The Symbolic Meaning of Easter

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I’ve always found Easter to be an interesting holiday, mainly, because it means so much to many different people. Where the word Easter comes from is still argued by people all over, but it appears to have sprung from a combination of the Greek goddess of springĒostre, and the Sumerian goddess, Ishtar. Many believe the roots of Easter began with pagan festivities celebrating the onset of spring and was continued by the early Christians to celebrate the resurrection. Christians oppose this idea and claim the holiday originated with the early Christians not long after the death of Jesus.

Today it’s celebrated by many different cultures for many different reasons. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Jews celebrate Passover. Secularists celebrate the spring equinox. No matter why you celebrate, I think the symbol is clear — Rebirth and Renewal. Out with the old in with the new. Coming out of the darkness of winter into the light of spring. Shedding your skin to the past to be renewed for the now. Death before resurrection. Seed before life.

The renown mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell, explains the metaphorical meaning of Easter in this great passage from his phenomenal book, Thou Art That

“If we think of the Crucifixion only in historical terms we lose the reference of the symbol immediately to ourselves. Jesus left his mortal body on the cross, the sign of the earth, to go to the Father with whom he was one. We, similarly, are to identify with the eternal life that is within us. The symbol at the same time tells us of God’s willing acceptance of the cross – that is to say, of participation in the trials and sorrows of human life in the world. So that He is here within us – not by way of a fall or a mistake, but with rapture and joy. Thus the cross has a dual sense – one, our going to the divine, and the other, of the divine coming to us. It is a true cross-ing.

“What has always been basic to resurrection, or Easter, is crucifixion. If you want to resurrect, you must have crucifixion. Too many interpretations of the Crucifixion have failed to emphasize that. They emphasize the calamity of the event. And if you emphasize calamity, then you look for someone to blame. That is why people have blamed the Jews for it. But it is not a calamity if it leads to new life. Through the Crucifixion we are unshelled, we are able to be born to resurrection. That is not a calamity. We must look freshly at this so that its symbolism can be sensed.

“St. Augustine speaks of going to the Cross as a bridegroom to his bride. There is an affirmation here. In the Prado is a great painting by Titian of Simon of Cyrene as he willingly helps jesus with the cross. The picture captures the human participation, the free, voluntary participation we all must have in the Easter-Passover mystery…

“Easter is calculated as the Sunday that follows the first moon after the vernal equinox. It is evidence of a concern centuries before Christ to coordinate the lunar and solar calendars. What we have to recognize is that these celestial bodies represented to the ancients two different modes of eternal life, one engaged in the field of time, like throwing off death, as the moon its shadow, to be born again; the other, disengaged and eternal. The dating of Easter according to both lunar and solar calendars suggests that life, like the light that is reborn in the moon and eternal in the sun, finally is one.”

What Campbell reminds us is that “the Kingdom of God is within us”, it is not a physical place we arrive at in the future. It is finding paradise in the now. “Easter and Passover, particular, remind us that we have to let go in order to enter.”

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