Eggs sometimes get a bad rap at Easter. Eggs are such a widely used symbolic food. Everyone from dancing druids and pagan fertility gods to — worst of all — bored kids on Halloween, have all claimed eggs as some sort of special specimen for themselves.
The Christian use of eggs at Easter probably has roots in a host of different cultures and traditions. But there are two connections that make the “Easter egg” a powerful symbol for this miraculous morning. Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem brought him there to celebrate Pesach, Passover, in that holy city. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder. One of the ritual foods arranged on everyone’s Passover plate was a hard boiled egg, the “beitzah.”
This egg symbolized the “chagigah,” a ritual sacrifice made in the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed this egg also became a “mourner’s” reminder. The Temple sacrifice could no longer be made, because the Temple no longer existed. In Orthodox Judaism hard boiled eggs are still offered to mourners as their first food after a funeral.
For Christians on Easter Sunday — as Mark and all the gospels tell us — funeral rites were transformed. The women who came to the tomb early Sunday morning were focused on mourning. They had gone out as soon as the Sabbath was concluded and purchased the ointments and oils and spices they needed to give Jesus’ dead body a final, funereal, last anointing. But instead of mourning a death, these women were stunned by an empty tomb and instructed by angelic being(s) to spread the good news, the “gospel” of a new life: “he has been raised.” Instead of participating in a ritual funeral meal, these first tomb witnesses were shocked to hear that Jesus had broken through the shell of death and despair. He was now living a resurrected life.
Easter eggs, with their beautiful, brightly colored, decorated shells are MEANT to be broken, peeled, revealed. The constricting shell of sin and death that had held humanity captive for so long lay shattered by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Every pink, blue, green, and purple smudge under our fingernails is a sign of Christ’s triumph over the prison of death.
In the words of the hymn written by St. John Damascene in the 8th century:
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
Of triumphant gladness:
God hath brought his Israel
Into joy from sadness.
Tis the Spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison . . .
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) may be the most quotatious (without being loquacious) Christian writer in all of history. It is hard to find even one line from Lewis that isn’t quotable. But here is one of the most quotable of the quotables: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.
We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” What Lewis is “pecking at” here is this: we must be hatched, or we will “go bad.” We must “break out” of the death grip the world would hold us in and fly into the new life that Christ’s resurrection offers to all — however scary and strung with surprises that journey might be.
Jesus broke the mold. The resurrection was a prison break-out. Jesus made the ultimate “prison break” from hell, from the power of sin and death. The first message from the empty tomb to the women witnesses is to “break out” as well. Leave that place of death. Gather the disciples. Go to Galilee. Expect to meet the resurrected Jesus. Follow him.
When given that first directive — here was the first Easter egg — the women at the tomb flinched. Instead of proclaiming, they clammed up. Instead of throwing their eggs against the wall, they tucked them away. Instead of making an omelet, they made tracks. Jesus calls us to a resurrection life, a new life that demands we “break some eggs” so that we may live celebrating the power of life, instead of cowering before the threat of death.
Easter Sunday is a break-out day. A prison-break celebration. I don’t think it’s any accident that some of the greatest literature in the Christian tradition is prison literature: Paul’s letters like Philippians; John’s Revelation on the Alcatraz of the 1st century called Patmos; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail;” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison; Karl Barth’s collection of sermons he delivered in prison called Deliverance to the Captives. If you’re a fan of convict literature, then you’re a fan of Cervantes, Voltaire, Thomas More, John Donne, Daniel Defoe, Oscar Wilde, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Diderot, Jack London.
But maybe the greatest prison literature of all time is John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Here is a letter Bunyan wrote to a friend while in prison:
For though men keep my outward man
Within their bolts and bars,
Yet, by faith of Christ, I can
Mount higher than the stars.
We are in danger of commemorating Easter with too many plastic, reusable, resealable eggs. All these plastic, split-in-two-and-refill eggs are easy and convenient. “Breaking” them open, at their neat seams, doesn’t cost us anything. Nothing is really “broken.”
Jesus’ bride is in a crisis of discipleship because more and more Christians don’t want to truly “break-out” of their eggshells, don’t want to embrace the invitation of a radical resurrection life, don’t want to throw their safe circular eggshell against the wall. But like the virtuous women witnesses in Mark’s gospel, our faith will “go bad” if we do not “go to Galilee” instead of “going home.” We need to “hatch out” from a safe, socially acceptable life and embrace the resurrection life that our Savior offers us this Easter Sunday.
What if instead of enclosing ourselves in safe elliptical eggshells, Christians took on a new shape to offer to the world? In his novel “Winter of Our Discontent,” John Steinbeck suggested that those raised with the reality of the resurrection might turn out “differently,“
“Let’s say when I was a little baby, and all my bones soft and malleable, I was put in a small Episcopal cruciform box and so took my shape. Then, when I broke out of the box, the way a baby chick escapes an egg, is it strange that I had the shape of a cross? Have you ever noticed that chickens are roughly egg-shaped?” (John Steinbeck, Winter of Our Discontent (Viking Press, 1961), p.115.
A resurrection life, once tasted, forever transforms. Look at petrified Peter. Look at sin-seeking Saul. Look at arrogant Augustine. Look at limp-kneed Luther. If you break out of death and break into life, in the shape of the cross, nothing is ever the same. Because of the resurrection, there is a whole new way of living in the world.
The first time your child discovers that Parmesanio Reggiano is better than Velveeta, you are pleased. Until you hit the cash register. When you discovered that lobster tasted far better than chicken nuggets, it was great..until you got the bill.
Developing your taste for a resurrection life, instead of a shell-encased life, is also equally costly.
It will cost you relationships.
It will cost you “business assets.”
It will cost you “free rides.”
It will cost your “free time.”
It will cost you the “easy route.”
It will cost you worrisome nights.
It will cost you money, time, and perhaps even life itself.
But Resurrection life is worth it. Resurrection life has no down side, because there is no fear of destruction or denial or death. Resurrection life means the end of death is not a dead end. Resurrection life offers us a life with the resurrected Lord on this Easter Sunday. Jesus’ death and resurrection has given death its ultimate beating. When Jesus rolled the rock, there was a rolling away of despair, rolling away of delusion, rolling away of sin and guilt and shame.
All we have to do is throw a few eggs against the wall, and show up in Galilee to meet our Savior. Hallelujah. Christ is risen!