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Many thanks to loyal reader Llew, who sent in the link to the Spiked article cited below!
The UK Parliament will be debating assisted dying in September 2015. Over the past few years, several high profile cases have come to light of older Britons who have ended it all with professional help. Sometimes this was because of terminal illness, however, not always.
In August 2015, university lecturer and author Kevin Yuill wrote an article for Spiked — the UK’s libertarian, secular humanist/atheist site — about the curious case of retired nurse Gill Pharaoh.
Pharaoh was 75 and relatively healthy when she died on July 21, 2015, at the LifeCircle clinic in Switzerland. Yuill says she was ‘healthy’, but her final entry states that, in recent years, she’d suffered an attack of shingles, ongoing tinnitus and joint pain. A lot of other older people have these ailments, too. But she wanted to end her life her way.
Yuill cites Pharaoh’s blog. She wanted
people to remember me as I now am – as a bit worn around the edges but still recognisably me!
But how was she to know what she would be like in five or even 15 years’ time? Only the Almighty knows that. Maybe she would have continued to age gracefully apart from physical complaints which are entirely normal, albeit annoying, aspects of growing old.
Pharaoh had no faith. She objected to British law with regard to assisted death because it
originates from a god in whom we have no belief.
Pharaoh blogged about her decision-making regarding ending her own life. She also gave a interview to The Times (Murdoch paper, ergo paywall), summarised in the Daily Mail. Yuill says she was searching for validation and recognition. He introduces his article with a précis of Christopher Lasch‘s excellent 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism. If you can buy or borrow a copy, it will be more relevant today than when it was written. I read it in the early 1980s in the US and was shocked. Needless to say, my work colleagues told me the man was talking out of his hat. Yet, how correct he was. His book warns about attention-seeking behaviour which demands that everyone else acquiesces to one’s wishes. What Pharaoh wanted was a change in the law.
The Daily Mail article quotes Pharaoh as saying that her mother had dementia and that, if she could have done so, she would have helped her mother die. My family members and I have had parents with dementia and Alzheimer’s, for shorter and longer periods of time. None of us, even the agnostics, ever thought of putting them to death.
Another high profile case in Britain was that of 68-year old Bob Cole, who ended his days at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on August 14, 2015. Cole’s wife Ann Hall, who suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, had died at the clinic 18 months before.
Cole had mesothelioma, a lung cancer, which left him doubled over — in his words, ‘crouching like an animal’. He, too, wanted a change in the law. The Telegraph reports (aforementioned link) that he told The Sun (another Murdoch paper, like The Times) in an interview:
I should be able to die with dignity in my own country, in my own bed. The law needs to change. How do you change the law? People have got to take a stand. So that’s what I’m doing today.
The politicians need to have the guts to change this law. Just bite the bullet. Accept that the British public want this change. If they don’t it will be forced upon them because the public feeling is overwhelming.
Is ‘public feeling overwhelming’ on this issue?
In any event, there are British organisations promoting legalised assisted death. Dignity in Dying were informed once Bob Cole died. Gill Pharaoh had been a member of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS). What role do such groups play in encouraging personal publicity for past and future high profile assisted suicides?
Yuill has a point when he says that people who want to terminate their lives through assisted dying should do so quietly with no publicity.
Only days after my reader Llew forwarded me the Spiked article, I read an article in The Telegraph which left me speechless.
Among these faith leaders are
Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain a leading figure in Reform Judaism …
That is bad enough. However, there are Christians, too: Baroness Richardson, first female President of Methodist Conference, along with prominent Anglicans such as Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, and ‘a handful of Anglican clerics’.
It should be noted that the Church of England officially opposes euthanasia.
These men and women, Jews and Christians, are opposing the government — and God.
In a letter to The Telegraph, the article says, they wrote that:
far from being a sin, helping terminally ill people to commit suicide should be viewed simply as enabling them to “gracefully hand back” their lives to God.
There is, they insist “nothing sacred” about suffering in itself and no one should be “obliged to endure it”, they insist.
Wow. Just. Wow.
How can one ‘gracefully hand back’ one’s life to God by terminating it? He gave us life. Only He can legitimately end it. It is not up to us to decide when that moment is. Not so long ago, this sort of attitude would have been rightly condemned.
Well, Rob Marris (Labour) will have his Assisted Dying Bill debated within the next few weeks. May life-respecting and God-fearing heads prevail.
Why the law should stay as it is
The Telegraph article included the following rationale for maintaining the status quo:
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, co-chair of the Campaign group Living and Dying Well, which opposes a change, said: “The law exists to protect us, all of us and especially the most vulnerable among us, from harm – including self-harm.
“People who are terminally ill are especially vulnerable. As a society we go to considerable lengths to discourage and prevent suicide.
“Licensing assisted suicide for terminally ill people would fly in the face of that.”
I couldn’t agree more. In 2014, I pointed out that children’s euthanasia was already legal in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. There’s no minimum age in Belgium and in the other two countries a child only needs to be 12 years old before he can request his own death. These kids could be disabled, suffering from terminal illness or have a curable condition such as anorexia. This is a very slippery slope.
Returning to the Spiked article, Kevin Yuill pointed out that, on the other end of the age spectrum, a Dutch citizen’s initiative Uit Vrije Wil (Out of Free Will) received 117,000 letters of support in 2010 for a relaxation of the Netherlands’ law which would allow persons over the age of 70 to end their own lives just because they were tired of living!
And this isn’t a European phenomenon, either. My aforementioned post from 2014 gave these statistics:
In 2005, Gallup’s poll on the subject found that a majority of Christians in the United States support euthanasia: 75% of Catholics, 70% of Protestants and 61% of Evangelicals. A majority of Catholics and Protestants also support physician-assisted suicide, PAS — 60% and 52%, respectively — although only 32% of Evangelicals do.
It’s pretty clear that the rise of secularism in the 1960s, possibly before, brought about legalised control over life and death, beginning with abortion. A person can be his own god, making decisions only the Almighty rightly has control over.
Does God pardon Christian suicide?
John MacArthur’s Grace to You (GTY) ministry team wrote a worthwhile article, ‘Can one who commits suicide be saved?’
It’s short and well worth reading. On the one hand, as Christians are saved, in principle, suicide
can be forgiven like any other sin.
HOWEVER … on the other hand …
GTY say that this would be (emphases mine) only
in a time of extreme weakness.
… we question the faith of those who take their lives or even consider it seriously–it may well be that they have never been truly saved.
In which case, there is the issue of the second death at Judgement Day leading to eternal condemnation.
Their article cites Scripture saying that a true Christian has hope and purpose in his life. As such, suicide would not enter into the equation. And:
Furthermore, one who repeatedly considers suicide is practicing sin in his heart (Proverbs 23:7), and 1 John 3:9 says that “no one who is born of God practices sin.” And finally, suicide is often the ultimate evidence of a heart that rejects the lordship of Jesus Christ, because it is an act where the sinner is taking his life into his own hands completely rather than submitting to God’s will for it. Surely many of those who have taken their lives will hear those horrifying words from the Lord Jesus at the judgment–“I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
The article concludes:
So though it may be possible for a true believer to commit suicide, we believe that is an unusual occurrence. Someone considering suicide should be challenged above all to examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Bible verses against suicide and assisted death
There are many web pages with notional Scripture verses against suicide which includes assisted death. However, most of the verses are not very helpful.
The best page I have found is Adrian Warnock’s on Patheos.
Warnock is a physician and author. He also serves as part of the leadership team at Jubilee Church London.
Any Christian who is considering ending his own life through assisted dying would do well to read Warnock’s selection of Bible verses, meditate on them then pray fervently and frequently.
Here are the first three (emphases in the original):
This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it (John 11:4).
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10).
For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Corinthians 1:8–10.)
His page has several more.
Christians who listen to their clergy and leaders who advocate for euthanasia or assisted dying are in danger of dying an everlasting death. As they are making a considered, premeditated decision, they are guilty of murdering themselves.
Clergy advocating assisted dying would do well to examine their hearts humbly before the Lord, repent and publicly say they were wrong. They could be sending Christians — and themselves — to an eternal death. Theirs is such an irresponsible and reprehensible position to adopt.
No one knows why the Lord sends us debilitating and lengthy illnesses. However, He works everything to His purpose. In these situations, Christians must have hope, faith and pray whilst seeking palliative relief.
The basic problem is — and this seems to include certain clergymen, too — lack of faith, a love of self and pride in one’s own abilities and decision-making. I’ll return to these themes soon in another context.
On May 21, 2015, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his thoughts on faith-based charity.
Faith groups are now filling a “huge gap” in British life occupied by the state until the financial crisis and onset of austerity forced a rethink, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Most Rev Justin Welby said churches, mosques, temples synagogues and other religious organisations had stepped in “in a most extraordinary way” over the past seven years.
Until the 20th century, charity was paramount. The welfare state didn’t exist.
First, it is natural that a religious person will want to give to help those in need. Why should this surprise a senior cleric?
Secondly, Welby seems to favour a bloated state welfare system. That is most disappointing.
It is only sensible that recipients of state aid — the dole — view it as temporary.
Possibly, just possibly, if we lessened the welfare budget gradually during times of recovery, we would have more people taking personal responsibility seriously and improving the lifestyle choices they make. Reflecting carefully rather than acting impulsively is one which comes to mind.
Relying on charity rather than the state is a tried-and-true tradition borne out through the centuries. Furthermore, less tax from all of us would no doubt result in a further increase in charitable giving to help those who really need it.
Depending on where Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans live and where they go to church, the feast of Corpus Christi — ‘Body of Christ’ in Latin — was either Thursday, June 4 or will be Sunday, June 7, 2015.
Traditionally, the feast falls on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. However, where no weekday church services are held, the observance is on the first Sunday after Trinity.
My 2010 post explains much more about Corpus Christi, the ceremony and the symbolism behind it. It was St Juliana’s wish (as Sister Juliana in the 13th century) that a feast day be dedicated to the Body of Christ. Whilst we commemorate the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the events of Holy Week are so dramatic that she thought a separate day later in the year would be appropriate. The first Corpus Christi observance took place in 1312.
It is, therefore, fitting that we have Pentecost Sunday, Trinity Sunday and the feast of Corpus Christi in that order.
The stained glass window pictured above is symbolic of this feast. The reason that rays of light are shown in this and similar depictions is to symbolise the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Corpus Christi often includes an outdoor procession in Catholic and High Churches. A monstrance (pictured at right) is used, again with rays proceeding from it.
Chalices also have their symbolism. Often, we see them with six points or six scalloped edges. These represent the Six Attributes of the Deity: power, wisdom, majesty, mercy, justice and love.
Many people today baulk at the seeming extravagance of monstrances, chalices and clerical vestments. It is important to remember that these items are created with such elegance so as to honour God and His Son Jesus Christ. That may not wash with everyone’s interpretation of Christianity, but for those who hold to Catholic and traditional Anglican or Lutheran teachings, only the most precious metals, aesthetic workmanship and finest fabrics may be used.
Yes, it is alive and well!
To be honest, I did not know it existed.
The Right Revd Daniel Martins, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Springfield (Illinois), recently went to Cuba and wrote about his and his fellow bishops’ stay. His post, ‘Cuba Libre’, is one of the most impressive posts I’ve ever read. It comes complete with photographs. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.
Status of the Cuban diocese
Martins tells us that the Diocese of Cuba is over 100 years old. For much of that time, it was under the aegis of The Episcopal Church (TEC). When Fidel Castro took over in 1959:
with the ensuing restrictions on travel and fund transfers, it became impractical to continue the relationship, and the diocese entered extra-provincial status within the Anglican Communion, with primatial oversight provided by a panel of archbishops.
Cuba’s bishop is the Right Revd Griselda Delgado, more about whom below. She and her family live in Havana, where the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is located.
There is one Protestant seminary on the island, in Matanzas, 100 miles east of Havana. Whilst the seminary is not Episcopalian — it was founded in the 1940s by Presbyterians and Methodists with the TEC coming on board afterward — the Diocese continues to maintain close links with it.
Although Cuba was officially an atheist country for many years, that status has since changed to secularist. Older church buildings are still standing and open for worship and activities. New plants are also springing up, such as the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Favorito. The church signs have the traditional Episcopalian welcome in Spanish:
La Iglesia Episcopal le da la bienvenida.
In addition to being houses of worship, the churches in rural areas have launched sustainable food or water programmes for local people.
Martins explains that the Diocese of Cuba not only has links with Anglican churches in Canada but also an Episcopal church in the American Diocese of Wyoming. They were instrumental in facilitating travel for Martins and his fellow bishops:
there were resources who knew what levers had to be pulled to get us religious visitor visas (this was underway well before the recent thaw in relations between our two countries).
Once at Miami International Airport, the security checks took as long or longer than the 45-minute flight:
First we had to hand over our passports, wait around, queue up to check our bags, wait around some more, queue up again to pay a baggage handling fee, wait around some more, and finally proceed to the TSA screening area. Never has there been so much red tape and bureaucracy for such a short flight. Once inside the gate area, we were able to grab something to eat, which was a welcome opportunity. The boarding process was just as inefficient as the check-in process, and by the time we pushed back, it was about 45 minutes past our scheduled 1pm departure.
Once in Havana, the group were accompanied by a representative of the state-owned Havanatur.
The 1950 American model cars still exist and, out of necessity, are very well maintained. Hotels from the 1940s and 1950s are still open, lending another air of nostalgia. Food, for travellers at least, is mostly average in taste and quality. There is little choice in restaurants and in snacks. There are two flavours of fizzy soft drinks: cola and lemon-lime.
Interest in Christianity
Martins had interesting conversations during his stay just after Easter 2015.
Cuba’s Minister of Religious Affairs joined the group for dinner at Bishop Delgado’s home in Havana:
We enjoyed some serious conversation (via Manny wearing his interpreter’s hat) before dinner around various ways the government and churches can cooperate for the greater good of Cuban society. Interestingly, the strengthening of marriages was at the top of her list. So, what was once proclaimed to be an “atheist” state is now merely “secular,” but with a very benign attitude toward Christians (and the small Jewish community in Cuba; there is no significant Muslim population).
The following day, in the old part of Havana:
I did a little bit of gift shopping, but the highlight of the time there was a conversation (again, all in Spanish) with a vendor from who I didn’t buy anything, but who, when she found out I was from the U.S., peppered me with questions relating to how difficult (or not) it was for me to get into the country, and lamenting that she would like to visit the U.S. but the only Cubans who can get entry visas are those with family already here, and she has none. Then, when she found out I am a bishop, enthusiastically assured me that she is a Christian, and asked me to give her a blessing, which I did. What a joy, on so many levels.
He also discovered:
the Episcopal cathedral in Havana holds theology classes on Saturdays. They are intended primarily to form their own people in ministry, but the classes are open to all comers. There is a steady stream of university students who attend faithfully. There is an intense curiosity about Christianity (and other faith practices) on the part of a generation of young people who are virtual blank slates, who did not grow up with it, for whom it is a fresh novelty rather than an artifact of cultural baggage.
Long may it continue.
As for the Minister of Religious Affairs:
she referred to “our Lord” and openly prayed with us. She articulated a hope for partnerships between the government and churches to attack Cuba’s social ills.
Martins observed that the tables with regard to faith are now turned in Cuba and the United States:
Religious practice was stigmatized and marginalized. Now, five decades later, this is the trend in American society, though it’s rolling out at a rather more deliberate pace … So, as American Christianity continues to enter a bit of a winter season, my visit to Cuba gives me hope that spring will indeed come. Not in my lifetime, most likely, but it will come.
The Anglican Church of Canada website has an interesting profile of the Right Revd Griselda Delgado del Carpio, one of the first two women ordained in the country and the first woman bishop in Latin America.
Delgado is originally from Bolivia. In her student days, she was quite the political activist. For that reason, she emigrated to Cuba, accompanied by her mother and her young daughter. Once there, she later married a Cuban. She and her husband Geraldo have two children of their own.
When she first arrived in Cuba, she did a lot of soul searching. Eventually, she entered the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary. At the time, religious practice was frowned on and the seminary numbers reflected that state of affairs. The ratio of faculty to students was practically 1:1. Delgado was ordained in 1986.
Although church finances are an ongoing problem, largely because of Cuba’s economic insecurity:
In recent years, there has been a sense that the IEC and other Cuban churches are growing in both membership and national influence …
Bishop Delgado has a vision for the role the church can play in this shifting Cuban culture. “Up until now the church has seemed invisible to society,” she said. “In Cuba, all people have education, all have professions, but the people are lacking values. The church is a place to bring people together, to give them identity and dignity.”
Let us pray for the continuous growth of the Church in Cuba.
Sunday, May 31, 2015, is Trinity Sunday.
Trinity Sunday is always the next one after Pentecost.
My 2010 post explains that it was not until St Thomas Becket dedicated the Sunday after Pentecost to the Trinity in 1162 that it became a uniform feast in the Church.
Traditionally, in some denominations, subsequent Sundays until the First Sunday of Advent were referred to as Sundays ‘after Trinity’. Since then, this has changed in favour of Sundays ‘after Pentecost’ or ‘in Ordinary Time’. However, there are a few which have retained the Trinitarian association.
It is important for Christians to explain to their children the divine mystery of the Holy Trinity. My 2013 post features the Anglican, Revd Matt Kennedy’s, emphasis on the Bible which enables us to understand how the Holy Trinity helps us in our understanding of divine purpose. My 2012 post details an excellent Lutheran way of explaining the Trinity simply to our children: use an egg.
Along with many other clergy, Kennedy acknowledges that because we do not ‘get God’ as we ‘get’ — understand — the workings of our world, we tend to ignore or deny divine mysteries and truths. My 2012 post highlights his sermon on this topic; it is very useful for those who doubt the existence and doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Today’s Anglican reflection also addresses our reluctance to accept the Trinity.
The late Revd Dr John Hughes, Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, gave a sermon in 2010 which clarifies the importance of Trinity Sunday. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:
Trinity Sunday began to be observed in England under St Thomas Becket and then spread to the rest of Western Christendom. And yet, there is a tradition that this Sunday the task of preaching is a short straw, not a joy and a delight. Why is this?
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, highest and most central of Christian doctrines has not enjoyed a good reputation in the last century or so. I remember as a teenager being fascinated by those endless paradoxes in the Athanasian creed: ‘not three eternals, but one eternal, not three uncreated, but one uncreated…’ The whole thing sounded like some great riddle. And let’s be honest, congregations have a tendency to glaze over when we come to the finer points of doctrinal and philosophical theology. But the point runs deeper than this: for many in the last hundred years, the doctrine of the Trinity was seen as a later invention of Greek philosophy far removed from the simple faith of the Galilean fishermen. Sceptics have ridiculed the endless debates in the early Church around that one word ‘homoousion’ – ‘of one being’ as we still say every Sunday in our creed. The Trinity has been seen as part of the ecclesiastical baggage of dogma and metaphysics to be cast away in the return to the simple faith of Jesus. Such a view was held by the Unitarians, who have a chapel on Christ’s Pieces. And for a while such a view seemed to be becoming mainstream amongst New Testament scholars, theologians and even a few Bishops, although I’m glad to say things seem to have changed in recent years. And of course the rise in interest in Islam, in many ways an early form of Unitarianism, has raised this question again of late.
Hughes’s three points about the Holy Trinity are that 1) Christians believe that God is very much alive and active in each of our lives; 2) He communicates this via Christ’s humanity (in addition to His divinity) in ‘collaboration with humanity’ and 3) we are called, via the presence of the Holy Spirit, to preach the Gospel.
Whilst I disagree with Hughes’s semi-Pelagian belief that we have a divine presence here on earth (see his third point) — our perfection comes in heavenly afterlife — his conclusion is worthwhile:
So to recap: God is Love, God is personal …
Unbelievers do not understand this, and it is one of the most difficult challenges we face when evangelising in greater and lesser ways. So much atheistic propaganda has presented God as perpetually angry and distant, that it is hard to counteract this in conversation with curious unbelievers.
In closing, Hughes died in a car accident in June 2014. A memorial service in thanksgiving for his life took place in October that year at the University Church of Great Saint Mary’s in Cambridge. Professor Janet Soskice, President of Jesus College and Chair of the Faculty Board of Divinity, gave the address:
… John loved the Church of England, its language, prayer books and liturgies, but above all he loved the living church itself. Theologically and liturgically Anglo-Catholic, the services he organised and sermons he preached were never exclusive or cultish, and always deeply informed by his study of Scripture. He inherited from Tim Jenkins and Jonathan Collis, previous Dean and Chaplain, a lively and well-integrated chapel. With Mark Williams, the Director of Music, he oversaw a golden age of Jesus Chapel worship …
John emanated unruffled energy. He never appeared to be rushed even while, along with all his chapel and college duties, I knew he was researching, lecturing, publishing and supervising and examining both undergraduate and graduate students. In the Faculty of Divinity he was a highly regarded colleague in theology, philosophy of religion and ethics. Amongst his contemporaries he was widely regarded as the most gifted Anglican theologian of his generation …
I have spoken with a number of agnostics who think the Church needs a revival of Christian philosophy. Very few clergy have studied it in depth. It seems to be present among a few Catholic and Anglican priests, but not enough to make a wider difference. From my conversations with agnostics, Christian philosophy would facilitate a sort of applied Christianity which would enable making a greater connection between the New Testament and our lives today.
Readers may agree or disagree with this perspective. However, the Reformed (Calvinist) minister, the Revd Vincent Cheung, has combined the two in a traditional yet thought-provoking series of sermons.
After Election 2015, London quickly made the segue into a weekend-long remembrance and celebration of victory in Europe in 1945 on May 8.
Ceremonies and celebrations
That Friday afternoon a ceremony took place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, at which all the party leaders — including those who had resigned just hours earlier — were present.
If Mr Cameron exuded the authority of a man freshly delivered of a clear mandate from the British people, it should also be said that the outgoing leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties showed great dignity, too. There was no yawning, no fidgeting or the faintest hint of a scowl from two men who had just gone 36 hours without sleep, lost the fight of their lives and, subsequently, their jobs.
Both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could have deputed this ceremony to someone else and gone to bed. Instead, both had dressed immaculately – as had Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Both joined in all the hymns and prayers (not bad for two professed atheists). Both sang the National Anthem with gusto (unlike Miss Sturgeon, who appeared to chew it instead).
As for the ceremony:
All stood solemnly to attention as Randolph Churchill, 50, a former Royal Navy officer, recited his great-grandfather’s immortal VE Day broadcast: ‘After gallant France had been struck down we, from this island and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year,’ said Mr Churchill.
‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’
The first VE Day was hardly the end of the war for a number of those in active service:
After the party leaders had laid their wreaths, Mr Churchill stepped forward to lay one with former Able Seaman Robert Gale DSM, 92, from Headley, Hampshire. Mr Gale and his landing craft flotilla had been through all the big Allied amphibious landings before VE Day, by which time he found himself in India preparing for the final push against Japan. ‘I was bloody annoyed because they were celebrating the end of their war and we were still fighting out in the Far East,’ he said.
Various events took place in London for the veterans and their families at the weekend. Some were open to the public, who seized the opportunity to wear 1940s attire.
The BBC televised the main events.
Westminster Abbey Service of Thanksgiving
On Sunday, May 10, a special service took place at Westminster Abbey. The Royal Family, religious leaders, military officers, dignitaries and representatives of the political parties (Harriet Harman for Labour, Tom Brake for the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage for UKIP) joined 1,000 Second World War veterans and their families.
Canon Dr John Hall led the service.
The Abbey choir sang the processional hymn Praise to the Lord so exquisitely, it was as if we heard the voices of angels.
(I am using the ESV for the Scripture readings below. The Psalm, set to music, no doubt has lyrical variations.)
The first reading was Isaiah 58:6-9a, 11-12:
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[b] go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
The choir sang Psalm 107:1-16:
1 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble[a]
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4 Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in;
5 hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He led them by a straight way
till they reached a city to dwell in.
8 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
9 For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.
10 Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
11 for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
14 He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze
and cuts in two the bars of iron.
Prime Minister David Cameron read Romans 8:31-39:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave a brief sermon. He emphasised not only peace but also the reconciliation of peoples that took place after the Second World War.
Military cadets and veterans read out the prayer petitions which followed. Winston Churchill’s great-granddaughter and a veteran shared another reading.
Excerpts from King George VI’s unforgettable VE Day speech were also read:
Armed or unarmed, men and women, you have fought and striven and endured to your utmost. No-one knows that better than I do, and as your King, I thank with a full heart those who bore arms so valiantly on land and sea, or in the air, and all civilians who, shouldering their many burdens, have carried them unflinchingly without complaint.
With those memories in our minds, let us think what it was that has upheld us through nearly six years of suffering and peril. The knowledge that everything was at stake: our freedom, our independence, our very existence as a people; but the knowledge also that in defending ourselves we were defending the liberties of the whole world; that our cause was the cause not of this nation only, not of this Empire and Commonwealth only, but of every land where freedom is cherished and law and liberty go hand in hand.
In the darkest hours we knew that the enslaved and isolated peoples of Europe looked to us, their hopes were our hopes, their confidence confirmed our faith. We knew that, if we failed, the last remaining barrier against a worldwide tyranny would have fallen in ruins.
But we did not fail. We kept faith with ourselves and with one another, we kept faith and unity with our great allies. That faith, that unity have carried us to victory through dangers which at times seemed overwhelming …
There is great comfort in the thought that the years of darkness and danger in which the children of our country have grown up are over and, please God, forever. We shall have failed and the blood of our dearest will have flowed in vain if the victory which they died to win does not lead to a lasting peace, founded on justice and good will.
To that, then, let us turn our thoughts to this day of just triumph and proud sorrow, and then take up our work again, resolved as a people to do nothing unworthy of those who died for us, and to make the world such a world as they would have desired for their children and for ours.
This is the task to which now honour binds us. In the hour of danger we humbly committed our cause into the hand of God and he has been our strength and shield. Let us thank him for his mercies and in this hour of victory commit ourselves and our new task to the guidance that same strong hand.
As his speech shows us, George VI was a devout Anglican, unafraid to speak of the Almighty.
The last hymn was Christ is the World’s True Light, sung to Martin Luther’s Now Thank We All Our God.
Veteran’s walk and lunch
Most of the veterans participating in this year’s VE Day commemorations will not be returning if there is a 75th or 80th anniversary.
They are at least 90 years old now.
After the service at Westminster Abbey, the veterans and their families walked up Whitehall, past the Cenotaph to Horse Guards Parade and, finally, to St James Park for a delightful picnic lunch.
When passing the Cenotaph, they saluted it, remembering their fallen friends and family members. One veteran also blew a kiss.
As I watched these men and women walk, I was struck by their relatively robust health. Although, not surprisingly, a good number of them were in wheelchairs or required walking sticks, there were many who walked unaided — and briskly. This is a testament to the NHS and postwar medical care.
The Prince of Wales — Prince Charles — and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, greeted the veterans when they arrived at Horse Guards Parade to listen to the massed bands before lunch.
One veteran was so thrilled to see them that he leapt out of his wheelchair and rushed to shake their hands. They all talked for a few minutes. The elderly man had difficulty returning to his wheelchair; the two women accompanying him helped him, but it took a few minutes.
The gathering ended with a flypast with the Red Arrows as well as Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Lancaster scheduled to fly was out of service, unfortunately.
Youngest looking 93-year-old
The BBC interviewed several men and women who saw active service or participated in the war effort.
I shall look at their memories tomorrow.
For now, SpouseMouse and I were amazed to find out that one of the interviewees, Frank Tolley, is 93 years young. He served in Bomber Command and is very physically active. He has very few wrinkles and looks as if he were in his late 60s. More power to Mr Tolley. Whatever he’s doing is working a treat.
It’s April 23, the feast day of St George, patron saint of England and several other countries.
George was a soldier and martyr. Several legends about his valour soon circulated after his death.
We continue to connect him with slaying the dragon, as depicted in Paolo Uccello’s painting above. This is said to have taken place in a town in Libya called Silene where a dragon terrorised the townspeople. They tried to placate the beast by feeding it animals. When they ran out, they began giving him human beings. The princess Cleolinda, daughter of their king, was about to be sacrificed in desperation. At that point, George rode up on his white charger, dismounted and fought the dragon on foot. When he had subdued the beast, he dragged it through Silene and slayed it in front of the townspeople. Cleolinda’s father offered George a bag of gold for his efforts, but the valiant soldier asked that the money be given to the poor instead.
The Royal Society of St George explains (emphases mine):
The story is a powerful allegory, emblematic of the triumph of good over evil; but it also teaches of enduring Christian faith in the extreme and the trust that at all times should be placed in the Almighty by the invocation of the name of St. George, Soldier, Saint and Martyr.
George was born around 280 AD in Cappadocia, in present day Turkey. He became a cavalryman in the Roman army at the age of 17 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. He quickly earned a reputation for his remarkable virtue, military bearing, physical strength and good looks.
He was promoted to the rank of Millenary or Tribunus Militum, the equivalent rank of a colonel today. He commanded 1,000 soldiers and was a favourite of Diocletian.
Although we do not know at what point George became a Christian, he practised his faith at a time when most Christians in the Roman Empire hid in fear. Persecution was rife. Diocletian’s second-in-command Galerius decreed that Persia, which he had recently conquered, would be subject to the pagan religion and all Christian places of worship destroyed. Any scripture would also be burnt. Furthermore, Christians would lose their rights as citizens and perhaps their lives.
When George saw an edict to this effect as he entered the city of Nicodemia, he immediately tore it down. The local Christians were relieved to have such a staunch defender of the faith on their side. He, in turn, was compassionate towards them.
As both Diocletian and Galerius were in the city at the time, George knew that he would soon be tried. In preparation, he sold his worldly possessions and freed his personal slaves. The Royal Society of St George tells us:
When he appeared before Diocletian, it is said that St. George bravely denounced him for his unnecessary cruelty and injustice and that he made an eloquent and courageous speech. He stirred the populace with his powerful and convincing rhetoric against the Imperial Decree to persecute Christians. Diocletian refused to acknowledge or accede to St. George’s reasoned, reproachful condemnation of his actions. The Emperor consigned St George to prison with instructions that he be tortured until he denied his faith in Christ.
St George, having defended his faith was beheaded at Nicomedia near Lyddia in Palestine on the 23rd of April in the year 303 AD.
George’s head was taken to Rome where it rests in a church which was named after him.
It is no wonder that the exploits and faith of George circulated around Europe.
Today, community celebrations are taking place around England. Lytham St Annes has four days of events, Southampton has scheduled a St George’s celebration, Nottingham has a parade, and the West Somerset Railway a special fish and chips lunch. In London, the Coldstream Guards are giving a St George’s Day concert, Trafalgar Square has live music with food stalls and St George’s Hanover Square will feature a concert with the Royal British Legion’s Central Band.
May St George serve as an example to us all. As the Britannia site explains:
Saint George is a leading character in one of the greatest poems in the English language, Spencer’s Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596). St George appears in Book 1 as the Redcrosse (sic) Knight of Holiness, protector of the Virgin. In this guise he may also be seen as the Anglican church upholding the monarchy of Elizabeth I:
But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge we wore
And dead (as living) ever he adored.
BBC viewers will recognise Diarmaid MacCulloch’s name even if, like me, they have trouble spelling it.
The Oxford University Professor of Church History has a new three-part series on BBC2 on Friday nights called Sex and the Church.
In the latest issue of Radio Times (18-24 April 2015, p. 7), he opines on the Church and sexuality. His editorial, ‘Body and soul’ urges clerics to catch up with the rest of the world in this regard.
He states that Jesus had ‘surprisingly few words’ about sex. True. But, then, Jesus did not say much about many specifics of Christian life. Sex is not the only matter on which He remained somewhat silent.
MacCulloch, a Church of England deacon, has been openly gay since the mid-1970s. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he says:
“I was brought up in the presence of the Bible, and I remember with affection what it was like to hold a dogmatic position on the statements of Christian belief. I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity.”
However, why is he so mystified that our most senior clergy continue with cautious statements about sexuality? The New Testament letters, particularly those of St Paul, warn against certain sexual practices — heterosexual and homosexual — equating them with lying, theft and murder. Even if we excuse them, God condemns them all.
Of Scripture, MacCulloch told The Spectator in April 2013:
‘The essence of the authority of God is its thereness,’ he says. ‘It’s a bit like our relationship with our parents. There is nothing you can do about it. You can’t declare someone else to be your dad. That seems to me to be a statement about religion. I have a relationship with the Bible because it’s just there. I may not like what it says, I may not approve of it or obey it, but it’s there and I’ve got to cope with it.’
Oh, okay, then (not).
He closes his Radio Times piece with this:
Cheer up, bishops: in the wise words of Mae West, those who are easily shocked, should be shocked more often.
Wow. He might be upset about the quandary that the Anglican hierarchy are in regarding conducting same-sex unions in church, however, the Church is meant to be in the world, not of it.
Having looked last week at how the influential writings of St Augustine set in stone the idea that all sex, even within marriage, was sinful, he turns his attention this week to the revolution that turned that idea on its head for the first time in almost a thousand years: the Reformation.
First MacCulloch tracks back to the 11th century to examine how the Church deliberately set about increasing its power in society by taking control of the formerly civil institution of marriage, while at the same time increasing the pressure on its own clergy to embrace celibacy. A ban on clerical marriage resulted in appalling medieval hypocrisy – thousands of church-run brothels, and a sharp rise in incidents of clerical child abuse (“a pattern of behaviour repeated in recent years”) – which much of the Reformation’s religious revolution was in direct reaction to. The manner in which sexuality subsequently became one of the prime battlegrounds between Catholicism and Protestantism provides rich material for MacCulloch.
What is the purpose of MacCulloch’s telling us that there have been scandals in the Church from time immemorial? Most of us know this. The same licentiousness has taken place in every other social, religious and secular setting throughout history. This includes other world belief systems.
Even if we didn’t know about these ecclesiastical transgressions, true Christians realise that humanity lives in a fallen world. Furthermore, Satan will do whatever he can to destroy godliness. It’s what he does.
May we pray for the grace to improve and enhance Christ’s holy Bride and bring comfort to His followers. May the licentiousness, scandals and worldliness stop.
Temptation is always with us. Most Church historians could have explained this easily whilst revealing historical events.
What sort of ‘friend of Christianity’ is Diarmaid MacCulloch, anyway?
On Holy Saturday we make the transition from Lent to Easter.
Psalm 118 — read in certain years on Palm Sunday — helps us to understand the rejection of our Lord, His excruciating death for us and the promise of eternal life through His resurrection. As Matthew Henry wrote in the late 17th century:
The more our hearts are impressed with a sense of God’s goodness the more they will be enlarged in all manner of obedience.
The Vigil Mass, held in Catholic and some High Anglican churches on the evening of Holy Saturday, heightens the anticipation of Easter Sunday. The priest lights the new Paschal candle to be lit for the next 40 days recalling Christ as light of the world, and, in some churches, those who have been instructed in the faith are baptised.
Earlier in the day, Catholics from Eastern European countries and backgrounds will have taken their food to be blessed by their parish priest.
Those who have fasted and/or abstained from certain foods end this Lenten discipline after 6 p.m. or after they attend Easter Vigil service.
Traditional Eastern European Easter menus include eggs, lamb, cakes or butter shaped into lambs, ham, sausage and horseradish. As the post explains, each has its own religious symbolism.
British parents are no doubt delighted to discover that chocolate Easter egg prices are at ‘rock bottom’ in 2015 thanks to supermarket discounts.
Meanwhile, Church of England Archbishops are unhappy because The Real Easter Egg, the one with a booklet telling the story of the Resurrection, has been crowded out by eggs representing Darth Vader, Doctor Who or Postman Pat.
The Real Easter Egg
Meaningful Chocolate produces The Real Easter Egg, a tasty teaching aid (my words) which comes with a small booklet explaining why eggs are a central symbol of the Resurrection.
The Warrington-based company has been making the eggs for four years. However, it is not always easy for them to negotiate shelf space. Their website provides a list of UK supermarkets selling the egg, made with quality Fairtrade chocolate.
David Marshall, who runs Meaningful Chocolate, told the Daily Mail:
We do wonder at times if there is an anti-Christian agenda from some of our supermarkets who just keep turning it down. It is as if some feel Christianity is politically incorrect or the Easter story, which mentions Jesus, might put people off.
‘One buyer asked us what Easter had got to do with the Church, while another simply said, “I don’t think this is a credible product” and asked us to leave.’
John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, are urging Asda, the Co-op and Sainsbury’s to stock the egg.
Pagan, useful or both?
A growing number of Christians all over the world, but mainly in the United States, consider that, as the Easter egg and the Easter Bunny are not in the Bible and that they were part of pagan rituals, they have no place in the Resurrection story.
Yet, when we think back to the early centuries of Christianity, when missionaries risked life and limb travelling around Europe to spread the Gospel, what was the best way for them to tell people about Jesus? One cannot help but think of St Patrick, who taught about the Holy Trinity using a shamrock.
We’re talking about people who were illiterate and whose lives revolved around nature, upon which they were dependent for survival. The world then was not the way it is now: clean, sanitised, educated, plentiful. Life was precarious. Death was just around the corner. Food was not widely available 365 days a year. Hens stopped laying eggs. Animals went into hibernation. Most crops were unsustainable during frosty months. Is it any wonder, then, that people rejoiced at the advent of Spring?
Most of today’s well-meaning believers labelling everything ‘pagan’ are driving everywhere, buying food at a supermarket and maintaining their lawns devoid of other life. Look at any suburb.
Under such privileged circumstances, it is easy to denounce symbolism of the ancient world as being purely pagan with no crossover into Christianity. The same was true during the Reformation in discarding anything symbolic or exemplary, such as stained glass illustrations of biblical events or recalling the lives of the saints, many of whom died for the faith.
Fine, for those who wish to do that. However, there is another side to the story.
Hares and rabbits represented life
Explore God has a good article explaining what the hare and, later, the rabbit, represented for ancient peoples.
Life and fertility are intertwined in man’s atavistic need for survival and propagation. No animal represents these characteristics quite as well as the beautiful hare or cuddly rabbit.
Explore God tells us that a thousand years before Christ was born, the peoples of Mesopotamia and Syria viewed the hare as representative of life and rebirth. In the Greco-Roman world, gravestones had depictions of rabbits for the same reason.
The early Christians also used the hare and the rabbit to represent rebirth in the resurrected Christ.
The ancient world, northern European traditions and ‘Easter’
The word Easter is only used in Teutonic, Scandinavian and English languages.
Therefore, English-speakers would do well to stop saying that Easter is a pagan feast. We might have appropriated a pagan word for it (as we did with Sunday), but it is not universally known as that in every other language.
Infoplease says (emphases mine):
Prior to that, the holiday had been called Pasch (Passover), which remains its name in most non-English languages.
In French, for example, it is Pâques. The Passover which the Jews celebrate is called Pâques juif.
Explore God summarises the possible origins of the word ‘Easter’:
– The ancient German fertility goddess Eostra, associated with the hare;
– The ancient Norse word for Spring, which, translated into German is ostern.
It is difficult to know which came first: ostern or Eostra.
Infoplease says that the Venerable Bede, chronicler of the early Anglo-Saxon world that he witnessed, described the month of what we now call April as being named after Eostra:
“Eostremonat,” or Eostre’s month, leading to “Easter” becoming applied to the Christian holiday that usually took place within it.
Some historians see no connection with the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess Ishtar as her feasts occurred later in Spring. Explore God explains:
It seems probable that around the second century A.D., Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribes of northern Europe noticed that the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the Teutonic springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death. Christian Easter gradually absorbed the traditional symbols.
On the other hand, Christina Georgiou explains Eostre’s connection with the hare and the Ishtar story. Easter was not established until 325 AD at the first Council of Nicaea:
… co-opting an existing pagan holiday served the purpose of sowing the seeds of a new religion on existing faith.
In the east, the festival of Ishtar (correctly pronounced ‘Easter’) and the resurrection of Tammuz also took place shortly after the equinox.
Still, they might have been on to something, even if it wasn’t exactly new. The holiday they picked had many of the same connotations attached.
The mystery of death and resurrection is remarkably similar in many places and times, and the time of year when it is recognized is practically universal across the northern hemisphere …
The totem of Eostre is a hare—and according to the story, the goddess can turn into a hare at will. In one legend, the goddess comes upon an injured bird, who she saves by turning into a hare, it being the animal she is strongest as. Yet, having been a bird, this hare could still lay eggs, and in gratitude to the goddess, the bird laid colored eggs on her feast day ever since.
The hare heralded new life as did lilies — and the first eggs of the season.
Other related rituals
Georgiou goes on to explain that whether pagans of the ancient world worshipped Ishtar in the Cradle of Civilisation, Adonis/Aphrodite in Mediterranean lands or Eostre in the North, certain practices and rituals surrounded the vernal equinox.
One of these was fasting from meat for 40 days prior to the equinox. Some cultures cut down a tree in the shape of a ‘T’, commemorating Tammuz’s death and resurrection, which they believed occurred soon after the equinox. In the days approaching this time, pagans sang songs of mourning and held a vigil. On the appropriate morning, the priest or shaman comforted mourners by telling them that they, too, would rise like Tammuz from the grave to new life.
From this, it is easy to see why Church fathers established the feast of the Resurrection at a similar time. Fasting could easily translate into Jesus’s time in the desert to fast and pray. The tree held significance as Jesus died on the Cross.
Pagans and fundamentalist Protestants might be angry about this history for different reasons, but the springtime story helped to spread Christianity in earliest times throughout Africa, the Middle East, Mediterranean countries and Europe. What’s not to like?
Eggs, hens and early civilisations
We’re used to going to the supermarket to buy eggs. It’s nothing unusual for us. Eggs are on sale all year round.
However, historically, this is a relatively recent development.
Hens cannot lay eggs without a generous supply of light. Today, this is done artificially indoors so that we can enjoy them throughout the year. However, in the old days, as daylight grew shorter, people used to gather eggs for winter storage. At some point during the winter when production had ground to a halt, they probably ran out or the eggs spoiled.
Once longer days rolled around in the Spring, hens guarded their newly-laid eggs by hiding them. Georgiou tells us:
When does laying season begin? You guessed it.
And, if you’ve ever kept free-range chickens, you know that this time of year they hide them everywhere. Yes, even in the grass. (No, I never kept chickens, but when I was in college, my landlord did, and these are things I can attest to personally.)
Hmm. Think of American Easter baskets. They have artificial grass and chocolate eggs, a throwback to a hen’s natural behaviour.
She explains that in pagan times, the hare’s winter behaviour — nocturnal — was associated with the moon. In springtime, hares resumed running around during the day. Eggs also began reappearing; pagans connected them with the sun, the ‘golden egg’:
The two together indicate a balance between the sun and moon, appropriate for a holiday that is centered around the vernal equinox, a time of equal day and night, and also to indicate the fertility of the season.
Therefore, eggs were a prominent food at pagan rituals taking place at this time. Infoplease says that the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans all used them.
Early Christian missionaries used the egg as a symbol for the Resurrection: out of the hard shell (the tomb), new life emerges.
As Christianity displaced paganism, various peoples attached this symbolism to the egg. Elaborate decorations also appeared.
The pagan fasting became a Christian tradition, recalling Christ’s own 40 days in the desert. Not only was meat restricted, eggs were, too. Easter represented Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the fast.
People gave each other eggs as gifts, a token of mutual rejoicing at new life through our Lord’s victory over death and the tomb.
Christians in the Middle East and Greece painted eggs bright red, recalling His blood shed for our sins. Armenians carefully emptied the contents of the egg then painted the shells with pictures of our Lord, Mary and the saints. Early Germans also hollowed out eggs which they hung on trees. They coloured whole eggs green to give to family and friends on Maundy Thursday.
Austrians buried eggs in plants with decorative foliage. When they boiled the eggs afterward, a pretty plant pattern emerged on the shell. Further east, the Poles and the Ukranians painted eggs silver and gold. They also developed an elaborate method of egg decoration called pysanky. This involved applying designs in wax on the eggshell before dying it. They reapplied wax then boiled the egg again in other colours of dye. The end product was a multi-coloured, patterned delight.
In Russia, Tsar Alexander III wanted an exquisite Easter present for his wife. In 1885, he commissioned Pierre Faberge to create the first of what we know as Faberge eggs.
The white week — hebdomada alba — and Easter parades
Traditionally, Easter has been the time when catechumens — those who have been instructed in the faith — were baptised.
Centuries ago, the newly baptised wore white robes during Easter week to symbolise their new life in Christ. That week was referred to in early Christianity as hebdomada alba: ‘white week’ in Latin.
Infoplease says that during the Middle Ages local churches arranged religious processions after Mass on Easter Day. The congregation processed in their towns or villages following the clergy and deacons who carried a processional cross and/or a Paschal candle, which would have been lit at the Easter vigil service. Unlike today, people dressed up for church and Easter would have represented the perfect occasion for wearing new, Sunday best attire. Hats and bonnets would have been important, too, as they were seen by everyone. These processions, originally religious and solemn, became more secular and joyful. They evolved into what we know as Easter Parades.
The German Easter Hare — the children’s judge
From what we have seen so far in the history of springtime and Easter symbolism, we know that a) it was an important time of year as it meant food production could recommence, b) ancient civilisations attached atavistic importance to the hare and the egg and c) Christianity was able to biblically use certain elements — fasting, the tree of sacrifice and the egg — to make Christ’s death and resurrection more understandable to pagan populations.
In the 16th century, possibly the 15th, Germans borrowed the aforementioned Eostre story about the transformation of the bird into a hare that could lay eggs and transformed it into a religious Oschter Haws or Osterhase (‘Easter Hare’).
Children were told that a special hare would deliver gifts of colored eggs to the baskets made by good little boys and girls. Homemade baskets were crafted from bonnets and capes, and then hidden within the home. This tradition has evolved into modern-day Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets!
The first German settlers in the United States brought this tradition to Pennsylvania.
Parents told their children to be good or else the Easter Hare would not leave them a treat. I read elsewhere that the Easter Hare might determine that bad children needed a good whipping instead of a basket.
The Easter Hare — now the Easter Bunny — arrived in secret to leave these hidden eggs. From this we have the traditional Easter Egg Hunt.
We can see the similarity of the Easter Bunny with Father Christmas/Santa Claus operating on the reward-punishment basis. In Dutch traditions, Sinter Klaas (St Nick) goes around in the early hours of the morning on St Nicholas’s feast day — December 6 — to leave a treat or nothing. Sinter Klaas travels with his friend Black Pete, who metes out a whipping to bad boys and girls. These days, Black Pete is seen as politically incorrect. Whether he was actually from central Africa as today’s activists say is unclear. The best testimony on that came from one of my ex-colleagues, a Dutchman, who said that the warning his parents gave him before December 6 was, ‘Be good or the Spaniards will take you away!’ This refers to the long-standing rivalry centuries ago between the Netherlands and Spain. It is possible that Pete — Piet, in Dutch — represented Spaniards who would have had somewhat darker skin. Or Piet could have represented a similar-shaded person from St Nicholas’s native Turkey. Another theory posits that Piet was covered in soot from sliding down so many chimneys.
But I digress.
Suffice it to say that the Church’s principal feasts share this mandate for children to be good — or else. It’s an easy way of shaping their early behaviour into a civilised, godly one. What harm can that do? The child can digest ‘reward-punishment’ better than he can theology at that stage. That is not to say theology should not be paramount even then with prayers and Bible stories, but the ‘reward-punishment’ principle teaches simple, practical lessons quickly. A child’s mind only runs to the immediate future.
How Easter treats further developed
Germans developed the first edible Easter Hares out of pastry and sugar in the early 1800s.
Today, Easter is the second largest day of candy consumption during the year. The first, at least in the United States, is Hallowe’en. Here in the UK, it is probably Christmas.
We are awash in chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies in the run-up to Easter. In fact, one of our local shops brought out creme eggs on the 11th day of Christmas this year: January 5!
We don’t have Easter baskets here in the UK, and now, having done this research, I know why.
Twenty-five (or more) years ago, candy companies sold complimentary mugs, sometimes egg cups, with their Easter eggs. This went by the wayside 20 years ago, unfortunately, although I was able to procure a Snickers mug for the 1990 World Cup, a Kit Kat one the following year and an M&Ms one, my last mug purchase. I still have all three. They are fun and practical.
Easter cards became popular in Victorian England. A 19th century stationer had a card with a hare on it and added a seasonal greeting. From there the rest is history.
Today, at least in the United States, Easter is the fourth-most popular greeting card holiday after Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Last but not least — the pretzel
Before leaving the food aspect of Easter, it is worth pointing out that the pretzel is an Easter treat.
Apparently, the pretzel is the world’s oldest snack food. In 610 AD, an Italian monk wondered what to do with leftover bread dough. He decided to make small twists of dough, the shape of which was meant to resemble children’s arms folded in prayer.
Conclusion — and the Passover connection
In closing, what is important about Easter is that Christ Crucified – Christ Risen is the most important concept we can share with young people. An Easter basket helps to convey to a little one that shared joy of everlasting life through our Lord’s death and resurrection.
And we might also recall that one symbol — the egg — came to the Jewish Christians from the original Passover seder. Therefore, we acknowledge our spiritual history with the Old Testament as well as Jesus’s mandate for us in the Last Supper:
the hard-boiled egg is one of the seven symbols set out on the Seder plate. Easter and Passover, after all, are strongly connected to each other. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples just before the crucifixion. After the disciples began proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, they continued to celebrate a yearly Passover in the way Jesus had instructed them to, remembering his death and, more importantly, what his death and resurrection meant for them.
Whatever way you choose to celebrate Easter with your family, I wish you a very happy one, indeed.