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Background courtesy of (Michael und Maartje).

The Rites of Easter

Why we made Santa Claus the holiday superstar and not the resurrection

Easter celebrates rebirth. To Christians it speaks to Jesus Christ’s resurrection, and spiritual rebirth. Others celebrate the rebirth of nature. Winter’s prison doors thaw, and leaves and flowers break free. Christians set aside one day a year to reflect on Jesus’ return from the dead.

Those who celebrate the spring understand the symbolism of their revelries. Rebirth is a metaphor. The metaphor escapes many Christians. Christ’s rebirth was real, a moment in time recorded in history. Christ has died, Christ was buried, Christ is born again.

Rebirth is a metaphor. The metaphor escapes many Christians. Christ’s rebirth was real, a moment in time recorded in history.

Not all Christians accept a literal resurrection, however. Few Christians who accept Christians who don’t as Christians. The stand off created a schism in the Episcopal Church just after the new millennium. Fortunately, conservative pundits turned their eye to a “secular war on Christmas” and hijacked our attention.

The cessation of hostilities won’t last. One day someone will realize Easter (the Church’s most important holiday) not only takes a back seat to its flashier cousin Christmas, but that Americans moved it to the trailer hitched to the bumper. The Federal Government doesn’t close, banks didn’t close, schools may or may not let students leave for half a day. Coca-Cola doesn’t run commercials with the Easter bunny and stores don’t piggyback a Black Friday onto Good Friday.

Easter doesn’t catch American’s attention because the narrative portrays a dark morality tale of betrayal and murder. Only an unbelievable denouement saves it from total pathos. It’s not even a tragedy since Jesus, by definition, experiences no hubris to undo him. The hubris is ours, and that message doesn’t mix with festivity.

Easter doesn’t catch American’s attention because the narrative portrays a dark morality tale of betrayal and murder. Only an unbelievable denouement saves it from total pathos.

Why are there no Easter carols?[1]

The market co-opts Jesus

The American Christmas celebration dates to the mid-nineteenth century. Puritans frowned on celebrating Jesus’ birth and spent the day in worship and prayer. They expected Catholic employees and indentured servants, who held revelries on the holy day, to report to work as they would any other.

Sound familiar? Think of the Puritans as Ebenezer Scrooge and Catholics as Bob Pratchett.

Marketing drove the country toward the holiday we celebrate today. Business owners realized Jesus’ birth would deliver a sales bonanza if handled right. They shifted focus from an impoverished infant in the manger to the cash cow chewing her cud two feet over. Magazines, advertising and holiday fiction pushed secular revelries — decorated trees, gift giving, and Santa Claus (who delivered promises far more tangible and immediate than those of the risen, distant Christ).

Department stores and mail order catalogs sought to lure customers to boost profits at years’ end. Macy’s inaugurated the tradition of displaying Christmas items in the front store window. The secular bait-and-switch embraced any celebrant, Protestant, Catholic or free thinker. The Holy Day morphed into holiday. Caroling, drinking and family dinners added to the joy.[2]

The secular bait-and-switch embraced any celebrant, Protestant, Catholic or free thinker. The Holy Day morphed into holiday. Caroling, drinking and family dinners added to the joy.

The US government declared Christmas a national holiday in 1870 in part to heal the wounds of the Civil War by providing a celebration that could bring everyone to the table, and also to stimulate businesses and strengthen the economy. Christmas had little to do with Christ.

The same consumer push raised American awareness of the Christ in Christmas. However, the promotion wasn’t to boost Jesus but gift purchases. Press campaigns stressed the connection between Jesus, birthdays and gift giving. We give gifts on birthdays, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, we should purchase gifts for everyone.[3]

Press campaigns stressed the connection between Jesus, birthdays and gift giving. We give gifts on birthdays, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, we should purchase gifts for everyone.

Impoverished Easter

Easter focuses on a single event, the resurrection. Even the hunt for Easter eggs — and the Easter bunny — symbolize rebirth and resurrection.[4] The focus on the resurrection pushes Easter back into Holy Day status. Celebrations traditionally begin with a sunrise service followed by dinner followed by an egg hunt for the children. By mid-afternoon the celebrations end and celebrants retire for naps or the televised game.

This turn of the century Easter card still stresses renewal and fertility. (Danish Royal Museum)

To the secular world, Easter means early brunch before the church crowds tie up tables. Then a nap.

Christians may not understand this, but the entire world can (should they choose) celebrate a child’s birth. His death, and (to many) the unlikely narrative of resurrection? That’s a harder sell beyond the closed circles of faith.

Why Are Easter eggs blue?

When I meditate on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, I’m depressed more often than inspired. The Holy Day is exclusive in a way Christmas will never be. People will whistle “Away in the Manger,” “Greensleeves,” and “Winter Wonderland” in succession even if they’re agnostic, atheist, or Buddhist. Even third generation Moslems feel the spirit when mall Muzak plays the right songs on Christmas Eve.

Easter hides in Christmas’ shadow like the groundhog, emerging one day a year, and retreating for fifty-one weeks of business as usual. The darker narrative of betrayal, trial, scourging and crucifixion limit the marketing opportunities. “The Old Rugged Cross,” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” will never play over Apple Store Muzak. Television produces fewer Easter specials and they attract fewer viewers.[5]Tonight’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ, Superstar may appeal to Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, but the truncated narrative omits the resurrection. Amazon buries resurrection songs in a niche so narrow a transgender child’s finger won’t fit. Don’t blame Amazon. Consumers define those niches.

To most of the world,[6] Jesus’ birth and resurrection is a myth. More serious than Santa Claus, but an inspiring instructional tale from our cultural history.

Christians, including evangelicals and fundamentalists, believe the resurrection is more than a central doctrine. It is essential to the believer’s profession of faith. If you don’t accept the resurrection, God won’t admit you into his fellowship.

Christians, including evangelicals and fundamentalists, believe the resurrection is more than a central doctrine. It is essential to the believer’s profession of faith. If you don’t accept the resurrection, God won’t admit you into his fellowship.

The Episcopal Church, where my wife and I worship, fractured after the millennium. Disputes over the ordination of women and gays launched a conservative exodus, but cracks appeared years before when the church accepted priests who profess a symbolic resurrection. One of the most outspoken, John Shelby Spong, presided over Newark as bishop for 21 years.[7]

Spong’s election in 1979 provides a counterpoint to the rise of the Moral Majority and Christian Right. American Christianity’s purity movement separated believers not only from the influence of liberal politics, but liberal theology.

Resurrection and rebirth

I cut my teeth on the back of Baptist Church pews. My father, grandfather and uncles served as Baptist ministers. The word passed to me not only in church, but over the dinner table, in casual conversation and when God disciplined me through the hands of my parents. Preachers, evangelists and Sunday School teachers chanted the mantra, “You must be born again.”[8]

The Baptist church, who tells believers to interpret every word in the Bible literally, treats the born again experience as a metaphor. To be reborn believers must not only experience the living Jesus, they must embrace a complex list of doctrines. At the top of the list? Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.[9]

These Celtic symbols of resurrection (the crane, the tree of life and the triplex spiral which appears in several variations) were adopted as symbols of the Christian resurrection as the Church expanded into northern Europe. (Background courtesy of Free Big Pictures.)

For Baptists, the born again experience is a once-and-done deal. From that moment the Grace of God seals your name in the Book of Heaven. It would be great, but far from necessary, if you came to church (twice on Sunday, plus Wednesday Bible Study and quarterly Revival). Better if you tithed. If you wanted to be the teacher/God’s pet, you “witnessed” to others. When you reach the end of the road, however, heaven’s doors open. Jesus’ blood nullified any contract for redemption (spelled out in Old Testament law). [10]

By insisting rebirth is a literal moment in time, with specific terms and conditions, evangelicals lose the power of the metaphor. Rebirth[11] symbolizes literal transformation. The people who knew you before no longer recognize you.

By insisting rebirth is a literal moment in time, with specific terms and conditions, evangelicals lose the power of the metaphor. Rebirth symbolizes literal transformation. The people who knew you before no longer recognize you.

This metaphoric understanding of rebirth explains how Christians might consider Jesus’ resurrection to be a metaphor for transformation.

The reborn devote their lives to a man who most of the world believe to be fiction. They embrace their transformation to lead others toward the same destination. We don’t expect real children to mature at the same pace or to mirror their peers and siblings in the mastery of motor and social skills. Why shouldn’t we expect the same from spiritual children?

It doesn’t matter where we stepped onto the path, or even the order in which we discovered the signposts.

Most churches acknowledge that Christians can follow Jesus without submitting to Baptism, a central component of Jesus’ message. So why lock out those who don’t accept a literal resurrection?

Some follow Jesus as a guide for moral behavior, others believe resurrection represents the need for a new life and not a historical event. Nothing about this statement should be interpreted to mean I’m tossing deeply held beliefs into the trash heap of postmodern thought. Those who experience rebirth will most likely be baptized, serve the poor and accept the belief that a living Christ dwells within and not just as a symbol.

But they won’t follow anyone’s timetable. Childhood doesn’t work that way.

I joined the Episcopal church because it accepts believers who, like me, embrace the resurrection as well as those who feel less certain. They even embrace believers like Spong who professed Christ but denied his return from the grave.

In 2018, Christians gravitate toward opposing theological poles with each Presidential Tweet. I foresee a day when believers raise Easter as lightning rod as well as Holy Day. When any of us questions the authenticity of another’s faith, for any reason, we add to the walls between believers and unbelievers and believers and believers too. One day those walls will be impregnable.

In 2018, Christians gravitate toward opposing theological poles with each Presidential Tweet. I foresee a day when believers raise Easter as lightning rod as well as Holy Day.

God sent Peter vision after Pentecost. In his vision God told him to eat all animals, Kosher or unclean. Peter declared the fellowship would accept Gentiles into the faith.

He wasn’t prepared for Paul to traverse the Mediterranean recruiting Gentiles by the basketful. The decision to embrace Gentiles led to theological questions the original Apostles couldn’t have expected. The church at Jerusalem convened Christianity’s first council to resolve the question of Gentiles and the Faith. In New Testament accounts, the Apostles showed more concern for issues of diet and ritual observance than core issues such as the resurrection. The evidence suggests, however, that, even then, some believers didn’t embrace the resurrection.[12]

Working out our own salvation

Why can’t Christians separate a believer’s faith from his beliefs? Perhaps because many of us grew up reciting the Nicene Creed (often called the Apostles Creed in Protestant churches), a profession codified in the fourth century.

Scholars claim the earliest versions appeared in second century Rome (although many historians date it to the following century, a few years before the Council of Nicea).[13] Consider the first Western codification of faith:

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.

Christian scriptures spell out no such code. The conditions of salvation depend on the passage. Jesus tells Nicodemus that anyone who “believes in him” will inherit eternal life,[14] and the apostles tell their guard that his belief in Jesus will bring the entire family into the faith (with no profession of faith required.)[15]

Why do the Gospels add the conditions of repentance and/or baptism in other passages? Because the conditions of salvation depend on the follower. A rich man asked Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus replied, “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” He demanded these terms from no one else in the Gospels, including his followers.

Jesus’ conditions were too steep; the man left in sorrow. Jesus recognized the rich man could never be reborn as long as he clung to his wealth.

The conditions of salvation depend on the follower. Jesus said to the rich man, “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Jesus recognized the rich man could never be reborn as long as he clung to his wealth.
Gentile Christians would have embraced the resurrection through the metaphors and symbols of previously held beliefs. This image came up during a Google search for “resurrection images.’ At first I thought it was a priest praying at the altar. Then I realized it was a scarab, the Egyptian symbol for rebirth.

The New Testament says little about the beliefs a follower must profess. This development stands in contrast to the complex and detailed indoctrination rites of other popular cults (including gnosticism, Mithras, Dionysis, Cybele and Isis). If we counted the number of passages defining the requirements of salvation and measure them against the number of passages devoted to service, fellowship and personal holiness, we could argue early Christians stressed service and self-sacrifice far more than specific beliefs (including the resurrection of the dead).

Nor should we expect every believer to interpret resurrection in the same way. We know early believers entertained elements of gnostic thought.[16] The historical record and the New Testament reveal that many first century believers interpreted the rites of faith as a spiritual, not literal awakening.

I’m not suggesting Jesus’ and believers’ resurrections weren’t important to early Christians. Nor am I denying Christ’s resurrection or the resurrection of the dead. I embrace the resurrection, but I also acknowledge the paradoxes and contradictions my belief creates.

I call on Christians to include believers who didn’t embrace the resurrection into their fellowship. Let me go further. I call on Christians to embrace anyone who follows Jesus, no matter how little else we agree upon. Personal salvation requires different sacrifices from different believers.

I call on Christians to embrace anyone who follows Jesus, no matter how little else we agree upon. Personal salvation requires different sacrifices from different believers.

I can only hope that in the years to come, our celebration of the resurrection will blossom the resurrection of mutual fellowship rather than the rebirth of Christian on Christian persecution.[17]

All Biblical citations from the New International Version.


[1]: “Easter Bonnet” is not an Easter Carol. It’s an Irving Berlin song from the same movie as “White Christmas.”

[2]: Any search on the Internet will provide reliable sources. One of my classes researched a major multimedia project on Christmas traditions. One of the first articles to pop up on my latest search was “Christmas: The Holiday of Cultural Consumerism.” A review of author Judith Flanders’ biography of Christmas suggests commercialism gave birth to Christmas rather than co-opting it for marketing.

[3]: http://www.lnstar.com/mall/main-areas/xmas-santa-origin2.htm

[4]: In part because the Church borrowed them from pagan fertility rites.

[5]: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EasterSpecial.

[6]: Sorry Christians.

[7]: At the same time the influence of liberation theology crossed American borders. Immigrants sought sanctuary from hostile right wing governments, sanctuary the Reagan administration was loathe to provide. Local Catholic and Episcopal churches stepped in to provide the shelter these refugees thought. With the refugees came awareness of the struggles between radicalized priests and juntas who would disappear them (and nuns) as ruthless as they disappeared journalists and political opponents. The Christian Right had no sympathy for Liberation Theology or the victims of repressive regimes.)

[8]: John 3:3–8.

[9]: The numbers don’t work either. If the Romans crucified Christ on Friday morning, and he rose Sunday, he wasn’t dead and buried three days and three nights as prophecy insisted, but one day and two nights.

[10]: No drinking, dancing, smoking and heavy petting allowed. The nature of grace, however, nullified this clause too.

[11]: Defined by Jesus as “spiritual birth.”

[12]: 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 clear that, at least in the Corinthian church, so many followers questioned the resurrection they drew Paul’s attention. There is no reason to think the question didn’t arise elsewhere.

[13]: John Norman Davidson Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (Longman, 1972). Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

[14]: John 3:16

[15]: This last embellishment isn’t embraced by more literally minded churches.

[16]: We may think of them as heretics now, but they weren’t heretics at the time. Nor can you separate the strains of gnostic influence from the rest of John’s Gospel. It begins with the Logos/Word and light and refracts the metaphor through the image of Jesus.

[17]: If you don’t think there’s a precedent, consider the mob battles during the Arian controversy, the centuries of Inquisition, and the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that led to the Thirty Years War.


Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.