The Egg's Promise

We think about eggs more than usual during the Easter season, but eggs are more extraordinary than we may think.

BY: Ptolemy Tompkins

 
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I was 10 or 11 when my father sat me down at our kitchen table, took a raw egg from the refrigerator, placed it squarely in my palm and told me to close my fingers around it.

"Now," he said, "break it."

"Break it? Are you sure?"

"Yes. Squeeze the egg as hard as you can."

I tightened my fingers—at first just a little, knowing the egg would explode all over me if I really applied pressure. But nothing happened. So I tightened my grip more. Still nothing. To my amazement, the egg wouldn't break.

"What did you do, put it in the freezer or something? How come I can't break it?"

"I didn't do anything to it," my father said. "It's just an ordinary egg. But as you can see, ordinary eggs really aren't so ordinary at all."

What my father showed me that morning was a simple science trick—one that countless parents and teachers have enjoyed surprising children with over the years. The shape of the eggshell is structurally so close to perfect that it can resist much more pressure than one would ever suspect it could.

But the insight my father shared with me—that the ordinary egg is really a completely miraculous object—has to do with much more than science tricks. There is a mystery hiding in the egg—a mystery as profound as that of life itself.

It was the French writer Louis Charbonneau-Lassay who best expressed just what this mystery is, in his celebrated book “The Bestiary of Christ.” "The egg," he wrote there, "contains a promise."

To find out just what that promise is, we need to start far back in time, at the very beginnings of human history. "To our pre-Christian ancestors," Francis X. Weiser writes in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs,” "it was a most startling event to see a new and live creature emerge from a seemingly dead object."

So startling was it that the mythmakers of the ancient world featured eggs in many stories they told about the origins of their gods and heroes, and of the entire universe. In Chinese folk mythology the trickster-hero Monkey was born from a stone egg impregnated by a bolt of lightning.

According to a Hindu myth, the sun sprang from an egg at the beginning of time. Even the biblical Eden has been imagined by artists and visionaries as existing within a giant egg, which was shattered in the fall. All these peoples agreed in their different ways that there is something irreducibly mysterious about the egg. But the promise that Charbonneau-Lassay wrote of was still unknown to them. It was only with Christianity that that secret promise finally emerged into the light for all to see. And it brought about the creation of a new object: the Easter egg.

Continued on page 2: Why do we decorate Easter eggs? »

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