Easter traditions abound all over the world, and they vary from culture to culture. Often people who observe them do not know their origins, but something in the individual and collective psyche of the people embraces and celebrates the traditions each year. Usually people don’t think much about them until some visitor asks.
In the West some of our Easter customs are even rather contradictory. Rabbits don’t lay eggs, yet every Easter the Easter Bunny brings them to fill children’s baskets on Easter Eve.
Germans immigrating to US brought the idea of the rabbit as the spring symbol of reproductivity. And they are also believed to be the ones who brought the idea of colored eggs. An ancient Teutonic legend states that the rabbit was originally a bird and was transformed by Oestre (Ostara, Eastre), the goddess of spring, into its present form. In gratitude for his transformation, the rabbit laid beautiful eggs each spring in honor of her festival. Our word Easter comes from her name.
Rabbit and egg give a double symbol of new life–and thus are exactly right for us. Some of us seem to need to be told twice–and in unusual metaphors. Trouble is, we seem to have lost our desire to investigate the metaphor. It sometimes takes internationals coming to this country to inquire as to why we engage in such a strange ritual, and even then some of us are content just to admit we simply don’t know.
Rabbit is an ancient symbol not only for fertility–since it reproduces so quickly–but also for the divine. This idea comes from ancient Persia to Africa and was brought to us by the slaves–in the stories of Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear have great schemes for capturing Br’er Rabbit, and often do, but Br’er Rabbit’s wit always serves to save his life.
The rabbit is one of few animals that has no natural defense system and is easy prey for larger carnivores. But in some cultures it’s the very vulnerability of the rabbit that appeals as a symbol for the divine–the idea that God doesn’t come as king of the beasts but as a defenseless creature. The rabbit is a timid, harmless, peaceable creature, who will not retaliate, no matter the provocation. It has teeth similar to rodents but will never bite, not even in self-defense.
The egg has been used throughout history as a symbol of new life. And today in Eastern Europe Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter as a symbol of their faith, new life, and joy, red symbolizing the blood of life. In a number of countries the decorating of eggs has evolved into a painstaking and beautiful art form. Pysanky is a time-honored folk tradition, established in the Ukraine, handed-down from one generation to another, whereby intricate and beautiful designs in color and wax are painted on the shells of raw eggs. The wax seals the porous quality of the shell and eventually the egg dries up.
We need dig only a little into the soft soil of symbolism to discover that the Easter Bunny is much like St. Nicholas–a metaphor for the God who has good gifts for us–and the egg–representing new life–is one of the special ones. A passage from Luke has Jesus comparing the kinds of good gifts we give our children to the gifts God has for us. The lesson is that even though we can identify what are gifts good enough for our children, we cannot imagine all the good gifts God has in store for us.
In addition to everything else the Jesus narrative tells is the GOOD NEWS that we are EASTER EGGS–each one of us unique and precious, a gift from God. And each of us has a new creature–God’s holy creature, our original being, inside, wanting, trying to hatch out.
Some of us are a lot like the Orthodox Christians who paint over the shells of their Easter eggs. We are porous, vulnerable creatures, and we’ve tried to make our shells impervious to cracks, nicks, anything that might penetrate and further damage the already wounded self we know ourselves to be.
But there are individuals who have had egg-cracking, hatching out experiences. They identify with Humpty Dumpty but recognize they don’t need to be put back together because something wonderful has emerged.
The Ukrainian Pysanky eggs dry up eventually. If one of those eggs is kept safe from cracks, the yolk and white eventually dry up and the egg has almost no weight. We may get to a point where we feel life drying up within us. But God has a better idea for us than that. The Resurrection narrative tells us the shell must be destroyed so that new life can emerge.
Jesus was trying to patch up the brokenness of the world’s shell–by preaching, teaching, touching, healing, performing miracles. But that was not enough. God’s design was to show the world the human Easter Egg–whose body/shell, cracked and broken, opened the way for new life to emerge.
Whether we believe in the Easter Bunny is not the issue.
Whether we believe in John 3:16 is not the issue (For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believed in him should not die but have eternal life). The issue for us is the Easter Egg and the question it presents:
Do we want new life–in this flesh–in this body–enough to cooperate with the new creature within us that is trying to hatch out? to cooperate in stop trying to glue the cracks in our shell? to stop trying to paint over the vulnerable parts and protect ourselves from further wounds?
The spiritual pain and psychological agony in our lives is telling/begging us to quit gluing and patching and let the birth–the hatching out take place. This new creature within is like a little chick who has developed inside the egg shell. The chick must grow until it has a beak strong enough to penetrate the shell–from the inside out.
See how God likes to do the opposite of what we imagine.
Think about eggs this Easter season. Think about yourself as an egg–-with a beautiful new creature inside ready to hatch out. Think about yourself , already a beautifully decorated egg, having something even more beautiful inside that wants to emerge. Think about the real you pecking against the shell–from the inside. Think about letting your egg shell crack open and the new creature hatch out.
Ann Glover O’Dell