At the Easter Vigil Mass, the new fire is blessed, the paschal candle is lit, and the beautiful Exultet is sung. The opening verses set the theme for the Easter celebration:
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in Glory! The risen Savior shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the might song of all God’s people!
The Lenten preparation of fasting, penance and sacrifice is over. Now the Church celebrates the glory, victory and life of Easter. This celebration involves the food shared, clothes worn and other decorations.
Many special Easter foods are due to the very strict Lenten fast during which time the faithful abstained from these foods or ingredients. Generally, the faithful abstained from all forms of meat (except fish in some areas of the Church) and animal products, including eggs, milk, butter, and fat. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
Decorated eggs dyed in bright colors are a sign of rejoicing. The Eastern European peoples even decorate the eggs with very intricate designs and religious artwork. The Easter egg symbolizes the resurrection: just as a little chick pecks its way out from the egg shell to emerge to new life, so Christ emerged from the tomb to new and everlasting life. The unbroken egg symbolizes the rock tomb of our Lord; and when broken, symbolizes that He has risen from the dead. The ancient Romans had a saying, “Omne vivum ex ovo” (“All life comes from an egg”); easily, one can see how such a saying would inspire the early Christians to use the egg as an appropriate symbol for the new and everlasting life won for us through our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection.
According to a Ukranian folktale, on Good Friday when our Lord was crucified, a poor peddler went to the market in Jerusalem to sell his basket of eggs. He witnessed Jesus carrying His heavy cross through the streets, being taunted by the Romans and mocked by the crowd. The Romans pressed the peddler into service Simon of Cyrene and he left his basket by the roadside to help Jesus carry the cross. When he returned to retrieve his eggs, he noticed they were transformed, painted with bright colors and beautiful designs. Only after Easter and the resurrection of the Lord, did he realize that these eggs were a sign of rebirth for all of mankind. To this day, the Ukranian people decorate pysanky as part of their Easter celebration.
Lamb also has significance in the Easter celebration. A special Easter pastry is a cake shaped like a lamb. In the Middle Ages, lamb was the customary meat eaten on Easter, and was the main meat for the Holy Father’s Easter dinner. Remember that the Jews sacrificed a lamb for Passover during the time of Moses; because of the Passover sacrifice, the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt and taken to the Promised Land. Christ is the new Paschal lamb, who was sacrificed for our sins and whose blood made the perfect and everlasting covenant; Christ has freed us from the slavery of sin and opened the gates to the true Promised Land of Heaven. Together, the mystery of the Last Supper, the sacrifice of Good Friday, and the resurrection of Easter form the new Passover the new Pasch.
Easter baskets, long before the time of filling them with jelly beans, chocolates and marshmallow peeps, were filled with the special breads and eggs prepared for the Easter celebration. These baskets were brought to the Church on Easter Saturday morning where they were blessed by the priest. Many parishes continue this custom of blessing the Easter baskets.
New clothing also has special meaning. In the early Church, during the Easter Vigil, those who were baptized wore a white garment, which was worn throughout the entire week of Easter. As our present ritual indicates, this white garment is a sign that the person has been reborn in baptism, freed from sin, filled with grace, and given a new Christian dignity and identity. Although the other faithful, who had already been baptized, did not wear white garments, they customarily wore new clothes to show that they had risen to a new life through the prayer, fasting, and penances of Lent. The white garments and the new clothes were an outward sign of renewal of faith in the Lord.
What about the Easter bunny? The actual word Easter is derived from the word Eoster (also spelled Eastre), the name of the Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and spring, and the annual sacrifices associated with her. (Keep in mind that while the Romance languages used the root word for Passover to denote “Easter,” as mentioned previously, the German and English languages “baptized” the word Eoster.) Spring is a season of fertility, life, and abundance. In Teutonic mythology, Eoster’s pet bird laid eggs in baskets and hid them. On a whim, Eoster transformed her pet bird into a rabbit, who continued to lay eggs. Rabbits themselves were a pagan symbol of fertility, hence the phrase, “Multiply like rabbits,” and were often kept in homes as pets. From this pagan custom, the folktale of “the Easter bunny” arose in Germany in the fifteenth century. However, the Easter bunny has no religious significance or liturgical symbolism.
Easter lilies are a recent addition to the Easter celebration. The white Easter lily was introduced in Bermuda from Japan in the mid-1800s. In 1882, W. K. Harris, a florist, introduced this flower to the United States. Since it is one of the earliest lilies to bloom in the spring, it soon became known as the “Easter lily.” In Christian iconography, white lilies have always been the symbol of beauty, purity, and holiness. Even in the Gospel of St. Matthew, our Lord referred to the lilies: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (6:28-29). Quite appropriately, these beautiful, large, white lilies became very popular in the Easter decorations of churches, symbolizing the new life of our Risen Lord.
As an aside, a religious legend did arise concerning the lily: On Holy Thursday evening, when our Lord was in the Garden of Gethsemane, all of the flowers except the proud, stately, most beautiful lily bowed their heads in sorrow because of the ordeal our Lord was suffering. In the end, having witnessed our Lord’s humility and sacrifice, the lily hung its head in shame, and has humbly done so to this day.
These various customs enhance our joyous celebration of Easter. Families ought to incorporate these customs into their own celebration, and use them as a way of teaching the children the faith.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)