Christmas and Easter mark the birth and death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, but Christmas seems to get more attention. Colored lights, a houseful of decorations, even a tree brought indoors fill a house at Christmas. On Easter you might see a lily in the dining room. It even took Charlie Brown nearly nine years after his first Christmas special to introduce the Easter Beagle.
Why does Christmas get all the notice? One could say it is because of secularization. Christmas has come to be known as a time for presents, festivals and the beginning of the winter holiday season. Perhaps the reason goes a little deeper.
"No one likes to talk about death, but people like to talk about birth," suggested Father James Vacco, OFM, who teaches about religious texts and Catholic Franciscan Heritage at St. Bonaventure University. "No one likes to talk about suffering, but we like to talk about the humor of parents taking care of the infant and staying up all night. The adult story is not that cute or entertaining. So we focus in on the child, but we don't focus in on the adult."
Father Vacco views Easter as being the more important of the two holy days in the Catholic faith. "If it wasn't for Easter, there wouldn't be Christmas," he said, admitting that it sounds like a very odd statement. "When we think of someone who's famous, if we were to tell their life story or tell something about them, we would start, 'They were born in wherever and they were raised in wherever. Then they became king, president, whatever it might be.' But for the Christian community, those infancy narratives were an afterthought, because their experience of Jesus was risen from the dead. If it wasn't for that experience of Jesus risen from the dead, there wouldn't be a Christianity.
"You look at many world religions that have founders and they'll talk about their birth and their enlightenment, but for the Christian community, it was the enlightenment of who Jesus was because of the resurrection, and it was from that perspective that influenced the way that they remembered Jesus and their engagement with Jesus."
In simple terms, it is only after someone becomes famous that his or her origins become important. If it weren't for Jesus' resurrection, no one would be interested in his birth.
Father Vacco tells his students, "If you really want to have a sense of why the community wrote, especially the Gospels, but even when you read any of the other Christians letters, or even those other Christian documents that were prevalent in those early days, they wrote because of their experience of the resurrection and what the resurrection meant. So, it was from those lenses, that perspective, that platform that they saw things through, that they read back into things, that they interpreted things."
He suggests reading the Gospels in reverse order to understand why they were written. "If you want to get a sense of what the Christian community was trying to say or what they experienced, read the Gospels backwards. Start with the Passion, death and resurrection passages, then read it backwards. Then you will get a flavor of it was from that perspective that they remembered everything else," he said.
Scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown, SS, has pointed out parallel images in the birth and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels. At birth, Jesus lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes as He is presented with gold, frankincense and myrrh. At His death, He lay in a tomb, wrapped in a shroud and is presented with anointing oils.
"(Easter is) the central message of God provides life, God provides eternal life, God creates that which was subject to gloom and doom," Father Vacco said. Pointing to Adam and Eve's defiance bringing destruction, it was Jesus' obedience that brought new life. "This becomes then the message of restoration from destruction. God intervenes. God intercedes on our behalf. God takes charge to restore the original goodness of creation. By, Himself, destroying death forever. Death was introduced by our selfishness. God overcame our selfishness through Jesus, Who became selfless."
Father Vacco, who is also pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish in Allegany, doesn't think the central meaning of Easter has been lost over the past 2,000 years, but does feel the emphasis has been misplaced in the past century or so.
"Sometimes we get caught up into the entertainment of children. You have the secular thing with the Easter bunny, you have the candy," he said. "When you look at the Easter bunny; how did the Easter bunny become so associated with Easter? Rabbits are kind of prolific, so you're talking about this propagation of new life. The egg, again, the symbol of life, new life that would emerge just like Jesus emerged from the tomb. Unfortunately, what happens is that we get a little bit trite in our celebration."
Father Vacco recalled seeing an Easter bunny in church once. "It's nice. It's celebrative. But, what does that associate the young mind to, resurrection or Easter bunny?" he said. "There's nothing wrong with it, but maybe the timing of those types of behaviors, for those types of images. How do you be faithful to the central message without falling into trivialization that's cultural? It's a delicate creative balance, especially in our culture where we like the cute and the entertainment.
"I think sometimes we get distracted by the trivial. How do you make the message of resurrection and new life through Christ relevant for a child? It's one of those things that people come to understand when they experience life more and you realize there is all kinds of dying and rising that goes on in daily life."
Where have the modern traditions come from?
History.com reports that the Easter bunny concept arose in Protestant Europe during the 17th century, and was probably brought to U.S. a century later by German immigrants. Catholics are asked to abstain from eggs during Lent, so they become a treat to eat during Easter. Coloring eggs developed in Russia, during the late 19th century, when royalty gave jewel-encrusted eggs as Easter gifts.
The story of Jesus' death and resurrection is detailed in Matthew 27:27-28:8, Mark 15:16-16:19, Luke 23:26-24:35, and John 19:16-20:30.