What is Easter, really?
Easter is not just a holy day, it is a holy season where Christians engage in self-reflection, as do other religions. Coinciding with spring in the northern hemisphere, (where most of our Easter traditions came from), it follows a 90-day period called Lent, which since ancient times has been set aside as a season of penance and reflection, where believers are encouraged to make sacrifices and engage in acts of goodness. In this way, Christians are prepared to remember the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who was both God and man in one being. Lent culminates in Holy Week, which starts with Palm Sunday (remembering Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem), then continues with Maundy Thursday (remembering the Passover supper Jesus had with his disciples and his washing of their feet), and Good Friday (remembering when Christ was executed), and finally celebrating Easter, when Christ rose from the dead.
Lenten and Easter practices seem to be very ancient. In his “History of Lent” (2002), Fr. Saunders cited a letter to the Pope written in A.D. 203 commenting on the differences between how Easter was celebrated in the East and West: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.”
Many Christian customs were either borrowed from other religions or simply made up. The use of incense, visual depictions (crosses, crucifixes, icons, painting, sculptures), church architecture and many other things were used to help people connect to God. As someone pointed out, the use of “bells” and “smells” helped illiterate congregants throughout history connect with a God who isn’t tangible.
Like the rest of the church calendar, dates were set aside to remind Christ-followers of many of the important aspects of the New Testament, which chronicles the life of Jesus and the beginnings of the early church. Other “holy days,” which we have come to call “holidays,” include Advent and Christmas (leading up to and celebrating the birth of Christ), Epiphany (celebrating the incarnation of Christ and the visit by the Magi), and Pentecost (remembering the outpouring of God’s spirit on early believers shortly after Christ’s return to God the Father).
A basic tenant of Christianity is that God is made up of three distinct persons, designated Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. These three do not exist or operate in an authoritarian structure, but by relationship and communication.
Unlike Christmas, that has a fixed date, Easter is celebrated on different dates each year, according to a lunar-based calendar. Easter coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover, when Jews remember how God delivered them from the captivity and oppression of Egypt under Moses’ leadership. In fact, the word for Easter in several languages is the same as Passover: Paque in French, and Pasch or Pasqua in Spanish. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem just after Passover.
It was the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 that decided when to celebrate Easter. Since then, Easter is fixed on the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the first day of spring). The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the same formula but bases theirs on the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian.
Medieval Europeans developed the passion play, a dramatic rendition of biblical stories such as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the mid-1200s, one such play was performed at Muri Abbey in Switzerland, giving rise to the religious drama. Even today, the passion play at Oberammergau, Germany is performed for thousands every ten years; the next season will be in 2020.
Today, Easter is celebrated differently in various parts of the world. The English like to roll eggs, Greeks roast a lamb or goat on an open spitfire, and Filipinos take part in bloody crucifixion reenactments. A German man named Volker Kraft decorates his apple tree with 10,000 Easter eggs, something he’s been doing for more than 50 years. His decorated tree attracts thousands of visitors each year. (See cover photo.)
Colombians eat iguana, turtle and large rodents. Armenians eat eggs with herbs and rice pilaf with raisins. Russians make Passover bread and decorate wooden eggs. Americans eat ham and color chicken eggs; they also send cards, purchase a lot of chocolate, hide candy eggs for children, and go to church (more than any other day). Like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, Easter has become big business for the retail industry. Leave it to Madison Avenue and Chinese industry to make any holiday profitable!
The origin of bunny rabbits and eggs as Easter icons is uncertain. Certainly, Easter is also about celebrating spring, when the earth emerges from the cold and dark prison of winter and life is once again restored. Some use the egg analogy (cracking it to find what’s edible) to describe Jesus escaping the tomb. Pagan, or social constructed traditions have been mixed with the Christian holiday. But in a very real sense, someone at various points in history made up all these traditions. It is human to create rituals in order to understand and experience greater realities.
During Holy Week, the Pope leads several events throughout the Week at The Vatican. One year, Pope Francis—who promises to shake things up—took the Papal tradition of washing a dozen men’s feet and included two women! No Pope has ever washed women’s feet before, so the act sent shock waves around the world. I think I like this guy! “Washing your feet,” Pope Francis said, to Muslim and Christian juveniles at a detention center, “means I am at your service.” Then he added, “Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us.”
Religious leaders are debating how appropriate the foot washing gesture was. For sure Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious power brokers in Jesus’ day) would have said the same of Jesus’ same act. I think it is profound to think that Jesus, the smartest and most powerful human who ever lived, washed his follower’s nasty, filthy, stinky, calloused feet. He didn’t use his power to dominate, but rather to serve and empower others.
How will you celebrate Easter? Will you commemorate it by worshipping with like-minded people of faith? Spend the day in contemplation? Watch a biblical film? Read the story of Christ’s sacrifice? Spend the day with the friends and relatives God has gifted you with?
Although HOW we celebrate is socially constructed, the Truth behind the holiday itself is as real as it gets. God came down, lived with humankind, and sacrificed His life. The story is one of hope, regeneration, forgiveness, selflessness, redemption and immeasurable love.
Whatever you do, create a holy day that is significant for you and those around you. God made you a creative being, with the freedom to create traditions that mean something to you. Through it, ask God to move you, change you, and as Pope Francis challenged all people, use the season to step outside yourself. He said this Holy Week, “is not so much a time of sorrow, but rather a time to enter into Christ’s way of thinking and acting.”
“A Morass of Movable Feasts: A quick guide to the dates of Passover and Easter.” (2007). Retrieved March 29, 2013, from Pearson Education: infoplease: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/movablefeasts1.htm
Aveni, Anthony (2004). “The Easter/Passover Season: Connecting Time’s Broken Circle, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. Oxford University Press. pp. 64–78.
Brettney. (March 26, 2013). “Man Creates World’s Biggest Easter Egg Tree.” Retrieved March 29, 2013 from Scoopla: http://www.2dayfm.com.au/scoopla/funandgames/blog/man-creates-worlds-biggest-easter-egg-tree/
Hirsch, E.D., Kett, J.F. & Trefil, J. (1988). The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. p. 90.
Squires, N. (April 21, 2011). “How Easter is celebrated around the world.” Retrieved March 29, 2013 from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8467148/How-Easter-is-celebrated-around-the-world.html
“Obbermauegau Passion Play.” Retrieved March 29, 2013, from: http://www.bavaria.by/bavaria-oberammergau-passion-play
Pope: “Holy week challenges us to step outside ourselves.” (March 27, 2013). Retrieved March 30, 3013 from The Vatican Today (radio): http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-holy-week-challenges-us-to-step-outside-ourse
Saunders, W. (2002). “History of Lent.” Retrieved March 29, 2013, from the Catholic Education Resource Center: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0527.html