March 6, 2018
For many people, the word “Easter” conjures up idyllic images of springtime bunnies and colorful baskets filled with chocolates and colored eggs. You might picture little children, dressed up in frilly, pastel-colored dresses or adorable three-piece suits, running across the yard with their full attention on the hunt at hand. While these images reflect modern Easter customs in North America, they do not begin to tell the whole story of Easter, not by a long shot. So, let’s cut through the peripheral clutter to discover what Easter is really all about.
Easter is the most important holiday of the Christian Church calendar. Easter in the Western Christian tradition is always between March 22 and April 25, because it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring (called the vernal or spring equinox). Eastern Orthodox churches use a different calendar formula, and often celebrate on a different day.
A simple definition of Easter is: the holiday on which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead after he was crucified. Christ’s resurrection is the central tenet of the Christian faith, and so Easter is a time when Christians rejoice in the fact that “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). For Christians, Easter celebrates Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for all people and his victory over death and sin. His resurrection is a hopeful reminder to all Christians that they too will one day experience resurrection as God makes all things new.
The word “Easter” and the celebration of the holiday are not directly mentioned in the Bible. Rather, Easter celebrates the resurrection events attested in Luke 24:1-12, Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-9, and John 20:1-23. The events of Easter occurred during the Hebrew season of Pascha, or Passover, so the early celebrations used those names too. The earliest written reference about the celebration of the Easter holiday dates to the mid-second century C.E., demonstrating that by circa the year 150 C.E., practices and traditions associated with Easter were already developed.
While Easter has always been about celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the emphasis of the celebration has developed over time. In the earliest days, Easter celebrations reflected the celebration of the Hebrew Passover, in which a lamb was sacrificed to save the lives of people. The earliest writings about Easter focused on Christ’s suffering and death, and meditated on Christ as the “Passover lamb, sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). Some early Christians even linked the celebration of Hebrew Pascha with the Greek word paschein, to suffer, from which we get “passion.”
But by the 4th century C.E., the meaning of Easter encompassed not just remembering the suffering of Jesus, but also celebrating his resurrection from death to life, showing his victory over evil and his validation as God’s anointed. Today, Christians commonly greet each other on Easter by one person exclaiming “Christ has risen!” and another responding “He has risen indeed!” This Easter greeting originated in the Eastern church (based on Luke 24:33-34), and is practiced around the world today. It is a simple phrase that reflects both the joy and centrality of the resurrection to the Easter holiday.
Early in Church history, the celebration of Easter came to center around the three holy days known as Good Friday (when Christ was crucified), Dark Saturday (when Christ lay dead in the tomb), and Easter (or Resurrection Sunday). Observance of these holy days included practices of fasting, prayer, and communal worship. Foundational to the Easter celebration was the Easter Vigil (often held late on Saturday or early Sunday) which climaxed with the lighting of a candle symbolizing the entering of Christ’s light into the world through the resurrection. Baptism of new believers on Easter morning was also common, followed by communion.
During the Middle Ages, traditions around the observance of Easter became quite elaborate and detailed reenactments of the biblical account of Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter) were popular. At the same time, traditions associated with non-Christian celebrations of Springtime were slowly adapted into Christian practice. For example, eggs, a symbol of new life since ancient times, came to be associated with Christ’s resurrection, and decorating eggs at Easter time became a common practice in Europe (a practice that was already common in the Eastern church).
After the Protestant Reformation in the West, some Reformers stripped away most forms of Easter liturgy and tradition in the worship service, leaving only the names of the holy days and the associated biblical readings. While the Eastern Churches, Roman Catholic, and more liturgical Protestant traditions have retained robust traditions and liturgies around the celebration of Easter, some of the more austere Protestant traditions have only relatively recently begun to rediscover and reinstitute, to varying degrees, Easter liturgy and traditional practices. Today, some Protestant churches celebrate Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent that leads up to Easter, put on Passion Plays (reminiscent of the elaborate reenactments of the Middle Ages), or hold Easter morning sunrise services (reminiscent of the ancient Easter Vigil).
Although the way Easter has been celebrated over time has developed and changed, the essence of what Christians celebrate on this day has remained the same, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Setting aside dedicated time to prepare for and celebrate this amazing good news is important, both to us as individual Christians and as the communal Church. Celebrating Easter is a reminder to keep focused on the gift of God’s salvation through Christ Jesus and on our charge to live as God’s Easter people.
However you celebrate Easter this year, remember that you join with billions of Christians worldwide, and a great crowd of witnesses, as you rejoice in the fact that “Christ has risen! He has risen indeed!”
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