Apr 012018

Last year when I was celebrating moveable feasts on this blog I appear to have omitted Easter Sunday which is the prime moveable feast in Christianity on which most other moveable feasts hang. A serious omission for an ordained minister. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I will rectify the omission now with some academic stuff about the name Easter and the history of celebration, followed by some thoughts on roast lamb.

The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern Dutch ooster and German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Ēastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre. The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of an Old English goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”

In Latin and Greek, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called Pascha (Greek: Πάσχα), a word derived from Aramaic פסחא (Paskha), cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover because the crucifixion happened during that festival in Jerusalem. As early as the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to the crucifixion and resurrection, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual. In most of the non-English speaking Christian world, the feast is known by names derived from Greek and Latin Pascha.

The Greek Bible asserts that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian faith. According to the Greek Bible, first in Paul’s letters, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the unleavened bread and cup of wine associated with the meal as his body soon to be sacrificed and his blood soon to be shed, inaugurating Holy Communion. The events of the first Easter were probably the first written documents of the early Christian community, although they may have circulated orally for some time before they were codified in writing. The earliest full description is in Mark’s gospel, but snippets can be found in Paul’s letters that pre-date any extant gospel. Unfortunately, Paul was not an eyewitness to the crucifixion, but relied on the testimony of those who were – including the disciples. He knew Peter, James, and John well, and also spoke to dozens of people who were in Jerusalem at the time. None of the gospels was written by an eyewitness, and three of them were written a full generation or more after the first Easter. You can get my full analysis of the original written accounts in my book The Thinking Christian, which is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522616044&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian&dpID=51CpH0e0zJL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

It is likely that Christians immediately after the first Easter continued to celebrate Passover (because they were Jewish), but did so in a way that celebrated Jesus’s death and resurrection. Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Easter begins to appear in the mid-2nd century. Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referring to Easter is a Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis (died c.180), which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one.

The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus (c. 380 – 439) attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of a Jewish Christian custom at Passover, “just as many other customs have been established”, stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. He describes the details of Easter celebrations as deriving from local customs, but says the feast itself is universally observed.

The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the Council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. In particular, the Council did not decree that Easter must fall on a Sunday, but this was already the practice almost everywhere. The rule of thumb is that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (customarily set at March 21st ). If I were to go into detail about how this rule was interpreted, I would be writing all year. It is sufficient to say that many calendar reforms, including the Gregorian calendar, came about in order to assess the dating of Easter. Orthodox and Western Christian Easter (Catholic and Protestant) are almost always on different days, and there is little opportunity for Passover and Easter to coincide, not least because Passover does not have to fall on a particular day of the week.

Sometimes scholars will note that the egg and the hare (not the rabbit) were considered special to the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre or Ostara (who gives us the English word, Easter), and hence Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are syncretisms, much like the association of trees, mistletoe, and holly with Christmas. This is pure wishful speculation. Ēostre is attested solely by Bede in his 8th-century work The Reckoning of Time. At this point there is no way of knowing how eggs and bunnies got tied to Easter.

How lamb was fixed as a traditional Easter dinner is much more obvious, but a little strange theologically. The gospels not only connect the Last Supper with the Passover meal (with lamb as the centerpiece), but John quite expressly states the Jesus is the lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, in the same way that Passover lambs were sacrificed for individuals’ sins. So, not only are you supposed to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ at Holy Communion, but on Easter Sunday you eat the lamb also (although this is a real lamb, not the mystical one). You can make of this what you will.

My family always had roast lamb on Easter Sunday, but in Australia this was nothing special because we ate roast lamb every Sunday. Lamb was cheap meat in those days, and a shoulder or leg for roasting was affordable. We ate roast chicken for special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays. My mother would put on the roast with some potatoes before we went to church, and then have our Sunday dinner when we returned. I cannot ask her now but I suspect she roasted it at 325˚F for roughly 2 hours (10:30 am to 12:30 pm), which is overcooking by my current standards. In those days English cooks were not fond of roast meats showing any pinkness. Even nowadays, people not accustomed to cooking lamb, treat it like pork, assuming that it must be cooked all the way through to be healthy. This is rank nonsense. You don’t want to cook lamb as rare as roast beef, but, at minimum, the meat should be pink in the center. This way the whole roast is juicy; not dry as it is of cooked all the way through.

My method of roasting lamb is not very scientific, but I think my dinner guests will attest that it is always good. Begin with the roast – a whole leg is best – at room temperature. Make sure it is as dry as possible by wiping the outer membrane with a paper towel. Take several cloves of garlic, peel them, and slice them thinly. With a very sharp paring knife, make shallow slits in the outer membrane and slide a garlic slice into each one. The slits can be as numerous as you want, but I space mine around ½ to 1 inch apart. Then coat the lamb lightly with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper. I heat my oven to at least 450˚F, or hotter if I can, and roast the leg for between 1 hour and 90 minutes depending on the size. The outer layer browns, and the garlic suffuses the meat.

When the meat is cooked I remove it from the oven, place it on a carving platter, cover it with a foil tent, and let it rest whilst I make the gravy. This step is essential to distribute the juices throughout the meat. I place the roasting pan directly on the stove over medium heat and add as much flour as there is pan juices. I stir the mix with a whisk until I have a roux, and then add a little stock. As the gravy thickens – which it does very quickly – I add more stock until I have the consistency I like. Then I add fresh rosemary, and let the whole pan simmer for about 10 minutes. For variety I sometimes add grated horseradish in place of the rosemary. (Horseradish is one of the bitter herbs of Passover).

For a complete Easter dinner I serve the roast leg whole and carve it at the table. For accompaniments there is the gravy and roast potatoes, which, cooked at that heat, become crisp and brown on the outside and soft on the inside. I usually also roast some whole onions, and maybe some leeks cut into 4 inch lengths, parsnips, and other root vegetables. In addition I have at least one green vegetable, preferably spinach.

A Happy Easter !!!

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