Easter tends to be a most cheerful holiday for Christians – and Not-Quite-So-Christians – all over the world, an occasion on which public life is suspended: celebrated in early spring, when nature finally resumes its life and the sun starts to feel warm again, Easter is a holiday of hope and peacefulness, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion on Good Friday.
As Easter is eagerly awaited by children across the globe (just as much as by the chocolate industry), the following two ancient Easter tales may provide a somewhat different perspective.
The deep meaning of Easter, for devout Christians, has a long tradition. One can only begin to fathom the joy, for example, which the early Christians must have felt when their offspring was born around Holy Week.
An expression of such joy can be seen in an inscription from the city of Rome – an inscription that has Easter written all over it (ICUR VI 15895 = ILCV 1541):
Natus <p>uer nomine Pascasius | dies pascales prid(ie) Nov(as) (!) April<es> | die Iobis (!) Fl(avio) Constantino | et Rufo vv(iris) cc(larissimis) conss(ulibus) qui vixit | annorum VI percepit | XI Kal(endas) Maias et albas suas | octabas (!) pascae ad sepulcrum | deposuit d(ie) IIII Kal(endas) Mai(as) Fl(avio) Basilio | v(iro) c(larissimo) c[ons(ule)].
A boy named Pascasius – he was born on 4 April, a Dies Iovis (Thursday), of Easter week, during the consulship of Flavius Constantinus and Rufus, the viri clarissimi [A. D. 457]. He lived for six years, was baptised on 21 April and he deposited at the tomb his albs on the eighth day of Easter, on 28 April, under the consulship of Flavius Basilius, vir clarissimus [A. D. 463].
Initially, the inscription may not seem to convey much of the happiness or sadness, respectively, that the parents must have felt about their son’s birth and death around Easter: instead it focuses on the Easter motive itself (which gets somewhat lost in the heavy-handed indications of dates for birth, baptism, and death).
It is possible to go further, however, and to discover some of the parental feelings as they lie hidden in this text. As their boy was born during Easter week A. D. 457, the parents decided to name him Pasc(h)asius – a talking name, derived from pascha, the Latin(ised) term for the Easter holiday.
Alas, their boy was short-lived and died at the age of six – just a week after Easter, still wearing his white outfit as typically worn for the baptism (which in the early stages of Christianity was a sacrament linked to Easter specifically).
A rather more gripping expression still, document to the joy and hope that was Easter to members of the early Christian church, can be seen in a funerary inscription from Manastirine (Solin/Salona, in modern-day Croatia). In this text, the parents of a daughter – a girl called Flavia – all too soon after the birth of their child had to mourn her early demise (CIL III 9586 = ILCV 1523 = ILJug 2364):
Flaviae infanti dulcissimae, quae sa|na mente salutifero die Paschae glo|riosi fontis gratiam con[sec]uta est | supervixitque post baptismum sanctum | mensibus quinque. vix(it) ann(os) III m(enses) X d(ies) VII. | Flavianus et Archelais parentes filiae | piissimae. | depositio XV Kalendas Septembres.
For Flavia, the sweetest baby, who, of sound mind, on the redeeming day of Easter, obtained the grace of the glorious font, and survived, after the blessed baptism, for five months. She lived 3 years, 10 months, 7 days. Flavianus and Archelais, the parents, for their most beloved daughter. Buried 18 August.
The text, inscribed on a sarcophagus in the 4th century A. D., stresses the salubrious, redeeming nature of the Easter holiday, as perceived by this family. The parents would appear to stress just how the neophyte’s baptism helped their daughter Flavia to live for another five months, before she died so very young – just under the age of four.
The day of Easter itself is described as salutiferus, ‘a bringer of health’ or ‘a bringer of salvation’, and Flavia’s fate, after her baptism, is referred to as supervivere, ‘to survive’, ‘to continue to live’.
Both expressions convey a sense of hope, of reaching for the unreachable – making it likely that the child was ailing to a degree that an additional five months were indeed perceived as a blessing: a very personal Easter miracle for Flavianus and Archelais, granting their daughter, too, as it would appear, at least five months of additional lifetime.