A brief look at the significance and similarities of the Spring holidays observed by Christians, Jews, and Hindus around the world.
Easter and Passover
Today, April 16, 2017 is Easter Sunday. It is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. At its core, Easter is often thought of as the transition point from Judaism to Christianity.
The “Old Testament,” as Christians know it, is based in large part on the Hebrew Bible also referred to as the Tanakh (named for the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Ketuvim). The Tanakh foretold of a “mashiach” also known as the “anointed one” that would be anointed king in the end of days. It is believed that the mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5).
In the “New Testament” Jesus is believed to be the messiah, a divine version of the mashiach, who is known as the Christ – the Son of God. Jesus is shown to be the Christ through his mission, death, and resurrection. The key here is the resurrection, which is the central tenet of Christian theology and part of the Nicene Creed, “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” And thus, on Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the fundamental moment when, in essence, Jesus the Jew became Jesus Christ, and transitioned the religious movement of his followers from Judaism to Christianity.
In Western Christianity, Easter is preceded by Lent, which is a period of fasting and repentance / penitence that commences on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days (not counting Sundays) in commemoration of the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, while resisting Satan’s temptation, before beginning his ministry. The week leading up to Easter is referred to as the Holy Week with Palm Sunday marking Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Spy Wednesday marking the day of Judas Iscariot’s intent to betray Jesus, Maundy Thursday marking the day of the Last Supper, Good Friday marking the day of the crucifixion, and Holy Saturday – also known as Silent Saturday marking the day Jesus lay in his tomb at Church of the Holy Sepulchre whilst also performing in spirit the Harrowing of Hades; whereby Jesus raised up to Paradise those who had been held captive in the underworld.
Easter is linked to Jewish Passover, which commemorates the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt, in both symbolism as well as timing. The Last Supper is said to be the moment that Jesus gave the Passover meal, through the Eucharist sacrament, new meaning in foretelling of his death and through references of Jesus as the Paschal lamb (Passover sacrificial lamb).
Easter eggs, are often referred to as a symbol of the empty tomb, and began as a tradition in Mesopotamia where eggs were stained red in memory of the blood of Christ. The Easter Bunny is a symbol of Easter that originated among German Lutherans, with a similar role to that of Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny would determine if children had been naughty or nice at the start of the season of Eastertide, which begins on Easter Sunday. Children who were nice were gifted colored eggs, candy, and sometimes toys by the Easter Bunny.
Scholars say that Easter draws its roots in Pagan festivals celebrating the Spring equinox and that the Easter Bunny is a concept carried over from the pagan festival of Eostre (or Ostara), a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare. The exchange of eggs was also an ancient custom, celebrated by many cultures, including the Pagans. In fact the making of hot cross buns and sacred cakes was a Pagan custom that the “Old Testament” clergy attempted to stop, yet ultimately blessed in response to the defiant pagan women who would not stop the practice.
If you view Easter as a Pagan celebration of the Spring Equinox you can see how it relates to the Hindu holiday of Holi, which is often referred to as the celebration of Spring harvest season. Both festivals are viewed to be a celebration of fertility and vibrancy celebrated with colors, and both usually take place within weeks of each other.
Spiritually, Holi has a similar religious significance as that of the Christian Easter as well.
For example, amongst devotees of Lord Vishnu, Holi commemorates the victory of good over evil in the form of a true devotee surviving a mortal death. As the story goes, the Demon King Hiranyakashipu thought himself as powerful as a God, and was upset that his pious son, Prahlada, who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, felt otherwise. The King enlisted his sister, the demoness Holika to trick Prahlada into sitting in a burning pyre with her. However, the divine cloak that was to protect Holika, flew from her shoulders and enveloped Prahlada, protecting him as Holika burned instead. Lord Vishnu, in the form of the avatar of Narasimha, then went on to destroy the evil King Hiranyakashipu. Prince Prahlada survived being burned alive through divine intervention and then ascended to the Hiranyakashipu’s throne; ruling as a devotee of Lord Vishnu, with peace, faith, and devotion.
Separately, among devotees of Lord Shiva, the significance of Holi is linked to the Goddess Parvati’s desire to bring back Shiva to the physical world from his deep meditation. Parvati seeks help from the Hindu God of love / desire, Kama, on the date of Vasant Panchami. Kama shoots arrows at Shiva, who opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes. In response, out of grief and anger, Kama's wife Rati (Kamadevi) performs her own meditative asceticism for forty days (40 days of meditation and asceticism – sound familiar, ahem ahem…Lent), upon which Shiva understands, forgives out of compassion and restores (you might say resurrects) the God of love. Kama’s return, is celebrated on the 40th day after the Vasant Panchami festival as Holi.
Culturally speaking, the Holi festival is the day to end and rid oneself of past errors and conflicts. It is a day to forget and forgive. It is the start of a physical and emotional Spring – for many it is an occasion for people to enjoy the changing seasons and make new friends.
In short, Happy Easter, Passover, and Holi, to all those that celebrate. May this season allow you to repent and let go of the past, enjoy the present with family and friends, and celebrate the promise of yet another Spring as you move forward to a bright and limitless future.