By Fr. Wilfred Sumani, SJ
Easter, the first and oldest Christian festival, is saturated with symbolism whose expanse extends from the origin of the universe to the eschaton. The date of the Easter celebration is pregnant with cosmic symbolism which eventually acquired historical and theological significance. The Christian Pasch, like its Jewish counterpart, occurred in the first month of the year (Nisan). It took place in the season of spring.
For the pagan religious traditions of the Ancient Near East, the origin of the universe was the centrepiece of their worldview. Thus the beginning of the calendar year, which occurred in the season of spring, was believed to coincide with the mythical day of creation. Just as the universe was believed to have been created in spring so was it renewed or reborn in springtime. After the Babylonian exile, the people of Israel borrowed the practice of keeping the New Year in spring. They, nevertheless, added a historical valence to it: the beginning of the year was not only a commemoration of the creation of the world but also a remembrance of the Exodus. Exodus 12:2 prescribes that the month of Nisan is to be the first month of the year in remembrance of the liberation from Egypt. The mythical cosmogonic event thus broke into time and entered into Israel’s history of salvation. In biblical theology, salvation and creation became two sides of the same coin, the Exodus being considered a second creation.
In the second book of his work entitled Special Laws, Philo of Alexandria reports the Jewish belief that God created the world in springtime, in the month of Nisan. He writes:
The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Accordingly, every year, God reminds men [and women] of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and bloom; for which reason this is very correctly set down in the law as the first month, since, in a manner, it may be said to be an impression of the first beginning of all, being stamped by it as by an archetypal Seal. (Philo, On Special Laws II, 151-152)
Christians borrowed Philo’s exegesis regarding the connection between spring, Passover, creation and Exodus. In the early centuries, therefore, Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover. The resurrection of Christ marks the renewal or rebirth of the entire creation. The reading of the creation account (Genesis 1-2) during the Easter Vigil is thus apt.
More precisely, both the creation of the world and the resurrection of Christ are believed to have taken place on the Spring Equinox, when day and night are of equal length. The equal duration of day and night betokens the idea of balance as the original condition of the universe. However, as the universe was set in motion, imbalance infiltrated the order of creation. Sin and death are some of the consequences of this imbalance. To cure the ailment of time, therefore, Jesus had to go back to creation’s source and renew it from there. To cleanse time of its imperfections, Jesus had to go back to the initial point so that his purifying power could flow down to succeeding ages.
Every Easter is a privileged moment to reform humanity and to reclaim the balance that existed in creation before the universe was derailed from its original orbit of justice, charity and compassion. It is a moment to realign the rails of history to the will of God. The resurrection of Christ is a ‘jubilee’ moment when the resources of the earth are redistributed so that the children of the poor may not go to bed hungry anymore. The Pascha of Christ is the equivalent of the Week of Peace in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a sacred moment when quarrels and violence have no place in the community. The Pascha is the privileged moment to rediscover the imago Dei in each and every human being. As we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, let us heed Paul’s invitation to “get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1Corinthians 5:7).
May the resurrection of the Lord be for all of us a moment of rebirth and renewal; may it give us the ‘activation energy’ to restore peace and concord in our families and societies.
Happy Easter to all!