Life returns to the world and to us

Kieron Conry, of the Catholic Media Office, continues our series of meditations for Holy Week with a consideration of the meanings concealed by the timing of the festival.

The riddle of the shifting date of Easter continues to puzzle and even annoy people. Would it not be better if Easter were always 1 April or (if we have to keep it on a Sunday) the first Sunday of that month? Can we not fix the date, as we do at Christmas?

In fact the date of Easter is set so that the seasons collaborate in our worship. It is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This means that, as the days are already longer than the nights and getting longer, spring is with us and the year is changing. It is changing quite visibly all around us. The change is probably most visible in the countryside, but even in the towns there are green shoots on trees and plants pushing through the earth. The celebration of Easter is very much tied in with what is happening in nature. The words and images we use in Easter worship reflect the changing of the seasons.

When he first approaches the Pharaoh (Exodus v,1), Moses asks that the people be allowed to go out into the wilderness to "keep a feast" in honour of God. The Pharaoh refuses, and the battle of wills goes on until the destroying angel of God sweeps through Egypt, killing all the firstborn.

The children of Israel are spared because they have painted their doors, as they were told to do by God, with the blood of the lamb they have sacrificed. They survive, hurriedly eat their Passover supper and escape through the Red Sea into freedom. Passover, however, cannot refer simply to the night of the escape from Egypt, but must also refer to something that had been happening already, the celebration for which Moses had asked Pharaoh's permission.

The word "Passover" is often taken to refer to the angel of God "passing over" the children of Israel and visiting the houses of the Egyptians. The Jewish word pesach does contain the idea of passing or leaping over. But, curiously, it also means "to jump" or "spring". Passover, then, probably refers as much to the spring of the year as to the flight of the angel. The word "spring" itself is related to the idea of "bursting out", an image that is easily connected to the tremendous energy of this time of year.

The origins of the Jewish people seem to have been, first, nomadic. They depended on their flocks for their livelihood. Later they appear to have settled down and become farmers, raising crops and tending livestock. Each spring was crucial, then, for their future. It would tell them if the flocks were breeding and if the crop was successful. When the earth did provide them with food for the coming year the people thanked God, and offered back to him some of what he had given. A lamb would be taken from the flock and bread made with the new wheat.

Passover is a celebration of the return of life in spring after the apparent death of the earth in winter. Like the Christian Easter, it is rooted very strongly in the earth. It is not clear why it is celebrated on the night when the moon is full. When Moses and the people wanted to go out into the desert to celebrate, however, they wanted to go out at night. Passover is an evening meal. Although it may appear that there was a purely practical reason for wanting the light of a full moon, presumably there is more to it than this. A long way back in the origins of this celebration, the moon must have made a much more powerful impact on people's consciousness as they tried to find their place under a vast and mysterious sky.

The images of Easter have the power of this cosmic drama. Christ is buried in the earth, and for the disciples at the time the promise of a spring seemed empty. It was as if the crops had failed and the flock not bred. Where was life to come from now?

The accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels do not attempt to describe the event itself. This would be impossible. They talk instead about the women finding the empty tomb. All the Gospels make the point that it is early in the morning on the first day of the week. Our own word "Easter" surely refers to the place where the sun rises. We celebrate the Resurrection of the Son with the rising of the sun. It is a new day, and the spring of a new year. It is a dramatic picture of the beginning of new life.

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