Who knew that the humble Easter egg actually has a long and noble theological history? Going way back to the early church, the practice developed of teaching new converts the basic foundations of the faith before they were baptised. Along with learning, they were expected to undertake a serious time of fasting, prayer, and spiritual disciplines – to put themselves right with God for a new life in Christ. This time of testing or ‘catechism’ gradually became extended and institutionalised into 40 days – and the whole community of Christians began to fast in support of their new brothers and sisters.
Rather than seeing baptism as just an individual decision, it became an important time of renewal for the whole church. The perfect day for baptism was Resurrection Day! Going under the water joined the new disciple with Christ’s death; and rising up out of the water symbolically joined the disciple to Christ’s resurrection – and to all others ‘in Christ’. Resurrection Day became known as Easter, and the 40 days of fasting and renewal became Lent. But what about the EGG?
The Council in Trullo, in 692, codified the practice: “It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain.” So Christians would give up eating meat and dairy, but the cows and hens kept producing. The milk could be given away, but the eggs were stored until the fast ended on Easter, when everyone then had eggs in abundance – thus, Easter Eggs!
Numerous legends are associated with colouring eggs. In one, Tiberias Caesar, sceptical of resurrection rumours exclaimed, ‘He has not risen, no more than that egg is red’, after which the egg he pointed to miraculously turned blood red. Early Mesopotamian Christians dyed eggs red ‘in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at his crucifixion.’ The roasted Jewish Paschal (Passover) egg represents sacrifice. But for Christians, a hatching egg was the perfect picture of new life, and quickly became a symbol of resurrection. And so, out of death, life. A whole theology in a humble egg.
(But alas, the chocolate egg is not theological.)