionysis, Cybelle and Isis. When we compare the number of passages defining the requirements of salvation with the number of passages devoted to service, fellowship and personal holiness, it would seem the beliefs new believers were expected to embrace (including the resurrection of the dead) were less important than their willingness to serve others and, in some cases, lay down their lives.
Nor should we expect every believer to interpret resurrection in the same way. We know early believers entertained some element of gnostic thought, and, we know from history, some believers already interpreted the rites of faith as a spiritual, not literal awakening.
Please remember: I’m not saying Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of believers weren’t important to early Christians.Nor am I denying Christ’s resurrection or the resurrection of the dead. I’m suggesting that Christians accepted believers who didn’t embrace the resurrection into their fellowship. There seems to have been a recognition that personal salvation requires different sacrifices by different believers.
I can only hope that in the years to come, our celebration of the resurrection will celebrate the resurrection of our mutual fellowship rather than this American need to exclude others from the faith.
When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus said to love God and love each other the way we would ask them to love us. Love before doctrine, love before creed, love before belief. If we reach the decision in our hearts to embrace anyone who follows the path, then we can settle our differences. Without that love, our differences matter little.
Note to readers: I haven’t posted in a while because I realized it’s too easy to be sidetracked into partisan discord and miss the point of the faith which is charity and service. I was afraid the new President would try to drag the faux religious positions he adopted as a candidate into his official conduct. It seems, however, he just wanted the Christian Right’s endorsement. If he intends to honor them, it’s where they align with conservative secular values. Will I revive this blog? If I can pass the peace with words, I will do so. If I just want to blow off steam, I have twitter for that.
All Biblical citations from the New International Version.
- http://www.lnstar.com/mall/main-areas/xmas-santa-origin2.htm ↩︎
- 1 Cor. 15:12. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” Writers have danced around this, but it’s pretty clear that, at least in the active Corinthian church, enough followers didn’t accept the resurrection to draw Paul’s attention. There is no reason to believe the question didn’t arise elsewhere. ↩︎
- John Norman Davidson Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (Longman, 1972). Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. ↩︎
- Needless to say, this last embellishment isn’t openly embraced by more literally minded churches. ↩︎