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Learning to tell our story afresh

A reflection on the place of faith within a culture and history and how we understand the place of the church in the wider world. By Ruth Gouldbourne 

Easter eggs

Being in a church that regularly welcomes visitors has many delights - but one of the trials is that sometimes people coming from other places think that they bring with them particular wisdom, and it is incumbent on them to share it. One such occasion was an Easter Sunday some years ago. A regular part of our Easter morning service was the sharing of small chocolate eggs with the children. After the service, a visitor form overseas took it upon themselves to ask me – standing too close and prodding me! – why I thought that introducing the children to a pagan fertility symbol as part of Easter worship was a good thing.

Well, as my colleague pointed out, if you are going to make fanciful historical claims, don’t make them to a historian. This idea that we share eggs at Easter as some kind of hangover from a pagan fertility rite is pretty well disproved (see here for one well written approach – from a pagan, who wants to insist that the pagan links are by no means proved! Easter Myths | Jason Mankey | patheos.com)

What is well-attested is that during Lent in the early and medieval church, the “fasting” that was part of the process of preparation for Easter included not eating eggs – and so their reintroduction on Easter day was on a par with eating meat that day, and it generally being a day of celebration and rejoicing; the end of the fast.

There are other historical reasons why eggs are important at this time of year (priests were regularly paid in eggs, it was a time of giving to the poor, and eggs were a common gift in the 17th century for those who did not have enough food… and the marketing skills of the chocolate companies….) I think it is at least debatable to assert that Easter eggs are a dangerous import from a pagan system, and should be, therefore, excluded from Christian worship.

But, I think there is a bigger issue here than just the sharing of Easter eggs in worship. And it is to do with the place of faith within a culture and history and how we understand the place of the church in the wider world.

Even if the church has adopted and “repurposed” an existing festival - does that matter?

Those who claim it does do so for, I think, two reasons….there are those who argue that because Christians have taken over pre-existing festivals (or sites, or patterns of practice) this is therefore a demonstration that the faith is not true.

Firstly, there is – as my “instructor” that morning demonstrated, a fear that, somehow, if we are sharing in a common human practice (celebrating the end of Lent by eating eggs-or even celebrating the gift of life in a distant echo of a fertility celebration!) somehow, we are contaminated and endangering the gospel.

Jesus got into trouble for eating with sinners….His holiness blessed them rather than their “uncleanness” damaging him.

Will we follow him, or do we need the kind of cordon sanitaire that the curtain in the Temple (torn at the Crucifixion) offered….?

And secondly, the argument that reshaped festivals are a sign of the untruth of the faith. Since our claim to the truthfulness of our faith is not based on – or at least should not be based on – the forms of practice used to celebrate Easter, or the exact date of Christmas, I am not sure exactly what this argument is an attempt to say. That Christian believers have taken over an existing festival and attempted to “force” another meaning on it, one they claim is true, might be a cause for irritation or laughter, but actually has nothing to say about the truth claims we make for the events happening around the Passover festival in whichever year it was…

The claims that the church has historically made about the history of these events have nothing to do with eggs, bunnies or fertility goddesses; remove them from the picture, reclaim them for a pagan past (and present!) and we lose nothing of our historical story.

And that is the story we need to be telling. The early church won new believers not because they “took over” an existing festival and renamed or changed it, but because they offered people hope based in an account of Resurrection, that challenged the fear of death, the despair of powerlessness and the life-consuming anxiety of meaninglessness. The early Christian congregations offered - and created – communities of mutual care and support that dared to trust that a new world was coming, had begun to come in the Resurrection of the Crucified One, and that by living in faith and love, people - whoever they were, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, learned or unlearned….whoever – could be part of it through a freely given and unshakeable grace.

Maybe, we need to learn to tell that story afresh in our place, in our time, through our current culture – adapting, renewing, deepening refreshing….rather than worrying about the origins of a cream egg. 

Ruth Gouldbourne is minister of Grove Lane Baptist Church, Cheadle Hulme

Image | Karolina Grabowska | Pexels

This is the latest in a new Lent series written by Baptists - a new reflection will be published each Wednesday throughout Lent  

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Baptist Times, 03/03/2021
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