What’s Easter about, anyway?

My family returned to Baltimore last night after celebrating a joyful Pascha (that’s Easter in the ancient churches of the East) at a church in Salem, Mass., with family and soon-to-be family.

Anyway, as we drove home from the airport we made a tiny detour to buy some fried chicken — which is the kind of thing that Orthodox people do when they have a teen-aged son and the family has gone vegan for all of Great Lent.

As we walked in the store, there was an interesting dialogue going on between a patron and the young man behind the counter. To cut to the chase, they were listing all of the reasons that they dislike Easter.

Well, you know, the holiday kind of messed up some people’s work schedules, there weren’t any good parties to go to and, other than the odd chocolate bunny or two, the whole thing was a bit of downer in the gifts department. And then there was the fact that it was so much more religious than Christmas. What was that all about?

Chicken in hand, I joined in for a minute or two. There isn’t any doubt, I noted, that Easter is the single most important day in the Christian calendar.

This statement drew puzzled looks. Easter, asked the guy behind the counter, is more important than Christmas? Why? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, he said. Easter was about “all that rising from the dead stuff. Right?”

Right, I said. “Why,” he asked, “is that more important than Jesus being born?”

Now that’s an interesting question. It might even be worth a news story, if editors were interested in judging what Americans do or do not believe in this increasingly post-doctrinal age built on do-it-yourself spirituality. But would this story be news or commentary?

You can see a bit of that confusion in the recent Houston Chronicle mini-feature that ran under this double-deck headline: “Is the meaning of Easter being lost? Some scholars fear the story of resurrection has gone far astray.” Here’s the top of the pre-holiday report:

Just as Christmas for many has become less about the miracle of the virgin birth, Easter may be losing its connection to the resurrection.

Fewer than half of Americans mentioned Jesus’ death and resurrection when asked about the significance of Easter, according to a survey released last month by Christian researchers the Barna Group. At the same time, the National Retail Federation reports we’ll spend more than $13 billion on the holiday for food, clothes, candy and greeting cards.

Although the holiday is meant to be the central celebration of the church, disassociating Easter from the biblical narrative of the resurrection or seeing it in symbolic terms makes Christianity “safer” for contemporary churchgoers, some local Christian leaders say.

So what’s the problem? If you read between the lines, it seems that the central image of Christmas does not scream out “Miracle!” unless you know more of the doctrinal details. Easter, meanwhile, is about Jesus as an adult and, well, it’s central image and doctrinal hook is an empty tomb and a risen Savior. That’s radical stuff, the kind of claim that is going to cause arguments.

In other words, Easter remains a scandal. The safer strategy for skeptics seems to be to ignore it or downplay it (as opposed to the commercialization theme at the civic festival previously known as Christmas). It’s even hard for liberal Christians to turn the resurrection into a metaphor without providing strong hints of their doubts about the doctrine itself. That can cause trouble in the pews.

So how do you write news about that? Who wants to debate, on the record, the truth of the resurrection? As the Chronicle report notes:

Jesus’ resurrection was the first testimony of Christian faith; early Christians circulated stories about seeing him after his death, which were recorded in the New Testament, said April DeConick, a Rice University religion professor and historian.

“As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, the resurrection of Jesus served as a concrete example that God is good on his promises, and so the faithful followers of Jesus could be assured of their own resurrection after their deaths,” she said.

The stakes remain high and the doctrinal details matter. It’s a thumbs up or thumbs down story.

So, GetReligion readers: Did anyone see any balanced, interesting news reports in mainstream publications that actually focused on historical and doctrinal questions about Easter? Please leave us some URLs, if you can.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry N

    My family returned to Baltimore last night after celebrating a joyful Pascha (that’s Easter in the ancient churches of the East) with family and family to be up in Salem, Mass.

    Er, that’s actually how every Christian that doesn’t speak English generally calls Easter, Orthodox or not. :)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Uh, right.

    If anyone posts this in another language, please footnote that.
    ;-)

  • Julia

    Ancient churches of the West don’t really call it Easter, either.

    That’s radical stuff, the kind of claim that is going to cause arguments.

    In other words, Easter remains a scandal.

    I don’t get why causing arguments makes an idea or belief scandalous.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JULIA:

    Explain please. I am well aware that the holy day has a more formal title. But Easter is about 99 percent of the public references. Correct?

  • Jerry N

    tmatt: I don’t like an oddity of the English language turned into a global rift between Orthodoxy and the West, that’s all. :) There are enough problems as it is!

  • Dave2

    Jerry N,

    Czechs call Easter Velikonoce, Germans call it Ostern, Croatians call it Uskrs, and Hungarians call it Húsvét.

  • Julia

    The Western church’s language is Latin, not English.
    Easter is an English word, which is not used outside of English speaking countries, which are a minor slice of the billion plus Catholics in communion with the Pope.

    Even in my church in the US, Easter is a colloquial term, but liturgically it’s “Paschal” this and “Paschal” that, even when we are speaking in English translation.

    None of the hymns we sang on Holy Saturday or “Easter” mention the word “Easter”. One has it in the title, but not in the text.

  • Jerry N

    Dave:

    There are a couple uses of Easter in Germanic or Central European languages, yes. I’d heard of that but never saw the words they used–thanks for providing those.

    The Czechs, like other Slavs, call or sometimes call Easter “Great Day”, which seems to be the translation for the Czech term you cite, though in liturgical contexts Ukrainians (or Ukrainian Americans) seem to prefer “Pasch”.

    I have not clue what the Hungarian word means, but the Hungarians have the gall not to speak an Indo-European language. ;) Do you have a translation?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    In other words, Easter remains a scandal. The safer strategy for skeptics seems to be to ignore it or downplay it…

    Can you clarify that? “Safer” in what sense?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Safer as in causing fewer conflicts inside their institution and in the culture as a whole.

    See the wider context in that paragraph:

    The safer strategy for skeptics seems to be to ignore it or downplay it (as opposed to the commercialization theme at the civic festival previously known as Christmas). It’s even hard for liberal Christians to turn the resurrection into a metaphor without providing strong hints of their doubts about the doctrine itself. That can cause trouble in the pews.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Safer as in causing fewer conflicts inside their institution and in the culture as a whole.

    Ah, you (and the article) are talking about skeptics who nevertheless attend church anyway, not skeptics in general. I see now.

  • http://chickadeescout.blogspot.com Heather Gerety

    Here’s a theological (?!) article in Slate about the Resurrection:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2249526/

    I think it’s not as iconoclastic (if that’s actually a word…?) as it sets out to be.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Heather,
    I saw that Slate article, too, and was pleasantly surprised. Larry Hurtado (the author) is a New Testament scholar (which doesn’t mean much in terms of belief) who has been published by Eerdmans (which means quite a bit):
    http://www.amazon.com/Lord-Jesus-Christ-Devotion-Christianity/dp/0802831672

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I’d like to think that my Easter story on Orthodox icons of the Resurrection was about doctrinal issues of Easter, even though it wasn’t about disputes over them:

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10094/1047845-455.stm


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