Easter is the Sunday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ, and is one of the most holy days in
the calendar of Christian churches. The Easter message is one of hope and victory over death, for it recalls that Christ rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. Easter symbolizes the love of God and the promise that man's soul is immortal.
Easter embodies a number of converging pre-Christian traditions. Scholors, accepting the derivation proposed by the 8th century English scholar, St. Bede, believe the name "Easter" is thought to come from the Scandinavian "Ostra" and the Teutonic "Ostern" or "Eastre," both pagan goddesses of mythology signifying spring and fertility whose festivals were celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox.
Such festivals, and the stories and legends that explain their origin, were common in ancient religions. A Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, from the underworld to the light of day. Her return symbolized to the ancient Greeks the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter.
Many ancient peoples shared similar legends. The Phrygians believed that their omnipotent deity went to sleep at the time of the winter solstice, and they performed ceremonies with music and dancing at the spring equinox to awaken him.
When the second-century Christian missionaries encountered the tribes of the north with their pagan celebrations, they attempted to convert them to Christianity. They did so, however, in a clandestine manner.
It would have been suicide for the very early Christian converts to celebrate their holy days with observances that did not coincide with celebrations that already existed. To save lives, the missionaries cleverly decided to spread their religious message slowly throughout the populations by allowing them to continue to celebrate pagan feasts, but to do so in a Christian manner.
As it happened, the pagan festival of Eastre occurred at the same time of year as the Christian observance of the Resurrection of Christ. It made sense, therefore, to alter the festival itself, to make it a Christian celebration as converts were slowly won over. The early name, 'Eastre', was eventually changed to its modern spelling, 'Easter'.
Most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, from which is derived "Pasch," another name for Easter. Passover is an important feast in the Jewish calendar which is celebrated for eight days and commemorates the flight and freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival, a commemoration of the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.
The Dating Of Easter
According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and shortly afterward rose from the dead. In consequence, the Easter festival commemorated Christ's resurrection. In time, a serious difference over the date of the Easter festival arose among Christians. Those of Jewish origin celebrated the resurrection immediately following the Passover festival, which, according to their Babylonian lunar calendar, fell on the evening of the full moon (the 14th day in the month of Nisan, the first month of the year). By their reckoning, Easter, from year to year, fell on different days of the week.
Christians of Gentile origin, however, wished to commemorate the resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday. By their method, Easter occurred on the same day of the week, but from year to year it fell on different dates.
In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea was convened by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. If the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided. This always places Easter sometime between March 22 and April 25.
Religious Observances Of Easter
Easter is the center of an entire season of the Christian year. The first and best known part of the season is Lent, a period of about 40 days before Easter Sunday. During Lent, Christians prepare for Easter. They consider it a time for penance ... that is, a time to show sorrow for sins and to seek forgiveness. Christians patterned Lent after the 40 days Jesus prayed and fasted in the wilderness to prepare for teaching and leading His people.
Easter Sunday is followed by a 50 day period ending on Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Pentecost is a festival in memory of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.
Holy Week is the final week of Lent. Holy Week recalls the events leading to Jesus' death and resurrection.
Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week. It celebrates the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where people spread palm branches and clothing before Him.
Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, recalls Jesus' last meal and His arrest and imprisonment.
Good Friday observes the death of Jesus on the cross. Most churches hold mourning services. Some services last from noon until 3 p.m. to symbolize the last three hours of darkness while Jesus suffered on the cross.
Holy Saturday is chiefly a day of solemn vigil (watch). The major activity of the day comes at nightfall as observance of the Resurrection approaches.
Easter Sunday celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus.
During the 40-day period beginning with Easter Sunday, Christians celebrate the time when Jesus reappeared to some of His followers. This period ends on Ascension Day, or Ascension Thursday, when Jesus rose to heaven.
The Easter season concludes ten days later with the feast of Pentecost, when the apostles reported that the Holy Spirit had entered into them. Christians believe that the church began at that time.