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"EASTER comes on the first Sunday after the fourteenth day of the calendar moon which falls upon, or next after the twenty-first day of March; if the fourteenth day comes on Sunday, Easter Day will be the Sunday following."
There is no trace of Easter as a Christian festival to be found in the New Testament nor in any of the writings of the apostolic fathers. Easter clearly is an adaptation of the Jewish Passover to the later needs of the Christian Church.
St. Chrysostom says, in commenting upon the seventh verse of First Corinthians, which careless thinkers sometimes have interpreted as referring to an apostolic observance of Easter, "The whole time is a festival unto Christians, because of the excellency of the good things given."
Origen, in the same spirit, urges that "The Christians who dwell on the truths of Christ as our Passover, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost, are every day keeping an Easter and Pentecostal feast."
Socrates, the ecclesiastical historian, says that neither Christ nor His apostles demanded the keeping of this, or any other festival; that the apostles had no thought of appointing festal days, but of promoting a life of piety and blamelessness. It may still be news to some, that for many years Easter occurred at different periods in different countries.
In 387, history tells us that the churches of Gaul kept Easter on March twenty-first; the Italian churches on April eighteenth; while in Egypt that same year it was a week later, on April twenty-fifth. And this discrepancy or irregularity, despite the fact that sixty-two years previous, in 325, the Nicean Council had attempted to settle the matter once for all, and thenceforth to have the whole church, north, south, east, and west, celebrate Easter on one and the same day, and that day to be Sunday.
Yet it was more than three hundred years before the change became anything like universal; then in 669 the whole of the western churches fell into line, England being the last to accept the rule.
These differences of reckoning were not reconciled completely until 1752; then N. S., or New Style, was adopted by the United Kingdom in place of O. S., or Old Style, and the Julian Calendar after its long struggle against innovation succumbed to the Gregorian.
The Russian, Grecian, and Oriental Churches, the so-called "Eastern Churches," still cling to the Julian or "unreformed calendar," so that their Easter does not fall upon the same day as ours.
One of the earliest traditions of Easter has been expressed as follows:
"Ever since that blessed night,
When Death bowed down to the Lord of Light,
The eggs of that sweet bird changed their hue,
And burn with red and gold and blue,
Reminding mankind in their simple way
Of the holy marvel of Easter Day."
Allegorically, red symbolizes the blood of Christ shed to save sinners; blue is typical of the promises He made that imbue us with hope; gold, as a reminder of the treasures laid up in heaven; white, the purity of the cleansed soul.
"That sweet bird" refers to the legend, that when our Lord was brought to the sepulcher and tenderly laid therein, a bird was brooding in motherly fashion over her eggs in a nest set high in the branches of a tree which lovingly shaded His last earthly home. When this hitherto merry songster, crooning tender motherly hopes over her unhatched children, saw the crucified Lord borne by Joseph and laid in His rock-hewn cradle, her happy notes changed to wails. Through sunlight and darkness she ceased not to sing hopeless dirges; then through the dense gloom came the white glimmer of angels' robes, and suddenly a peace that passed all understanding entered the breast of the sorrowing bird, as she saw the Angel roll the stone away from the mouth of the sepulcher. When this blest bird saw the Christ, the Victor over Life and Death, come forth, she then witnessed the first glad Easter; her song of woe was transformed into that of joy, and the jubilant bird song rose and fell on the resonant air, "He is risen! He is risen! Rejoice, all rejoice."
When the Angel heard this, and noted how it called into its chorus the notes from all bird life, and that all nature, the rocks, the leaves, the twigs and branches of the shrubs and trees chimed in, he said, "Sweet bird, be forever blest; thyself, thy eggs, and thy moss-covered nest."
As Easter represents a new birth into the best Life of all, it is easily seen how the pagan idea that the egg was the beginning of all kinds of life, should become purified in the minds of the Christians, and accepted as the typical offering of good wishes and emblematic of pleasant hopes, between believers of the glad Easter day. The egg in some form or other has been the unquestioned type of the new life from the very dawn of the Christian era.
The practice of eating eggs on Easter morning seems almost as ancient and as universal as that of using them as gifts. In the book that records the household expenses and economies of Edward I. is recorded the purchase of neither jewels, fans, nor bonbons for Easter gifts, but "450 eggs stained and covered with gold leaf."
The pope thought it an appropriate and sufficient gift for a crowned head, and sent Henry VIII. an egg in a case of silver filigree.
In Russia as early as 1589, eggs colored red typifying the blood of Christ shed as an atonement for our sins were the most treasured of exchanges at Easter. Every believer went abroad at this season with his pockets well supplied with Easter eggs, as the society man of to-day attends to his well filled card case. When two Russians met for the first time during the Easter holidays, if they had not met on the day itself, the belated Easter compliments were passed, first by solemnly shaking hands in silence; then the elder (or the younger, if he out-ranked the elder) would say, "The Lord is risen," and his companion would reply, "It is true;" then they kissed each other and ceremoniously drew from their respective pockets the Easter emblem, and exchanged eggs.
In some ancient churches at Easter dawn two chaplains would stand behind the chancel rail, while two priests would advance toward them and the altar.
"Whom seek ye?" demanded the first two chaplains in concert.
As with one voice the two who were advancing would reply, "Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified."
The first two then chanted in concert, "He is not here. He is risen." At this point would appear upon the scene two women, typifying the two Marys. They approached the altar and took therefrom two ostrich eggs wrapped in silken covers, and would descend from the altar, chanting as they passed down the steps,
"Alleluia, the Lord is Risen."
In Burmah the egg is the type of the beginning of all things, and their social legend has its origin from a boy and girl hatched from the egg of a bird. The Burmese Adam and Eve are thus accounted for.
The Australians fall into line, and teach that all the earth was merely darkened space, until one of their race threw an egg upward, when it exploded and was changed into the sun.
The Druids, too, held the egg as a symbol of the sun, and believed that it hatched from itself the earth and other planets. Druidical priests and officers proclaimed their official position by wearing an egg encased in gold and suspended from a chain worn about their necks.
The Chinese claim that the world was formed of the two parts of an enormous egg. From the yolk of the egg stepped forth the human being whom they call Poon-koo-Wong; he then waved his hand and the upper half of his late castle, the egg shell, went upward and became the concave heavens of blue, the lower half fell reversed, making the convex earth, and the white albumen became the seas.
The Hawaiians believe that their islands were the favored "first lands," produced by the explosion of a huge egg "laid" in midair by a mammoth bird as she was proudly winging her way through the uppermost ether; falling such a distance, it struck the waters (no explanation of their origin is given) with such force that it burst and the broken yolk became their several islands.
In the oldest temples, the bird as a whole, also in sections, and with and without its egg, recurs again and again in altar and mural decorations.
The Syrians believed also that the gods from whom they claimed descent, were hatched from mysteriously laid eggs. Hence we infer that our present custom of offering the Easter egg emblem has the heathen legends for its origin; in fact all our most precious festivals come down from similar sources, but purified with the light of Christianity.