How do we as Christians deal with the whole topic of the “pagan” celebration of Easter verses the Christian holiday of Resurrection Sunday? Do we avoid all things that reek of jelly beans or chocolate Easter bunnies during this most holy of weekends? Do we refuse to allow our children to participate in Easter’s version of trick-or-treat (aka “the Easter egg hunt”)?
While I’m not going to try to tackle these beyond-my-pay-grade questions, I do think that many Christians miss a huge opportunity when it comes to Easter. This becomes especially clear when we watch how the early Christians used pagan traditions as a pulpit to preach the gospel. The Apostle Paul himself dealt with the year-round paganism of Athens by steering the negative of their rituals toward the positive of the resurrection. His reaction to their godless traditions provides some powerful lessons for us.
First of all, he had a broken heart over the fact that the people of Athens were missing the point. In Acts 17:16 Luke writes, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” The great apostle wandered the streets of Athens leaving a trail of tears everywhere he went. These Greeks were worshipping created things rather than the Creator and it tore him up. He so longed for them to know the true God!
Are we broken-hearted over the fact that so many people in our communities don’t get the real meaning of Easter? When we go down the Easter dedicated and decorated aisles of our local grocery stores and all we see is chocolate bunnies, plastic eggs and jelly beans, does it make us stop and think about how the souls of those all around us have exchanged the real meaning of Easter for something delicious, fun and fattening? Beyond the tooth decay, souls are decaying in the midst of this myth-driven culture. May our hearts break for others as we long for them to meet the resurrected Christ!
Secondly, Paul seized the opportunity afforded by the pagan traditions of the Athenians to open up spiritual conversations. Being invited to speak to the key influencers and thinkers of Athens, “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship and this is what I am going to proclaim to you'” (Acts 17:22,23).
What a great example of turning a pagan tradition into an evangelistic opportunity! We can use questions like, “Have you ever thought seriously about the true meaning of Easter?” as a conversation starter with our friends, family, neighbors, teammates and classmates.
Thirdly, Paul quoted the pagan poet. In Acts 17:28,29 Paul says, “As some of your own poets have said, We are his offspring. Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human design and skill.” Here, Paul is both relational and relentless. He builds a bridge by quoting the poet and gently twists the knife by confronting their idolatry.
The name ‘Easter’ is derived from Eastre, the Teutonic goddess of Spring. Although, centuries ago Christians hijacked this celebration back from a pagan celebration of new life accompanied with Spring to new life as pictured through the resurrection of Christ. This ancient, interesting and factual tidbit provides good fodder for great conversations about the hope that the living Jesus offers to all.
Finally, Paul took his conversation with the men of Athens to the empty tomb of Christ. In Acts 17:31, Paul brings his evangelistic opportunity to a powerful conclusion, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
What was the response of those who heard him? “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed” (Acts 17:32-34). Some believed, some wanted to talk more and some mocked him.
As you engage others about the real reason behind Easter, you’ll get the same range of responses. Some will believe, others will want to have more conversations, and, yes, some may mock and marginalize you. No matter what their response, what an amazing opportunity you have this weekend to share the real reason for the season!
Beyond the Easter eggs and jelly beans is the resurrected Christ, waiting and wanting to satisfy those around you on the deepest level. Whether or not you have an Easter egg hunt is up to you, but don’t miss the amazing opportunity to seek and save those who are lost this Easter.