3 questions: Christ's ties to spring

Allecia Vermillion

Q&A with Willemien Otten, a theology and Christian history professor at the University of Chicago, on how the resurrection became intertwined with the meaning of the season.

The spring season serves as a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal, as does the story of Jesus’s resurrection. However Willemien Otten, a theology and Christian history professor at the University of Chicago says the two are not technically connected.

1. When religions talk about resurrection we think first of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. How does the theme of resurrection and the Christian theology work with spring itself and the natural rebirth that occurs?

“The resurrection is not in itself really linked to spring, although obviously it happens in the spring season. It was originally tied to the Jewish Passover, at which a lamb was sacrificed. Early on, Christ was seen as a sacrificial lamb that had died for everyone’s sins.

“Spring is more of an analogy that helped the feast of the resurrection take root in the people’s imagination. There is scanty evidence from the early Middle Ages that Christians connected the resurrection to a kind of spring feast. There was a goddess, Eostre, who may have been a goddess of a kind of spring fertility cult. 

“Obviously the whole idea of triumph over death and resurrection goes very well with spring.” 

2. In the history of the church, how important is the resurrection of Jesus in how Christianity took hold as a major religion?

“Resurrection is probably the beginning and defining moment of Christianity. The idea that Christ was more than a human person, more even than the messiah whom the Jewish people were waiting for, defined Christianity. After he died and came back from the dead, this idea that Christ is the son of God increasingly came to define Christianity. Only as the son of God could he be resurrected.

“The resurrection happened on a Sunday. Christians began to celebrate the feast of the resurrection on this day. Later Sunday became the day Christians go to church, rather than the traditional Jewish Sabbath of Saturday. It became the day of gathering and assembly because it’s the day of resurrection. 

“The whole idea of triumph over death gave Christians a lot of reason for hope in dire times. Resurrection was a guiding idea during a long phase of persecution. Christian martyrs were ready to embrace their fate because they had hope for their own resurrection in imitation of Jesus Christ’s. Death was no longer the end of life.”

3. Does resurrection appear in other religions, too? Most theologians would distinguish true resurrection (body and soul) from reincarnation, found in Buddhism, for example, or even just the soul living beyond the body.

“Resurrection is not completely unique to Christianity. It seems there was a Jewish idea of resurrection when Christianity first developed, around the first century. There were Jewish martyrs, and there was the notion of a restoration of life after martyrdom. The Christian concept is distinguished by its close link to the identity of Jesus Christ as the son of God. In a subsequent development this led to the idea of incarnation, by which the son of God descended to become a human being, which resulted in the feast of Christmas, his nativity, being added to that of Easter, his resurrection.

“What distinguishes reincarnation is the idea of the immortality of the soul, which is then contrasted with a perishable body. In Christianity body and soul are closer together. Both are equally part of the human person, and both are created by God.”