Summary: a Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ
2018 Date: 1st April (Western Christianity), 8th April (Eastern Christianity)
Celebrated by: Christians, Western culture
Linked Holidays: Holy Week (Christianity), Passover (Judaism)
Background and Theological Significance
Easter refers to the Sunday on which the Resurrection of Christ is celebrated by Christians. It marks the end of Holy Week; which is the time in the Christian calendar where the Passion of Christ is remembered. Passion here is best understood as suffering; and refers to Jesus’ betrayal, imprisonment, torture, crucifixion, and death. In contrast to Good Friday, which marks Jesus’ death, Easter Sunday is a time to celebrate as it represents Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise that humanity will be judged righteously and fairly when they each meet their own death.
Connection to Passover
In the New Testament narrative, Christ’s death and resurrection coincide with the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach. In the story of the Passover and Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, God brought the Jews out of slavery in Egypt after they marked their houses with the blood of a sacrificial Pascal Lamb, so that he knew to ‘Passover’ their homes. Here we see the same thing happening as God delivers humanity from the slavery of death after they mark themselves as part of the community initiated by Jesus the Paschal Lamb. A less symbolic connection is that the Last Supper, which Jesus ate with his disciples before being arrested, was debatably a Passover Seder; and the dates always come together with Passover being celebrated at the full moon and Easter being celebrated the first Sunday after the full moon.
The other key significance of the Holiday is its combination with Springtime celebrations, although this does not apply to the Southern Hemisphere. The general theme of rebirth, renewal, and new life is at the heart of all these celebrations.
The English word ‘Easter’ is of Anglo-Saxon origin, probably stemming from ‘Ēostre’, the name of a Germanic goddess whose festival was held in the spring. However, outside of the English-speaking world, the Feast is usually known through a derivation of the Greek word ‘Pascha’, stemming from the Hebrew ‘Pesach’.
The Christian celebration of Easter goes back to the time of the early Church. It seems to have been celebrated consistently since this time, although controversies have often arisen concerning the date; in 325CE the Council of Nicaea argued that it should be kept distinct from the Jewish calendar and the date should be universally accepted. Arguably neither of these things are true of the celebration. Easter is a moveable feast due to being based on the Jewish lunar calendar rather than a fixed date (a contemporary movement to fix the date in the Gregorian calendar has so far been unsuccessful). In the Western Church, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April. However, in the Eastern Church, due to their original use of the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 4th April and 8th May.
Falling as it does in Springtime, many communities especially in Europe already had celebrations connected to the coming of Spring. In Germanic Northern Europe celebrations for the goddess Ēostre gave the holiday its current name. The similarities between the Easter narrative and the Greek story of Persephone; where a divinity is taken to the underworld and returned to the surface, bringing the Springtime with them, is also not lost on many neo-pagan groups across Europe.
The modern celebrations have also blended with Consumerism to produce products like chocolate eggs and the Easter Bunny. Originally the practice of painting chicken eggs (a symbol of new life) is thought to have come from the Middle East and was adopted in Russia, followed by Europe and then North America. The Easter Bunny, the original judge of German children, who would decide on their reward on the holiday, is believed to be a continuation of the celebrations of the goddess Ēostre.
Easter Sunday is the climax of Lent and Holy Week; a spiritual journey alongside Jesus Christ that makes Easter the pinnacle of the liturgical year. After the bleakness of Lent, Easter services are often at their most ritualistic and awe-inspiring. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Easter Vigil is truly resplendent, with beautiful vestments worn by priests, a great number of fires and candles symbolically lit during the liturgy, magnificent chanting, and the ringing of bells to signify the resurrection of Christ from the dead. In Protestant churches, ritual is often more toned down but no less joyous, with many of the most popular Easter hymns having been written in the Reformed tradition. Christians will also celebrate the Feast by ending their Lenten fast and enjoying good food and fellowship. The period of time following Easter Sunday is often known as Eastertide and lasts for fifty days in the Western Church (until Pentecost) and forty days in the Eastern Church (until Ascension Day).
Painted chicken eggs, symbolising new life, have long been exchanged at Easter, although in recent years these have been eclipsed by the consumption of chocolate eggs. The more secular celebrations of Easter in historically-Christian Western countries tend to focus on eggs, chicks and rabbits as symbols of new life, as well as making time to visit family and friends. The evolution and merging of these celebrations, from Christian, pagan and secular backgrounds, demonstrate how religious traditions very often influence and inform one another. The celebration of Easter brings together many different strands of religious practice and shows much they reflect the faith journey of humanity.