Understanding the meaning behind Easter symbols
For Christians around the world, Easter is the feast of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Easter marks the end of the 40-day period of Lent, during which Christians are urged to conversion, with prayer and fasting paramount. Easter Sunday is the culmination of Holy Week, which begins a week before with Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, continues with remembrance of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion and death on a cross on Good Friday.
Christians believe that this week of ordeal, torture and death, with the disciples reeling in grief, ended with the empty tomb and the joyful appearance of the risen lord.
For most Christians, Easter this year will be observed this coming Sunday, April 5. For Orthodox Christians, Easter will be observed Sunday, April 12. According to timeanddate.com, "many Orthodox churches base their Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many western countries."
It's no accident that Easter has strong overtones of a spring festival — at least in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, said the Rev. Mary Lee-Clark, pastor of Second Congregational Church in Bennington, Vt., the date of this "moveable feast" is determined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
The Easter egg is a venerable Easter symbol, and a hands-on symbol at that. Lee-Clark said the Easter egg represents new life, but it also when open is an enclosure reminiscent of a tomb. And of course, there's the aspect of fertility. The Rev. Kim Kie, who grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., and is now pastor of Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre, Vt., said the chick emerging from the egg is reminiscent of Jesus emerging from the tomb.
Dan Randall, pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Williamstown, Mass., noted that eggs, Easter or otherwise, are not part of Scripture or early Christian practice. However, existing non-Christian rituals still popular with converts eventually became incorporated in Christian practice.
According to the website catholicculture.org, "the origin of the Easter egg is based on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races."
"In Christian times the egg had bestowed upon it a religious interpretation, becoming a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of his Resurrection," it adds. "The faithful from early times painted Easter eggs in gay colors, had them blessed, ate them, and gave them to friends as Easter gifts.
"The custom of using Easter eggs developed among the nations of northern Europe and Christian Asia soon after their conversion to Christianity. In countries of southern Europe, and consequently in South America, however, the tradition of Easter eggs never became popular."
Similarly, you won't find mention of Easter bunnies in the Bible, either. Again, though, the idea of fertility and new life underscores the appeal of this as an Easter symbol.
"Life, lots of life," Kie said of bunnies as a symbol.
The Easter lily is another very common symbol. Lee-Clark noted that it is white, the liturgical color of Easter. The flower is trumpet-shaped as if to sound the call that Jesus is risen. Lilies are mentioned in scripture. Randall said the messiah is referred to as the "lily of the valley" once in the Hebrew scriptures.
Jesus himself refers to "the lilies of the field" in the Gospel of Matthew.
The lamb is another common Easter symbol — and for many the Easter meal of choice. The lamb symbolism of Easter comes from the Paschal lamb of Passover. Jesus is often referred to in scripture as the lamb of God (Revelation 5:6-14).
John the Baptist described Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), Kie said.
"The Passover lamb (Exodus 12:1-11) has been interpreted by Christians as foreshadowing Jesus' sacrificial death (1 Corinthians 5:7)," according to bibleresources.americanbible.org.
According to catholicculture.com, "In past centuries it was considered a lucky omen to meet a lamb, especially at Easter time. It was a popular superstition that the devil, who could take the form of all other animals, was never allowed to appear in the shape of a lamb because of its religious symbolism."
Light is another symbol of Jesus and of his resurrection. On Easter Sunday, a new Christ candle will be lit at New Hope, Randall said, symbolizing the state of something new. Kie, too will light a paschal candle at her church, but noted that some protestant denominations don't.
At her church, Lee-Clark said decorations tend to be minimalist but there are an abundance of lilies and other flowers for Easter, symbolizing spring and rebirth. The cloth adorning the lectern will be white, replacing the Lenten purple. She noted that her church, as do others, refrain from saying "Alleluias" during Lent, but they will abound during Easter.
Randall referred to St. Augustine's thought that "every Sunday is a little Easter." The celebration of new life and joy in Christ are not confined to just Easter Sunday.
So the Easter service is "what we do the rest of the year, too, what we try to celebrate every Sunday."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.