April 17, 2020
Does being a Christian make a difference? Why should I believe? Not surprisingly in a culture concerned with both appearance and results, these are questions seeking answers. The bottom line? What’s in it for me? We struggle for answers, as a defense of our worth and of the value of our life and worship. Does being a Christian make a difference?...While it may once have given an edge in the community, religious faith is no longer a manifest advantage, and rarely a substantial liability, to wealth or status.
--The Rev. Sam Portaro, Daysprings, Meditation for Tuesday of Easter II
Sometimes we struggle with questions because we think our answers should be automatic, apparent. We struggle because our response should be clear, factual and maybe even obvious and easy. But sometimes questions for which we don’t have an answer can lead us to an insight or discovery.
It was a simple question, formed from curious observation, about Christian traditions and symbols asked of me on Easter Day. And I could not answer it.
It began with the intersection of the holy days of two of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, this year’s intersection of the Jewish Passover (in Hebrew, Pesach) with Holy Week and Easter of Christianity. On Easter Day, in a conversation with my Jewish neighbors and friends, Naomi and Jeff Mael, we shared our traditions and found several intersections in how each faith approaches certain holy days and seasons. Different faiths but with some similarities.
I told them that the early Church intentionally celebrated Holy Week and Easter at the same time as Pesach. And I said, at the Eucharist, we proclaim: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; Jesus’ death and resurrection is our Passover. On went the conversation, and appreciation of each other’s rituals, traditions and symbols.
Then the question was asked of me: What’s the meaning behind the Easter Bunny? What does a rabbit have to do with Jesus and the Resurrection?
The Easter Bunny? Wait…What?? The Easter BUNNY?
I could have given a dissertation on many Christian symbols and their meaning, of one of the earliest Christian symbols, the fish; of different styles of crosses; of fleurs-de-lis, trefoils and triangles; of nimbus and halo; of certain flowers; of the ranks of angels; the egg representing new life; and one of my favorites, the metamorphosis of the butterfly representing Easter itself; and on and on.
But…the Easter Bunny?!
I had no answer. The Easter Bunny was never discussed at seminary.
No matter how far I might theologically reach, there was nothing I could come up with to explain or rationalize the evolution of a rabbit into a symbol of the Day of the Resurrection, the holiest day of the Christian year. Easter is the center of our faith. The passion of Jesus on the cross and redemption of humanity by God… symbolized by a cute bunny with a basket?
I assumed it was something from folklore. But whose folklore and why? I had no answer. But I did have an Internet connection on my cell phone.
We read together that the Easter Bunny in America evolved from Germany, with a stopover in Great Britain for clothing. Called in Germany the Easter Hare, he was described as a figure who judged children during the season of Easter by their behavior; he would judge each child as either obedient or disobedient. In his Easter basket he carried eggs, candy and toys, which he distributed to “good” children. With that, Jeff and Naomi’s daughters asked, “Isn’t that what Santa Claus does at Christmas? Isn’t the Easter Bunny the same as Santa Claus, only it comes in the spring?”
The resemblance of the folk symbols of Santa and the Easter Bunny tied to two of the holiest Christian days was not lost on their two daughters.
The holy days of Easter and Christmas seem sometimes to be overtaken not only by commercialism, but their religious meaning also devolving into cute, lovable figures giving us a bottom line of gifts. Holy days often are seen as what they can do for us, what we can get. Too often holy days are only thought of as holidays.
A person doesn’t need be a Christian to wrap and exchange gifts, dye eggs, buy chocolates and Easter baskets, decorate with jolly Old Nick or the Easter Bunny or hold a family feast on these holy days. It doesn’t make a difference whether or not a person is a Christian, believes in God or cares about the substance of the holy days in order to do all that.
Does it make a difference to be a Christian, since these secular and folk symbols seemingly have become more pervasive, more embraced, than the religious teaching and life of Jesus? Does it matter that they are more well known than actual Christian symbols? With these cuddly and friendly figures, how is the message of Jesus heard, believed and followed? Why continue to bother proclaiming Jesus when the appearance and attributes of Santa and the Easter Bunny are more attractive and accessible to this culture? Does it matter? As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:12, NRSV)
The observations of my friends’ daughters were right on point, and I was frustrated. I was not frustrated with them, but rather with how our culture has painted a one-dimensional cartoon-like portrayal of the Christian faith. This led me to what Sam Potaro calls “the post-Easter blues, the disheartening challenge of quantifying the unquantifiable.” (Daysprings, page 163)
But those feelings were only momentary. For their questions also led me to think about why bother and what difference being a Christian makes, not only in this culture but in this time of a pandemic, of suffering, fear, confusion, isolation, anxiety and death. Being a Christian in the context of this time and culture means living engaged with those things but not succumbing to them in hopelessness.
It matters to be a Christian in these times. It matters to the world and to ourselves individually. It matters beyond caring for and helping one another as Jesus would have us do. It matters beyond giving our resources and time to our churches and charities. It matters because faith in Jesus leads us beyond ourselves and this moment. It matters because we proclaim the love of God for all, which is given freely and not on our merit. It matters because we have not only received God’s love, but also the power of grace to do something with that love beyond ourselves and those we know.
It matters that even in this pandemic we still can fully embrace our faith, live with hope and then pass it on to others. It matters because we are Easter people, we follow the Risen Lord, certain that God has given us the victory of life over death. It matters because Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast! It matters that we keep and then share a feast of love, hope, redemption with the world and thereby enrich life around us.
It matters because Easter quantifies the unquantifiable.
Again, from Sam Portaro: How do you measure love, or faith, or hope? The moment you try, you are in trouble, smack dab in the middle of the great temptations with which Jesus wrestled in the wilderness. Perhaps it is because love, faith and hope are not measured in what they do for us, what we derive from them, but in what we give to them. (Daysprings, page 163).
In a time of pandemic and in a culture concerned with both appearance and results, with the bottom line, and that asks “what’s in it for me?”--my answer is God. God’s love is in it for me. Love is God’s bottom line for the world.
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
His cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
His love in death shall never die.
Christ is alive! His Spirit burns
through this and every future age,
till all creation lives and learns
His joy, His justice, love, and praise.
Hymn #182, verses 1 and 5, Words by Brian A. Wren, The Hymnal 1982
Alleluia! Christ is risen! In us, may the Lord be risen indeed! Alleluia!
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris