Easter, the principal festival of the Christian church year, celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his Crucifixion. The origins of Easter date to the beginnings of Christianity, and it is probably the oldest Christian observance after the Sabbath (observed on Saturday.) Later, the Sabbath subsequently came to be regarded as the weekly celebration of the Resurrection.
Meanwhile, many of the cultural historians find, in the celebration of Easter, a convergence of the three traditions – Pagan, Hebrew and Christian.
According to St. Bede, an early 8th century English historian, Easter owes its origin to the old Teutonic mythology. It was derived from the name Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month of April was dedicated. The festival of Eostre was celebrated at the vernal equinox, when the day and night gets an equal share of the day.
The English name “Easter” is much newer. When the early English Christians wanted others to accept Christianity, they decided to use the name Easter for this holiday so that it would match the name of the old spring celebration. This made it more comfortable for other people to accept Christianity.
But it is pointed out by some that the Easter festival, as celebrated today, is related with the Hebrew tradition, the Jewish Passover. This is being celebrated during Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew lunar year. The Jewish Passover, under Moses, commemorates Israel’s deliverance from about 300 years of bondage in Egypt.
It was during this Passover in 30 AD, Christ was crucified under the order of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. As the then Jewish high priests accused Jesus of “blasphemy”. The resurrection came three days later, on the Easter Sunday. The early Christians, many of them being brought up in Jewish tradition, regarded Easter as a new feature of the Pascha (Passover). It was observed in memory of the advent of the Messiah, as foretold by the prophets. And it is equanimous with the proclamation of the resurrection. Thus the early Christian Passover turned out to be a unitive celebration in memory of the passion-death-resurrection of Jesus. However, by the 4th century, Good Friday came to be observed as a separate occasion. And the Pascha Sunday had been devoted exclusively to the honor of the glorious resurrection.
Throughout Christendom, the Sunday of Pascha had become a holiday to honor Christ. At the same time, many of the pagan spring rites came to be a part of its celebration. Maybe it was the increasing number of new converts who could not totally break free of the influence of the pagan culture of their forefathers.
But despite all the influence, there was an important shift in the spirit. No more glorification of the physical return of the Sun God. Instead, the emphasis was shifted to the Sun of Righteousness who had won banishing the horrors of death for ever.
The Feast of Easter was well established by the second century. But there had been a dispute over the exact date of the Easter observance between the Eastern and Western Churches. The East wanted to have it on a weekday because early Christians observed Passover every year on the 14th of Nisan, the month based on the lunar calendar. But, the West wanted Easter to be a Sunday regardless of the date.
To solve this problem, the emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325. The question of the date of Easter was one of its main concerns. The council decided that Easter should fall on Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. But fixing up the date of the Equinox was still a problem. The Alexandrians, noted for their rich knowledge in astronomical calculations were given the task. And March 21 was made out to be the perfect date for spring equinox.
The dating of Easter today follows the same. Accordingly, churches in the West observe it on the first day of the full moon that occurs on or following the Spring equinox on March 21 when it became a movable feast between March 21 and April 25.
Still some churches in the East observe Easter according to the date of the Passover festival.
The preparation takes off as early as Ash Wednesday from which the period of penitence in Lent begins. The Lent and the Holy week end on the Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection.
Easter in America
Over the decades, Easter has become a festival more secular in spirit, though it has religious background.
However, this was not the case all along the history of United States.
Easter did not enjoy the status of a popular festival among the early settlers in America. Because most of them were Puritans or members of Protestant Churches who had little use for the ceremonies of any religious festivals. Even the Puritans in Massachusetts tried their best to play down the celebration of Easter as far as possible. While various rites are said to be associated with the celebration of Easter, most of them have come as part of the ancient spring rites in the Northern hemisphere.
Not until the period of the Civil War did the message and meaning of Easter begin to be expressed as it had been in Europe. It was the initiative of the Presbyterians. The scars of death and destruction which led people back to the Easter season. They found the story of resurrection as a great source of inspiration and renewed hope.
Since then, of course, its joyous customs delight children and adults alike.
Journey through Holy Week
Lent is a forty day period of penance meant for sharing the sorrows and sufferings of Christ by the self-denying Christians. Originally Lent was meant for a period of complete fasting to commemorate the forty-day fast of Jesus. Jesus spent these days in the desert after his baptism and till the beginning of his public ministry. In the early church, this fasting period was meant for a preparation to receive the sacrament to be given to those who would be baptized on the Easter eve.
In the course of time, the emphasis of the season turned from preparing for baptism to more penitential aspects. Even persons guilty of notorious sins spent the time performing public penances. Only at the end of the Lent were they publicly accepted back in through an elaborate ceremony. The penitents were presented to the bishop singly. And, then in a group, they protested themselves while seven penitential psalms were sung.
The last Sunday of the Lent is known as the Palm Sunday. This is when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem where he was greeted warmly by the crowd. In the words of St Matthew:
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And this is where the basis of the Palm Sunday procession lies.
The first reference to the Palm Sunday procession, is found in the travel journal of Etheria, the nun from the northwest Spain. She made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century. She referred the day to be the beginning of the Paschal Week.
In the Western Church, the procession is reportedly adopted first in Spain, possibly in the fifth century. And it had not been before the twelfth century when the procession was held in Rome. In the United States, the Messiah Lutheran church in Philadelphia revived an old Palm Sunday custom. There an ass is led down the center aisle accompanied by the pastor and two costumed members of the congregation. Meanwhile the entire church body sings, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”
In Episcopal churches, parishioners are given palm leaves at the end of the service. Presently the day is meant for a nice get together of all churches: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran.
The Holy Monday & Tuesday:
Monday of the Holy Week is not a major feast. The cleansing of the temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem is thought to have taken place on this Monday. This was when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, saying to them: ” It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; But you make it a den of robbers”. [Matthew: 21:13]
The Tuesday of the Holy Week is the day when the famous incident between Jesus and the Pharisees is thought to have taken place. This was when the churchmen tried to trap Jesus into making a blasphemous, or, anti-god remark.
This day is important also on another count. Jesus discoursed to his disciples on the Mount of Olives about the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs of the last day.
On the Wednesday, the tempo of the Holy Week increases. This is the day widely known as “Spy Wednesday.” For it is the day when Judas Iscariot, a disciple, turned betrayer and agreed to show the chief priests where they could easily capture Jesus.
The Thursday of the Holy Week is associated with the Last Supper. The day is known as Maundy Thursday, or, Holy Thursday. It is the day before crucifixion. On this day, Jesus had his supper, his last course, with his disciples. In the words of St Matthew:
“…Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying,” Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Friday of the week is the Good Friday. This is the day on which Jesus was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, at the top of the Calvary hill. And the Christian belief says that Jesus sacrificed himself for the man’s sins, to be crucified.
This day is marked by solemn observations in memory of Jesus’ crucifixion.For, Christians believe that by dying Jesus accomplished a reconciliation between God and man. And accordingly, the crucified image of Jesus or, the Cross itself, came to be regarded as the main symbol of faith for the Christians.
Roman Catholics observe the day usually through fast and abstinence to commemorate the pains and sufferings Jesus underwent on the cross. It is since the 4th century that Good Friday came to be observed as a separate occasion. Before this, an annual celebration was held as Christian Passover, or, Pascha, to mark both Christ’s death on the Cross and the Resurrection.
The day following Good Friday is the Holy Saturday. This is usually called Easter Eve in Anglican churches, and is held as a traditional time for baptism services.
Presently, this day is primarily a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, as well as Anglican observance. Roman Catholic churches observe this with the blessing and lighting of a tall Paschal candle. The candle is placed on the altar on the Holy Saturday. While blessing, five grains of incense are fixed in it, representing the five wounds of Jesus and the burial spices with which his body was anointed. The candle is lit and remains on the Gospel side of the altar until Ascension Day. This day comes at the end of forty days, which marks the period through which Christ showed up himself of and on following the crucifixion. On Ascension Day Christ is believed to have ascended to the heaven.
Easter Sunday is the day of the feast. This day, the third since crucifixion, the Christ is believed to have shown up himself. And not just that, Jesus also joined his disciples for a meal! Easter comes at the end of the six days of the Holy Week which came to be associated with the life of Jesus before the Resurrection. This is when Christ is believed to show himself up after his death through crucifixion. He had risen up from his tomb which was guarded by the sentries. And he met his disciples to get them prepared to carry out his works in his absence.