New life springing forth

By Patricia Kasten | April 1, 2015

Is there a rabbit or an egg in church this weekend?

We all know that rabbits, eggs — and chocolate — are part of many secular Easter celebrations. But they also have connections to celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.

Eggs are obvious: Like butterflies, eggs symbolize new life. The hard eggshell and the tough case of a cocoon break open and a whole new life springs out. They both remind us of Christ breaking free of the stone tomb and tight grave wrappings.

Then there’s the legend of Mary Magdalene’s Easter egg. After Christ’s ascension, his disciples went out to spread the Gospel. One was Mary Magdalene, who went to France. On the way, she visited Tiberius Caesar and used an egg to illustrate Christ’s resurrection. Caesar was unimpressed, saying a man rising from the dead was as likely as that egg turning red. The egg turned red instantly. While Caesar didn’t convert, the story is often represented in Eastern icons of Mary Magdalene. There may be one in your church.

The word “Easter” also has Roman ties. Experts tell us that “Easter” comes from either an Old English word éastre or the Germanic Ostern, which are words for the direction “east.” But these words also refer to a goddess — Eostre — the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, who resembles the Roman goddess of dawn: Aurora. (The resurrection took place at dawn.)

In Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries, the month associated with Eoster, called Eostur-monath, coincides with April. While Christians first called Easter, Pascha — a Greek translation of the Hebrew word, pesach, for Passover — by the tenth century, “Easter” interchanged with Pascha became common in Europe.

The word “paschal” is still used. For example, the candle lit at the Easter Vigil is known as the paschal candle. And Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the second reading on Easter Day: “Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed” (5:7).

Eostre was a goddess of spring and that made her also a fertility goddess. One of her symbols was the hare. Before you dismiss the hare — or rabbit — too quickly, it’s good to note that, in English, French and German churches built in the Middle Ages, there can be found carved symbols of three hares in prominent places. Their ears are entwined in such a way that each hare appears to have two ears, but there are only three ears showing.

When found in a church, this circular rabbit symbol represents the Trinity, the Three in One. While the Three Hares symbol may originally have come from the Far East, it was quickly incorporated into church architecture, such as in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyons.

So you might not see rabbits, eggs or butterflies in church this year, but when you see them elsewhere, think about our celebrations of Easter and remember to see Christ’s new life springing forth all around us.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of two books: “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers” and “Making Sense of Saints.”

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