As we are celebrating Passion Week this month with Easter Sunday falling on April 1, I am providing this info a little early. All Christians must realize that as important and joyous Christmas is, the Sacrifice and Resurrection of our Lord is the most important because it defines who we are as Christians. Easter is the essence or cornerstone of our belief and faith.
The Easter Season ~ Resurrection of the Lord
Easter or Resurrection Sunday is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the dead. Even before theologians explained the death of Jesus in terms of various atonement theories, the early church saw his resurrection as the central witness to a new act of God in history and the victory of God in vindicating Jesus as the Messiah. This event marks the central faith confession of the early church and was the focal point for Christian worship, observed on the first day of each week since the first century (Acts 20:7; Sunday was officially proclaimed the day of Christian worship in AD 321). Easter as an annual celebration of the Resurrection that lies at the center of a liturgical year has been observed since at least the fourth century. Even in churches that traditionally do not observe the other historic seasons of the church year, Easter has occupied a central place as the high point of Christian worship.
Origin and Significance of Easter Observance
Prior to the fourth century, Christians observed Pascha, Christian Passover, in the spring of the year. Adapted from Jewish Passover, Pascha was a festival of redemption and commemorated both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the vehicle for God’s grace. While historical records are not clear, it is likely that early Jewish Christians observed both Passover (Pesach) and Pascha. However, many Gentile converts were hesitant to adopt the Jewish festival, especially since the Jerusalem Council had decided that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to observe Jewish religious practices (Acts 15). Gradually, by the fourth century, with an increasing emphasis on Holy Week and Good Friday, Easter moved into a distinctively Christian celebration of the Resurrection, with Good Friday commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
Easter, like Passover, is a “movable feast”. That is, the date of Easter (and Passover) is not fixed but is determined by a system based on a lunar calendar adapted from a formula decided by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. In this system, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (the day when the sun’s ecliptic or apparent path in the sky crosses the equator, thus making days and nights of equal length). This usually occurs on March 21, which means the date of Easter can range between March 22 and April 25 depending on the lunar cycle. Since Jewish Passover is calculated differently, the dates for Passover and Easter do not correspond, although often the first Day of Passover falls during Holy Week. Much of the calendar of the Church year is determined by the date of Easter (see The Hebrew Calendar of the Old Testament).
In the Christian church year, the two major cycles of seasons, Christmas and Easter, are far more than a single day of observance. Like Christmas, Easter itself is a period of time rather than just a day. It is actually a seven-week season of the church year called “Eastertide”, the “Great Fifty Days” that begins at sundown the evening before Easter Sunday (the Easter Vigil) and lasts for six more Sundays until Pentecost Sunday (some traditions use the term Pentecost to include these Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost Sunday). These seven Sundays are called the Sundays of Easter, climaxing on the seventh Sunday, the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday. This is often celebrated as Ascension Day (actually the 40th day after Easter Sunday, which always falls on Thursday, but in churches that do not have daily services it is usually observed the following Sunday). Ascension Day marks not only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but his exaltation from servanthood to Ruler and Lord as the fitting climax of Resurrection Day (Ephesians 1:20-22).
These special days and seasons are a means to shape sacred time, a structure in which to define what it means to be Christian and to call God’s people to reverent and faithful response to God. Easter encompasses a time of preparation (Lent; Advent for Christmas) as well as a following period of reflection on its significance for the life of God’s people (Pentecost; Epiphany for Christmas). However, while Epiphany following Christmas focuses on the mission of God’s people to the world, the Pentecost season following Easter focuses on the church as the witness to the resurrection. In anticipation of this emphasis at Pentecost, the Scripture readings during the Sundays of Easter are different, with readings from the Acts of the Apostles replacing readings from the Old Testament. This emphasizes that the church, as empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is the best witness to the resurrection and the work of God in the world in Jesus the Christ.
Symbols of Easter
The origin of the English name “Easter” is not certain, but many believe that it derived from the Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre or Eastre. This fact, and other aspects surrounding Easter observance such as eggs and bunnies, has generated considerable debate concerning the origin of some traditions used in Easter observance, mostly since the Reformation and especially among evangelicals and low church traditions. Some argue that Easter is little more than an adaptation of a pagan fertility festival and has little to do with Christian tradition.
There is little question that many symbols of Easter have been adopted from various cultures. But this is true for almost all Christian symbols, including the cross (the sign of the fish is the most unique and original Christian symbol). But this has always been the case since the days of Abraham and Moses. That is, God’s people have always used symbols with which they were familiar from the surrounding culture, and then infused them with new meaning to commemorate and worship God. In the process the symbols are radically transformed into a means to express faith in the only true God in spite of their “pagan” origins. Such sacred Old Testament institutions as animal sacrifice, circumcision, temple worship, the priesthood, and prophets, even names for God like El, were all adapted from preexisting counterparts in Canaanite religious practice. Even the rituals of Passover itself were adapted from two preexisting Canaanite festivals associated with fertility, one celebrating the spring birthing of livestock (the day of Passover) and the other celebrating the early barley harvest (the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread that begins on Passover). This simply suggests that the origin of the name Easter or other aspects of the Easter celebration are probably not as important as how those symbols have been transformed by a worshipping community or what is actually celebrated by the symbols and event. That does not mean that all elements should automatically be accepted uncritically or without question as to their Christian connection. And it certainly should encourage us to emphasize clearly, especially to children, what we are actually celebrating and the meaning of the symbols, and to do so deliberately and with purpose (Easter it is not a celebration of the coming of spring!). But neither should it allow us to adopt a negative or hypercritical attitude toward the event so that people who should be hearing our witness to the grace and power of God at work in the world bringing hope and the promise of renewal amid endings, only hear grumbling and carping.
Easter should be the most openly joyful time of celebration of the church year. Celebrated against the background of the shadows and darkness of Lent and Holy Week, this season truly becomes a living expression of the hope that God has brought into the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since this hope of renewal and new life, both present and future, is at the heart of the Good News that the church is commissioned to proclaim and live in the world, every possible avenue of proclaiming that Good News should be utilized. No doubt that is why many traditionally non-liturgical churches are increasingly recovering the value of the various traditions of the Easter Season as a means of bearing witness to their Faith. Seen as Proclamation, the various aspects of worship during this season can become vehicles for God’s grace and transforming work in the world, and among his people.
An Easter Prayer
(Adapted from The Book of Common Prayer)
O God, who for our redemption gave your only begotten Son to death on the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection has delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant that we who celebrate with joy the day of our Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit. Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection, empowered and transformed by your grace in and among us.
O Lord, so stir up in your church, indeed in each of us, that Spirit of adoption and reconciliation that is made possible by your grace revealed in Jesus the Christ, that we being renewed in both body and mind, may worship and serve you in sincerity and truth. We pray this in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Gayle and I sincerely hope and pray that Lent is meaningful for each of you and your families and, also, that Easter is enlightening and uplifting as to the magnitude of God’s love for us.
Standing on His Promises and, As Always, In His Grip …Shalom Aleichem (Peace Be Unto You) …
Until the Nets Are Full,
Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant,
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” – Matthew 28:19 (NIV).