April 16: Easter Philology

Many of you have commented upon my vocabulary in these reflections, for which I thank my parents and several brutal English teachers from Saint Mary’s Episcopal Day School and Jesuit High School in Tampa.  Good writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others have also colluded in my grammatical formation.  Some of the best writers I have ever read come from the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, neither of which are easy to read.  Their brilliance helped shape the Western Canon of English literature and all of Indo-European romance languages.  So, yeah, I guess I am a closet philologist! (Aw, heck no…you go look that one up.  I’m writing a reflection here!)

Eastertide has a particular vocabulary also which we should explore as we go forward.  So here are a few favorites which I hope you will fall in love with also!

  1. RE, our favorite prefix!  Think about the freight this little guy carries for Christians!  From a Latin root meaning again, or to move backwards, one can hardly define this utilitarian literary heavy lifter without using it in the definition (and tautology rears its ugly head, again, in Eastertide!) itself as in to repeat!  Agghh!  From Religion (re+ligare, from the Latin verb to connect, religion means literally to re-connect, to re-ligament one thing to another) to Resurrection (re+surgo or re-surrectum, literally to rise again using the same root as the Englishsurge, or to stand up or straighten up from below again), from Renewal (from Latin’s verb renovare, literally to make new again or straight into the English to renovate) to Reformation (you get the idea!), we need this diminutive prefix potentate!
  2. PASSOVER, our favorite Hebraic theological term describing Resurrection!  The English word derives from William Tyndale’s first English translation of the Bible (published in 1526) who took it straight from the Hebrew Pesach, literally translated to pass over, or perhaps more expansively to have pity or to protect.  Just as the Angel of the Lord passed over the Israelites in executing the final, devastating plaque of the firstborn death upon the Egyptians in Exodus chapter 12, so too did eternal death pass over Jesus in the tomb.  The ancient Easter Vigil prayer the Exultet proclaims, echoing the Jewish Pesach meal, “This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave!”  Jesus passes over from death to new life.  The Hebrew Pesach is translated into Greek the closest they can with a Semitic language, thus Pascha and Paschal (like the large white candle we light to begin the Vigil and whenever we convey the presence of the Risen Christ in worship, like during baptisms and funerals).  All from Passover.
  3. ANASTASIS, the Greek term for Resurrection, from the Greek root anistemi, those who stand up again.  These simple descriptors carried enormous theological freight in a world where words mattered, as the earliest evangelists hammered out the Gospel message upon the harsh anvil of daily reality.
  4. EASTER, a bit more difficult to pin down as those proto-Celtic European tribes often are.  The ancient English historian Bede mentions a Celtic, perhaps Druidic, goddess named Eostrewhose springtime month corresponds to April.  A female Celtic goddess in springtime?  Better get out those Easter bunnies and color those eggs, as well as ancient poles, certain trees, potions for reluctant men (which probably were best for the women anyways!), forest springs, and other totems our European forebears used for fertility rituals following those long winters.  Thank goodness Christians were adept at borrowing names to re-visualize Christian festivals by that point!

Fun with math yesterday, fun with words today!

  1. What is your Easter vocabulary?  How do you define, describe, explain the Resurrection of Jesus?
  2. Do you have a Resurrection story in your own life?  How do you tell it?
  3. Descriptors help, but are usually deployed in moments of surprise, anger, shock or pain.  And then they aren’t quite as uplifting as we might choose to sound otherwise!  What descriptors best help you inhabit and engage the Resurrection?

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