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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: What would Mary Magdalene think?

Today, May 16, is the last Sunday of the Easter season in the liturgical calendar, a good time to look back on this celebration and what its appropriate symbols are.- Robert H. Stone
Another Angle.What would Mary Magdalene think about what we've done with Easter? was first published 27 May 2005 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: The tradition continues: a remembrance of juleps past

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

What would Mary Magdalene think about what we've done with Easter?

For years one of my least favorite signs of spring was the artificial grass adorning all of the Easter baskets the boys had every year during their childhood. It was nasty stuff, what with green strands showing up around the house for weeks after Easter, wrapping around the intake rollers on the vacuum cleaner.

"What does this have to do with Easter, anyway...," I would grumble to myself annually.

What indeed! Cellophane Easter grass, and most everything else we see at this time of year, has little to do with the meaning of the day.

In the Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Mary Magdalene and other women come across the empty tomb. In John's version it is Mary Magdalene alone who discovers the good news.

In all of the scriptural versions it is Mary Magdalene who is -- at least in part -- entrusted with proclaiming the Resurrection news to the disciples. (This being the case, why are some people so convinced that women as preachers are unscriptural? Have they neglected to read the Gospels? But that issue is fodder for another column someday....)

Mary Magdalene was quick on the uptake, and she believed in the Resurrection while others still cowered, doubted, and disputed.

But even a person as insightful as she would be mystified with Easter grass, cards, dyed eggs, baskets, bonnets and other finery, lilies, bunnies, and chocolates. Most of those items are entrenched firmly in our culture -- and in our economy -- but Mary Magdalene wouldn't have a clue about why any of them should be associated with the Resurrection.

Even the very name Easter has nothing to do with the Bible.

Ishtar was worshiped in ancient Assyria and Babylon as goddess of springtime fertility. The Phoenicians spread her cult around the Mediterranean, where she was revered as divine alongside her brother, Baal.

As worship of Ishtar spread toward the west, her name was changed to Astarte. By the time her cult spread to northern Europe and Britain, she was revered as Ostara, goddess of fertility, spring, and sunlight.

The Old English word for Easter -- sometimes spelled Oestre or Eastre -- comes from the goddess name Ostara.

When missionaries shared the springtime Resurrection story across Europe, they absorbed the existing worship of Ostara, spring, and fertility into their message.

The fertility symbols of colorful birds' eggs and rabbits came aboard in that process, signs of new life. Easter baskets are likely a symbol derived from the bird nests that contained the colorful springtime eggs.

Swiss and German candy makers began seasonal chocolates and candies in the 18th century, and this custom was brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants in the 19th century.

Easter cards and lilies date their popularity from 19th century England.

In the early church newly baptized Christians would wear robes of white in the week following their spring baptisms, and they would participate in group public processions on Resurrection weekend.

Other folks who were already baptized would wear new clothing at this season as a symbol of their own renewed lives of faith. This practice morphed into Victorian Easter finery and elaborate hats.

In Medieval Europe Easter Mass was followed by a procession from the church, led by clergy bearing the lighted Easter candle.

19th and 20th century Easter parades of new fashions on the streets were a faint echo of those public processions and of the white-robed baptized folk in the ancient church.

Cellophane Easter grass is a 20th century abomination, of course, and not even a shadow or echo of anything Biblical.

As I said, Mary Magdalene would be mystified about why most of our modern Easter practices continue to be treated as if they have any relation to the recognition and celebration of the Resurrection.

Come to think of it, I'm with Mary, mystified as well about why so much of our modern Easter cultural practice is thought of as Christian. How about you.

This story was posted on 2010-05-16 07:26:24
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