Sunday, April 8, 2018

Doubting Thomas and weak theories

Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed – Alleluia!

This might well be thought of as the Sunday of Doubting Thomas, for the reading that earned him that nick-name is the traditional one for this day. The reason for its place in our liturgical calendar is obvious. The appearance of our Lord that he 'missed' took place on Easter Day; and the one that he was present for happened exactly one week later, what we would now term as the second Sunday of Easter.

St Thomas, of course, might seem a very appropriate saint to be high-lighted at this time of year. Because even as Christians recall and celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the doubters and the nay-sayers predictably crawl out of the wood-work to re-cycle all their old anti-religious 'fake news'. Particularly they love to make all sorts of false claims about how Christianity has hi-jacked various pagan festivals and symbols. In this case the hi-jacked occasion would be the celebration of the coming of Spring with Easter; and the hi-jacked symbols would be those associated with fertility such as rabbits and eggs.

So in the interests of what in modern parlance is called 'fact checking' let us examine those claims, beginning with the claim that Christians have somehow tried to take over a pre-existing Spring Festival with Easter. First, let us note that the best lies always contain some small element of truth. So it is indeed true that festivals celebrating the coming of Spring long pre-date Christianity. But what of it? That Christians celebrate Easter during this season has nothing to do with the timing of various pagan festivals. It is rooted in the historical fact that Jesus died on Good Friday, at the beginning of the Jewish Passover festival; and rose from the dead three days later, what we now refer to as the first Easter Day. The suggestion that Christians were somehow acting strategically, picking a time that was already a cause for celebration in wider society so that it could in some way supplant the existing festivals is nonsense that flies in the face of the historical facts. 

Indeed, given that Easter is a movable feast, one whose date can vary by several weeks from one year to the next, one would wonder exactly what pagan festival it is supposed to be taking over. Of course, the purveyors of modern doubt never specify; they merely talk vaguely about pagan festivals without ever identifying exactly which one Easter is supposed to have supplanted.

Some, occasionally, will try to do a little better and talk about how the word Easter comes from the Old English word 'Eostre' which scholars speculate was the name of a pre-Christian Old English goddess. However, by doing so, they merely compound their ignorance. 'Eostre' was the name given to April in the Old English calendar; and because April is the month in which Easter normally falls, with the passage of time, the Christian festival in English became known as Easter. But it is only called Easter in the English language. Originally in Greek and later in Latin it was referred to as 'Pascha', referring to the Passover. It is still known as Pascha in many other languages; and even in English the word Paschal remains – used, for example, to describe the Paschal candle lit during the Easter season. There was never, it should be noted, a spring festival in honour of this goddess as far as we know; a pagan deity, it should be remembered, whose existence remains a theory constructed for the sole purpose of explaining why it is that a month in the Old English calendar should have the name that it did.

Regarding eggs – they are indeed a fertility symbol of long-standing. But their association with Easter has to do with the fact that during Lent Christians traditionally fasted from them, along with meat, dairy, alcohol, and other items. It became the custom to paint eggs and give them to children as treats once the fast was over; and the tradition continued even after the practice of fasting from them during Lent was abandoned in the Western Church. As for the Easter Bunny – well, given their fast-paced breeding, rabbits have not surprisingly long been associated with fertility.

But the association of rabbits and Easter is a rather late development. Children today have no idea how lucky they are – for having done some historical research of the matter it would seem that the Easter Bunny made his first appearance in the late 17th Century, less than 350 years ago. Why he should have done so then and not before is a matter that is shrouded in mystery; but the fact remains that for most of Christian history there was no bunny bearing eggs to children; and by the time he appeared paganism was long vanished from our society. The idea that he is some kind of Christian hi-jacking of some old pagan symbol is simply too ludicrous to take seriously.

Interestingly, these rather lame theories are put forward by those who claim to be too intelligent to be taken in by the foolishness of religion. Of course, if they were really as smart as they think they were they wouldn't keep repeating their tired old claims about Christians festivals. But instead they cling to them and continue to repeat them no matter how often their errors are refuted. They could learn a lot from St Thomas. He may have doubted for a short time; but once he was confronted from the truth he turned from his error and uttered the words for he should be better remembered, the words which made him the first to directly acknowledge the divinity of Christ: my Lord and my God. That is the truth that we celebrate in this season; a truth that has withstood all the foolish errors, half-truths, and deliberate falsehoods that the world has thrown at it down through the ages … and will continue to do so until the end of the ages. For Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed – Alleluia!

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