Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy equinox, Happy Easter, and good Pasqua to you

Spring in Colorado is a finicky season. One minute it's so sunny and warm that lunchtime joggers take off their T-shirts (well, the men, anyway) to get some rays on their pasty-white skin; the next minute it's cloudy and windy, snow is falling sideways and the puddles on the road are icing over. If you can look beyond the wacky weather, though, you see undeniable signs of the approach of spring. The songbirds are back, and the geese have left (mostly). Trees and bushes are swollen with buds awaiting the signal to burst open, giving us new leaves and blossoms. Streaks of green are starting to show in the grass. If there's a morning frost, it's usually gone shortly after sunrise -- and the sun comes up earlier in the morning and goes down later at night.

Ancient people knew the course of the sun, and used its course to mark the seasons. They gave a special name to the day that had equal parts of daylight and dark night, calling it "equinox," or "equal night." (Remember the Harry Potter spell to make a room dark?) The vernal equinox marked the beginning of spring, or the reawakening of the world and its springing back to life after being dead and buried in the snows of winter. All cultures, around the world, celebrated equinox in one way or another, and adopted for their festivals symbols of renewal and of new life. In Europe, the festival was known as Eoster. You are most familiar with the symbols of eggs, baby birds, rabbits, and flowers and blossoms.

The Israelites, the ancestors of the Jews, had a different tradition, but one that happened only a week or two after the vernal equinox. This tradition was established by a decree from their God, when He freed them from 430 years of bondage in Egypt. On a spring night, the eve of the day of their deliverance from the Egyptians, according to the writings of Moses, an angel from God was sent to kill every firstborn male child and animal in Egypt. The only ones who were spared were those whose families sacrificed a firstborn lamb and painted their doorposts and lintel with the lamb's blood. This would serve as a sign to the destroying angel that the house so marked was protected by the God of their fathers, and that the angel should pass over the house without killing anybody therein. Because the angel "passed over" the houses marked with lamb's blood, the event became known as "the Passover." Every year since that first Passover, the people of Israel and their descendants held a solemn celebration to remember the day they were rescued from bondage, and saved by the blood of a lamb.

About 2000 years ago, give or take a couple of decades, was a Passover unlike any other. By then, the once proud and strong nation of Israel had dwindled to a few thousand people who called themselves "Jews," claiming as an ancestor Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel. Over the centuries, they had forgotten the God who had delivered them from bondage to Egypt, and by forgetting their Deliverer they had made themselves into easy prey for other nations, whose armies swept into the land and carried them away captive, several thousand at a time, until these few Jews were all that were left. Their land, like all the surrounding lands, was a vassal territory, part of the great Roman Empire.

Their ruler wasn't even Jewish. Herod the Great was an Idumean, a native of Idumea (or Edom), a land to the south of their own Judaea. Herod himself, and his heirs, ruled them subject to the good will and pleasure of the Roman emperor, whose good will was enforced by Roman procurators and governors, and by the Roman troops that patrolled the land. A garrison of troops even occupied a Roman-built fortress adjacent to the temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred site in all of Judaea.

The Jews had lived for centuries with the prophetic promise of an "Anointed One," a divine warrior-king who would deliver them from bondage, as Moses had done in Egypt, centuries before. By this time, Passover had become a week-long celebration. One year, on the Friday of Passover, the day before the Jewish Sabbath, three men were executed by the Romans. Two of the men were thieves, and the third man was innocent of any crime -- but the Jews had called him a blasphemer and had talked the Roman governor into executing him anyway.

What had this man done wrong? Well, simply, he had told them he was the "Anointed One," the one who had come to fulfill the prophecies and to rescue them from bondage, and that he was their king. I guess they didn't want to be rescued that badly. They must have thought they were doing okay under Roman rule. Whatever the reason, they took the one who had promised to deliver them and to be their king, and they had him put to death.

They thought that was the end of the matter. Well, he had done some things in the last three years of his life that made the ruling council of the Jews rather nervous. He had performed some miraculous healings. He had brought some people back from the dead, including one man who had been dead for several days. He had been acclaimed as a king by the people, and had not denied the acclamation. He had forecast his own death, and promised to bring himself back from the dead after two days.

So they killed him in a cruel manner, one so cruel that nobody could be revived after dying that way, and then after his friends had taken his broken body and laid it in a tomb, the leaders of the Jews sealed the tomb and placed Roman guards in front of the entrance. Nobody was getting in or out.

Or so they thought.

Two days later, on the morning of the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the ground shook, the seal on the tomb entrance was broken, and the tomb was opened -- but not by earthly means. Those who inspected the tomb found it strangely empty. His friends were amazed and overjoyed when he appeared to them, showing them that he was indeed alive, with his body, although it was in considerably better shape than when they had laid him in the tomb.

He announced that his friends, and all the Jews, and indeed all mankind, were now free -- that he had rescued them and delivered them from bondage, just as the prophecies had foretold. Those who understood, accepted him as the Anointed One and as their Deliver. They honored him and revered him as their King.

But his kingdom was not an earthly Kingdom. Those who accepted his deliverance became members of a greater kingdom. They were freed from the bondage of death, of pain and sickness, of guilt and all the terrible things that men do to each other and to themselves.

This was the Lamb of God, who had been offered as a final sacrifice for all men, whose blood fulfilled the promise of the Passover one last time. It is fitting that his conquest of death, into new life, should happen at the time of the vernal equinox, when the whole world rises from the death of winter and celebrates a new season of life. And just as the equinox marks the return of sunny days, so his sacrifice and his triumph marks the return of mankind to the sunny embrace of their God, and the chance to return to him.

The man's first name means "Jehovah (or God) is my Savior." In Hebrew, it's Yeshua or Joshua; in Greek, it's Jesus. His last name, actually a title and not a name, means "The Anointed One." In Hebrew, it's Messiah; in Greek, it's Christos.

So it is that the renewal of life marked in the ancient rites now called Easter, and the commemoration of the ancient Jewish Passover, are wrapped up together in the celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Celebrate whatever parts of it you wish, however you wish. And I wish a happy Easter to all of you.

1 comment:

mama izatt said...

A great lesson Ray! Thanks for the recap. It's amazing how many Christian traditions are wrapped up in ancient practices. Both Groundhog Day (Candlemas Day) and April Fool's Day(the first day of the new year before the Gregorian Calendar) have their roots in ancient practices. But that is sort-of off the subject.