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They're Gonna Crucify Me: A Heathen's Guide To Easter

Illustration for article titled They're Gonna Crucify Me: A Heathen's Guide To Easter

Life gets more complicated and demanding as you become an adult. Children are not expected to know much of anything—or to understand the meaning and significance of stuff, or to buy their own beer—so long as they interact with the world sweetly and cutely, and from time to time throw in an unprompted I wuv you momma. But then you become a grownup, and suddenly, rather all at once, I wuv you momma neither conjures forth from the ether as though by magic the breakfast cereals it once did nor suffices as a contribution to holiday observances. And so you must acquire knowledge—and understanding, and perspective, and a job—so as to avoid becoming the large, bearded infant BuzzFeed sent to China.


This is a drag! Especially in the case of religious holidays. When you were a kid, you didn't have to understand religious holidays—either the ones your family observed, or the ones from other faith traditions. You could get by with just caring about what they'd do for you. A day or week off from school? Presents? Donning your one button-down shirt for a visit to Aunt Eunice's floral-upholstered home for dinner? An uncomfortable hour of being scowled at by your dad for fidgeting and making weird noises in the somber quiet of a house of worship?

Now you are a grownup, and this level of engagement is not going to cut it. But I am a cool and edgy atheist who scoffs at the palliative myths of the sheeple!, you are saying. Surely I, <<<g0dkiller69>>> on Xbox Live, do not need to know what the hell these holidays are all about. Sure: If you are content with being ignorant of the world around you and walled off from understanding the other sentient beings who reside in it, you do not have to gain a basic familiarity with their practices and beliefs. On the other hand, if you are content with that, probably you are a sociopath. For everybody else, it's good to know what these things are about, and also to avoid sociopaths.

So. Around this time of year, Christians have a holiday called Easter. When you were a kid, whether your family observed it or not, you probably knew this as the one with the pastel colors and the Easter Bunny and various egg-shaped confections. Now that you are a grownup, you may have some questions. Or, at least, you ought to, because for real, what even is up with this rabbit, man?

We've got some answers! Pleasingly basic answers, provided by a hilariously derelict Catholic. Answers that will help you become a more clued-in member of the human race, and/or keep Uncle Frank off your damn back when he starts in during dinner on how these dadgum millennials don't know nothin'.

Note: You don't have to believe this stuff. We are not trying to convert anybody, here. We're just trying to empower you to be able to raise a slightly haughty eyebrow, drop a "Well, actually ... " or two, and annoy the shit out of everybody by reciting some stuff you learned on the internet.

So. Easter. What is the deal.

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, death, and burial. It is celebrated annually on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21st, which, are you friggin' kidding me, how did they even come up with that, sheesh.


Anyway, many observant types rightly will point out that Easter, not Christmas, is the central and most important Christian holiday, since Christ's death and resurrection are at the heart of the idea that he is the savior/deliverer/redeemer of mankind. Try telling it to Macy's, jerks!

And bunnies figure into this ... how?

They don't. The rabbit's been retconned into Christian Easter tradition in at least a couple clunky ways—as a symbol of the Virgin Mary (which doesn't make much sense, since Mary's less central to the Easter story than to the Christmas one, and that holiday's cutesy, kid-friendly ambassador is a fat white dude on a sleigh), as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, and so on—but, really, c'mon. No rabbits are present in any stories of the resurrection of Jesus.


Ultimately, the likeliest explanation goes like this: At the end of the long and miserable season of death (winter), we get happy about things that make us think of abundant new life, including newly hatched chicks, the pastel colors of new flowers ... and rabbits, which can't hop from here to there without leaving behind them a trail of baby rabbits. People have been incorporating these things into their springtime excitement in various religious and quasi-religious ways for as long as there have been people. When Christianity spread around olde-tymey Europe, its rituals and observances blended with the existing ones, and voila, a white rabbit became a symbol of Easter, which after all is all about life returning to something dead, much like the Northern Hemisphere has been for the past five damn months.

What about the eggs? Do those have a boring explanation, too?

Why, yes! Eggs, like many other tasty foodstuffs, used to be forbidden (and still are in some Orthodox denominations) during Lent, the roughly six-week-long period of fasting and repentance that precedes Easter in most of the popular Christian traditions. So at the end of the fast, people would eat lots of eggs, which they decorated, because decorating eggs is fun. (Yes, this is where the famous Fabergé eggs come from.) So decorating and eating eggs came to be an Easter tradition even after many denominations ditched the Lenten fasting.


Somehow, here in the United States, we wound up with the rabbit delivering the eggs. Some sources blame German immigrants. I can get down with that.

Since nobody actually knows or cares about this, though, probably don't bring it up with Uncle Frank, because he'll just accuse you of worldliness.


Let's revisit the whole "resurrection" thing. Uh, what?

Yeah, this is the key bit. The central sequence of events in the story of Jesus is his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. You'll recall the first part from the medallions of various rappers; it kind of implies the second part, what with it being an incredibly violent and harmful thing to do to a person. The third part you've heard about here and there. If not, though, let's recap.


(Note: The following is not intended to be taken as a statement of historical fact, but as a summary of the traditional story that led to the Easter holiday. You'll have your own ideas about that story's truth and historicity, and various faith traditions will squabble over the details, none of which are the point here.)

So our guy Jesus is out here in ancient Judea, preachin' and teachin' and healin' and doin' miracles. And he comes to Jerusalem for Passover: It's the capital of the Jewish people, as well as the seat of the Temple and the holiest place in Judaism, and Jews from all around are making pilgrimages (pilgrimag ... ing?) to it for the holiday. And from the time he approaches the city, pretty much everything the J-man does a) accrues to the frankly unreasonable number of holy days of obligation on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, but also b) pisses off the Temple's priests and Jerusalem's Roman occupiers, both of whom are not super-keen on this rusticated apocalyptic upstart getting treated like a divine figure.


So eventually, all the stuff you're sorta vaguely familiar with from trailers for various cynical cinematic cash-in attempts happens:

  • Jesus eats a very bummerrific Passover dinner (the Last Supper) with his friends, at which he tells them he's about to be killed.
  • Judas sells Jesus out to his enemies.
  • The Temple judicial body known as the Sanhedrin questions Jesus and finds him guilty of blasphemy, for claiming to be both the Son of God and God (yeah, that part's weird), and turn him over to the Roman occupiers of Judea.
  • The Romans (some combination of Herod Antipas and/or Pontius Pilate, depending on the Gospel and translation and so forth) question Jesus and find him guilty of what's basically insurrection, for claiming to be the King of the Jews.
  • The Romans torment Jesus, stick a crown of thorns on his head, and make him carry a huge wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem (a path known later on as the Via Dolorosa, or "Way of Suffering").
  • When he arrives at his destination (a hill called Golgotha or Calvary, depending on the denomination), Jesus is nailed to the cross by the Romans and the cross is mounted in the ground.
  • Over the ensuing six hours or so, Jesus exchanges words with the thieves crucified on either side of him, says some other famous stuff (including, in the apostle Luke's telling, the famous quote from the Psalms: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"), and dies.
  • Jesus is brought down from the cross and laid in a tomb by a man named Joseph of Arimathea. The tomb is sealed with a massive stone.
  • Early on the morning of the following Sunday, women visiting Jesus's tomb find it empty, the stone moved aside from the entryway. Shortly thereafter, Jesus appears, in the flesh, first to the women and then, after his male disciples blow off the women's testimony as hysteria, to those misogynist weenies themselves. Resurrection! Death itself, defeated!

So he was a zombie, is what you are trying to tell me.

Not so! The concept of resurrection is that the dead person has returned all the way to full life, which is different from reanimation, which is when a dead body behaves as though alive, and reincarnation, which is when a dead spirit begins an all-new life from scratch. Also, it's different from the concept of immortality: In the story, Jesus is all the way real-deal dead, as dead as anybody else who ever died, and then he returns all the way to real-deal life.


Also it is different from being a vampire, because Jesus did not listen to the Sisters of Mercy.

What did Jesus do after that, and was it even cooler/more unlikely?

He hung around for a while, preached some more, did some more miraculous stuff, then ascended directly and bodily to Heaven without re-dying. That last bit is called the Ascension, and this article is getting pretty long.


You mentioned Lent before. Is that related to this?

Yep. You can think of Lent as a Christian version of Passover, assuming you have any idea what Passover is. As mentioned before, Lent is a period of heightened religiosity, fasting, and observance that precedes Easter each year, and which most American Christians observe by ordering fish sandwiches at their fast-food chain of choice. The last week of it, the week before Easter— this week—is called Holy Week and began with Palm Sunday. The three-day period beginning on the evening of the Thursday of Holy Week ("Maundy Thursday") and ending on the evening of Easter Sunday is called, variously, the Paschal Triduum, the Easter Triduum, the Holy Triduum, and the Three Days.


(Today, FYI, is Good Friday. Sicilian grandmothers get sad as hell today. It's the day when Christians observe the crucifixion and death of Jesus. You might be thinking, But hey, it's not three days before Easter—I thought the guy was dead for three days? Listen. They are not going to reschedule Easter. Pick your battles.)

Huh, what? Oh, yeah, no, I'm totally awake, I swear.

And then Easter Season goes on for 50 days after Easter Sunday! It ends with Pentecost, which this year falls on May 24th! The minutiae go on forever, and then you die!


So, the guy conquers death, and it's bunnies and baskets of chocolate, eh?

Among other things, yes. Christian churches make a big deal out of Easter, usually without involving rabbits. The Roman Catholic church, as is its custom, makes a huge ritualized shebang out of it—decor changes and special vestments for the clergy and specialized masses and so on—throughout Lent and then peaking during the Triduum. This, also, is the week when the Catholic church admits new adult converts.


More relevantly to your purposes, it's also the time of year when Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and probably some other churches read from the Gospel of John, rather than the other three (Mark, Luke, Matthew), during their services. So if this is the only time of year you let your mom drag you to church, John's might be the only Gospel you'll ever hear. It's the most lyrical and passionately written of the four, if you care about that.

Why do lots of people cook lamb for Easter dinner?

Because it's delicious, and they got a good deal on it down at the Kroger. But also for sorta weird, garbled, symbolic reasons. In ancient times, the custom of Jews was to sacrifice a lamb on the first night of Passover and eat it with matzo and bitter herbs; Jesus, who is held to have offered his life voluntarily as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, often is referred to as the Lamb of God.


This goes some distance to explain why Christians associate lambs with Easter, I guess, but in the opinion of this catastrophically inept Catholic, it makes eating these sweet and adorable baby sheep even weirder and more symbolically troubling. I mean if the whole idea, here, is that Jesus's death and resurrection redeemed humankind and we're celebrating his victory over death, reenacting the ritual slaughter his sacrifice supposedly obviated kinda doesn't make any sense? And might even make the killing of these baby animals extra inhumane?

In any case, people like to do it.

So that's Easter, huh. Anything else?

Don't read the comments. Man oh man, are they gonna be bad.

I mean it still sounds to me like he was a zombie.

Fair enough. Don't tell Uncle Frank!

Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.


Illustration by Sam Woolley.