Easter: The Bunny or the Lamb, by David Kenison
Christmas and Easter are the two most sacred religious holidays, or holy days, for Latter-day Saints, as they are for most Christians. Sadly, they are also among the most commercialized and secularized of our holidays – for most of us, it takes considerable effort to extract real meaning and value from what should be a time of reverent remembering and thanksgiving. Fanciful visits from bunnies, overindulgence in chocolates and candy, and painted eggs must somehow be replaced, or at least supplemented by, remembrance of the Lamb of God, who was apparently born in the springtime, and also offered as “the great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34:10) at this time of the year.
ORIGIN OF EASTER
Easter was not originally a Christian holiday. Though it is mentioned once in the King James translation of the New Testament (Acts 12:4), that translation is erroneous and should say ‘Passover’ instead. The spring celebration we know as Easter originated with pagan festivals. At least two theories have been mentioned by LDS writers: ceremonies ‘in honor of Astarte or Eostro, a Saxon goddess corresponding to the Ashtaroth of Syria’ (David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, page 64) or a ceremony ‘from the Norse goddess Eastere whose festival was observed at the vernal equinox’ (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, page 212). At some point, Christians adopted the spring festival and began to commemorate the crucifixion, atonement, and resurrection of Christ during the Easter season. Elder McConkie explained: “In 325 A.D. the Council of Nicea determined that Easter among Christians should be celebrated the first Sunday after the full moon on or following the vernal equinox.” (ibid).
SYMBOLISMS OF EASTER
It is important to understand the difference between the secular symbols and the true spiritual nature of what we are trying to remember on this day. Hugh Nibley wrote: “The equinoctial rites of the rebirth of nature have been celebrated throughout the world from the remotest antiquity. The rabbits, eggs, lights, and flowers of Easter were no more Christian in origin than Christmas trees and Yule logs. Yet in most parts of the world, these things were retained by Christians because of their extreme popularity and because they actually do express man’s hope for a new and better life.” (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 3:156) Building on the secular symbols of Easter and spring can be profitable. President McKay observed: “True, spring and resurrection are happily associated, not that there is anything in nature exactly analogous to the resurrection, but there is so much in springtime which suggests the awakening thought. Like the stillness of death, Old Winter has held in his grasp all vegetable life, but as spring approaches, the life-giving power of heat and light compel him to relinquish his grip, and what seemed to have been dead, gradually awakens to a newness of life, revivified. Christians, when they adopted the pagan spring festival, commemorated the coming forth from the tomb of their crucified Lord, the resurrected Christ. To sincere believers in Christianity, to all who accept Christ as their Savior, his resurrection is not a symbolism, but a reality. Christ lived after death, and so shall all men, because of Him.” (David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, page 64). As President McKay noted, nothing in nature is exactly analogous to the resurrection. The growth of a seed in spring, after a period of winter dormancy, is not the same as the rebirth of resurrection after physical death. There is no comparison between what we call the ‘miracle of life’ emerging from an embryonic state such as an egg, and the eternal miracle of Christ conquering death and emerging from the Tomb. Not only Christ himself, but all mankind with him, were eternally and forever fated to “die and live no more”. The joyful message of the Gospel is that the curse of death is overcome for all through the power and grace of the gift of Jesús Christ. No wonder we sing “alleluia” at the knowledge that “Christ the Lord is risen today”, because through him, we too will rise again after we die.
PASSOVER – PRECURSOR TO THE ATONEMENT
It is interesting to note that the Jewish festival of Passover, accompanied by the Day of Atonement, is also celebrated in the spring, usually close to Christian Easter. Again there is symbolism – the destroying angel passed over the righteous Children of Israel, slaying the firstborn of the wicked. Only those who were identified as having applied the blood of a lamb to their doorpost were spared. Though Easter reminds us that ALL will be resurrected through the Savior’s act of love, we also know that only those who are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb will ultimately be ‘spared’, to be given all the blessings and inheritance of the Good Shepherd. The Passover was indeed a great foreshadowing of the Atonement.
REPLACING THE BUNNY WITH THE LAMB
Bunnies and candy eggs have their place. But they must not be the only aspect of the holiday, or even the most important. Here are some suggestions on how to focus on the additional spiritual aspects of the Easter holiday: 1) Separate the secular from the spiritual. In many hones, the Easter Bunny comes a day early. That way, family members can get the secular aspects of the holiday out of the way, and focus on the true symbolism and meaning of the Holy Day. 2) Read and ponder scriptures. Just as we traditionally study together the accounts of Jesus’ birth at Christmas time, so we should take time to review the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. And remember the parallel account in the Book of Mormon! 3) Review the document released on January 1, 2000 titled ‘The Living Christ – The Testimony of the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’. If a video tape is available, review the program released during the most recent General Conference called ‘Special Witnesses of Christ’ in which the 15 current apostles all share their testimonies of the Savior. 4) Enjoy Easter music. Some of the most joyous of our hymns have Easter themes. Many sacrament hymns are also especially appropriate. Let your Easter be filled with ‘the song of the righteous’ and with anthems of triumph and worship. 5) Take time to ponder the gift of the Savior. Write your feelings in your personal journal, or hold a family ‘testimony meeting’ to share with each other. 6) Repent. There is no better time to evaluate your life, making sure you are living in a way that would please your Savior, and if not, take steps to fix it. Begin to apply the blessing of the Eternal Sacrifice on your own behalf. 7) Show love. Follow the Savior’s example. Seek ways you can be a more faithful servant, a more loving family member, a better example to those around you. ‘Come Follow Me’ is still an invitation to us all. 8) Participate in a sunrise service, or have one for your own family. This tradition is common in many communities and religious groups. It can be a particularly beautiful and peaceful experience to greet the dawn, and recall the sublime joy of the world on a quiet Sunday morning almost two thousand years ago. ‘And very early in the morning on the first day of the week, they came unto sepulcher at the rising o f the sun…” (Mark 16:2)
Easter Sunday is a sacred opportunity to express gratitude to the Savior and to draw ourselves nearer to him. We should make efforts to assure our commemoration of the atonement and resurrection do not get lost in secular trappings that obscure the true meaning and power.. For all of Christendom, for all of mankind, today is observed s the anniversary of the greatest miracle in human history. It is the miracle that encompasses all who have lived upon the earth, all who now live upon the earth, and all who will yet live upon the earth. Nothing done before or since has so affected mankind as the atonement wrought by Jesus of Nazareth, who died on Calvary’s cross, was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and on the third day arose form the grave as the Living Son of the Living God — the Savior and Redeemer of the world.