The Lord is risen!” “The Lord is risen, indeed!”
Christians around the world share this sign and countersign when greeting each other throughout Eastertide. For the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Resurrection is an event too glorious to observe on a single day.
Having endured 40 days of Lenten fasting, renunciation of pleasure, almsgiving, doing penance for sins, and sorrowfully reflecting on Our Lord’s passion and crucifixion, joy fills the hearts of the faithful at Mass on Easter. We gratefully honor Jesus Christ, the word made flesh risen from the dead.
Dyeing Easter eggs has been a family activity for centuries. In this uncertain time, when a virus threatens our families and our Church, let us look to the coloring of eggs, the age-old symbol of new life, as a reminder that our families abide in the blessing of Jesus Christ’s all-embracing love.
An array of ancient civilizations colored eggs regarding them as symbols of spring, fertility, new life, or rebirth:
Painted ostrich eggs over 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. In Egypt, pharaohs strung dyed eggs in temples each spring symbolizing life’s renewal.
The Chinese presented eggs as temple offerings after the birth of a child. For over 3000 years Persians, believing the world was hatched from an enormous egg, have given each other decorated eggs on the spring equinox, celebrating Nowruz, their New Year.
Eggs found in pagan Roman- Germanic tombs dating to the 4th century A.D. were tokens wishing the deceased a good afterlife. In his 8th-century history of England, St. Bede the Venerable described Eostre, the Teutonic goddess of spring, as carrying a basketful of eggs encouraging human fertility. Her followers offered eggs to newlyweds desiring children.
Decorated Eggs in Christian Symbolism
One theory suggests that the practice of painting or dyeing eggs celebrating the Resurrection came early on. Begun by Christians living in Mesopotamia, the custom spread among the Eastern Churches before coming West.
Or, it is conjectured, decorated eggs originated in Merry England. Housewives handed out hardboiled eggs as treats to children strolling door-to-door the Saturday before the Lenten fast began.
Today, Lenten fasting in the Roman Catholic Church is but a shadow of what it was for centuries, even as recently as 60-70 years ago. Housewives traditionally made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to rid their homes before Ash Wednesday of eggs, dairy and meat — foods forbidden from Catholic consumption during Lent — a tradition still in force for our brothers and sisters in Orthodox and Catholic Eastern Rite Churches.
This pre-Lenten tradition merged with festivities celebrating the Resurrection, fueling Catholic imagination to decorate the shell to represent Christ’s stone-cold tomb or, perhaps, the large stone rolled in front. Cracking open the shell and removing the egg was thus a sign of the earthquake accompanying the Resurrection (Matthew 28:2), the stone being rolled away from the now empty tomb; and life eternal in Christ.
The Easter Egg in Christian Legend and Lore
Within the Eastern Churches eggs dyed red are an important part of the feast. One story relates how the Virgin Mary brought a basket of eggs to Calvary. Setting it down, blood dripping from her son’s wounds fell on the eggs turning them red.
Two legends regarding Mary Magdalene are similar: Along with myrrh and aloes, Mary brought a basket of hardboiled eggs to share with the women headed for the sepulchre. After speaking to her Risen Lord she saw the eggs turn a brilliant red.
Another tale describes the Magdalene two years later in Rome. Always carrying a basket of eggs in memory of the event, she passed them out as a sign of the Resurrection. Encountering the Emperor Tiberius, Mary selected an egg, greeting him with, “Christ is risen!” Pointing to it, the skeptical Tiberius wryly smiled, “Your Christ is no more risen than that egg is red.” Immediately the egg she held turned blood red.
In the Eastern Churches, goldcolored eggs are strung across the iconostasis, the screen shielding the sanctuary from view. After the Divine Liturgy, the clergy pass out red eggs to the faithful.
In Greece, a game called tsougrisma (“clinking together”) two players tap the ends of their red eggs. The player who successfully cracks both ends of his opponent’s egg will have good luck during the year.
In Catholic Poland, Lent is not officially ended until the parish priest blesses the Easter baskets families bring on Holy Saturday.
In the 13th century, King Edward I of England ordered 450 eggs be colored and decorated with gold leaf by scribal illuminators and presented as tokens of the monarch’s favor to members of the royal household.
Cultural art in egg dyeing
In Central and Eastern Europe, namely Austria, Belarus, Bohemia, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Moravia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Ukraine, eggs are beautifully decorated with intricate floral and geometric motifs. Chicken, duck or goose eggs may be hardboiled but are more often uncooked, the whites and yolks blown out of the shells. Techniques utilized for this kind of decoration, called pysanky, are etching or batik, using wax, cords, vinegar and even employ gilding.
Candy and Other Decorative Easter Eggs
In England, both Frys and Cadbury companies claim to have made the first chocolate eggs. In the U.S., hollow Easter eggs are crafted from and decorated in spun sugar, with a hole at one end so little tableaux featuring bunnies and chicks can be seen. Eggs are also made from marzipan, toffy and peanut butter.
Purely decorative eggs are carved from wood and wax, while more ornate examples are created from enameled copper, porcelain, marble, onyx, cinnabar, glass and precious metals.
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles He replies to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol. com.