You still need to be in the framework of about 100 to 400 AD. Things are changing, not just in the political climate, towards the end of the timeframe, due to Constantine’s doings, but also in the social frame. In short, the edict of toleration soon gives way to social preference, and then legislative preference, and the Christians end up on top.
However, this change was happening throughout the Empire of Rome prior to Constantine’s and later Emperors policy changes towards the new religion. For the past 300 years this religious movement has radically altered the social fabric at a community level. The liberalizing effect of the belief system toward relationship of father to son, mother to daughter, husband to wife, leader to the masses, is making inroads into a culture that has often been clothed in opression, in an Empire which is mostly opressive. The gods are also that way. Feckless creatures these gods, who act in a manner much like the worst parts of human nature, and yet demand to be pleased. Contrast that with the image of a God that wishes to have communication with man. That is not angry with man. The first words that God speaks to man after a 400 year silence is “Fear not”. God is not angry with us. The message takes root.
Are there cultural clashes? Yes in a way, but not as much as would be think. Christianity is a bit different in that it is not ritualistic. It also is remarkably inclusive in its cultural tolerance. St. Paul had written about that when admonshing Gentile believers to not associate culturally with Judaism, that Christianity is not exclusive, but for all. Other incidents that would certainly raise eyebrows, probably as much today as back then are reported by St. Paul. Imagine a butcher shop that is owned by a pagan, and he offers animals to gods, then puts the meat on sale. Can you imagine the moral dilemma if someone admitted to buy that. I can just see the raised eyebrows of self-righteousness in full pose. Yet, St. Paul says that there is nothing wrong with doing so, but if it is offensive to some, perhaps it shouldn’t be done. Interesting that the concept of tolerance is combined with moderation and self sacrifice. However, the meat is just that, meat. St. Paul goes on to say how he adopts the mannerisms and cultures of all, so that he might win them to his message. He insinuates that cultural mores are neither right or wrong, but that what is important is dedication to a set of underlying principals. St. Paul is the first advocate of multi-culturalism in that he sees the value of culture, and that these mores do exist and this is a cause of celebration, not despair.
So, what’s the deal about Easter? First of all Easter is in basis a pagan holiday that was modified to fit the Christian message. The Teutonic goddess Estre was adopted by most of the Roman Empire, and was associated with fertility. Among the practices of this worship were placing ornamented eggs in the dirt to bring about fertility of crops. The new life of spring – the chicks and bunnies – were symbols of her bringing new life to the world. Many of the same attributes are brought to Persephone – but for some reason the old girl Estre really had quite a following. Actually the concept of the eggs didn’t start with Estre, but is predated by Mesopotamian worship of Astarte – whose worship was also copied in Egypt. Candidly, I find these celebrations by our ancestors quite wonderful, and am not in the least offended by them. When Christianity became en vogue, the cultural aspects of the people diffused and took on Christian symblolism. To me, this is one of the greatest appeals of Christianity that it doesn’t really destroy culture, but assimilates cultures with the basics of its own faith and allows for synthesis of religion and culture.
The mixture of the cultures was vitally important to Christianity – and not to play what came first the chick or the Easter egg – must be measured in the historical context of the Early Church. St. Paul, who was a zealot Jew, forged the spreading of the Christian message to non-Jews and immediately began practices which disassociated the new faith from the old faith. By discouraging circumcision, by allowing Christians to purchase and eat meat offered to pagan dieties, St. Paul set about the synthesis of the Christian message and ethos into the contemporary world of his time. Consider that he said I become all men that I may win some men to Christ. This is not situational ethics, this is multiculturalism, and those who would oppose multiculturalism from a “Christian ethic” are about as far removed from the principals of the teachings of St. Paul – as well as his practices – as Pluto is from the Sun.
Perhaps the message of the transformation of Easter from pagan holiday to secular excuse to buy candy hides the real message; grace. Hopefully, the cultural war will stop, and may we learn to see that in fact, the bumping together of the cultures makes wonderful new traditions, which benefit all.
But I’m still not buying a chocolate Easter bunny.