Easter Sunday is the day when Christians all over the world join to remember and celebrate the return to life of the one we call Jesus, the Christ. In more traditional and/or conservative congregations, Easter is referred to as Resurrection Sunday because, like Christmas, Easter is becoming more and more a secular celebration.
When Is Easter…. This Year?
The date for Easter changes because of the way calendars worked in first century Jerusalem. The gospels record that Jesus of Nazareth was executed for treason against Rome during the time of the Jewish Passover. On the Hebrew calendar, this would be on or about the 15th of Nissan. However, the Romans – Jerusalem was part of the Roman Empire at the time – used the Gregorian calendar, and so do we. Jewfaq.org explains that the Hebrew calendar relies on lunar cycles to set the first day of the month. The Gregorian calendar sets a fixed length of 30 days (give or take 24 hours) for each month. Consequently, the same date each year on the Hebrew calendar will be different dates each year on the Gregorian calendar.
Since the first Christ-followers were Jewish, they simply added the date of his resurrection to their calendar of holy days. This worked very well for a hundred years or so – at least until Christianity began to spread to non-Jewish cultures. By the year 325 CE, the majority of the Christ-followers had little or no ties to the faith’s Jewish origin. There were so many different ways of computing the date of Easter, and so much controversy around the subject, that the Emperor Constantine and major Christian leaders of the time dealt with the issue during the Council of Nicaea.
Papalencyclicals.net has a copy of a letter from the Synod at Nicaea to the ancient church in Alexandria, Egypt – urging (but not requiring) them to celebrate the Pesach (now called Easter) on the same day as the rest of the Christian world. To calculate that date, start with the vernal equinox (the first day of spring,) count forward to the first new moon. After that, look for the first full moon that also falls on a Sunday. That will be the date of Easter.
What Does Easter Celebrate?
According to the gospel account, death was confirmed and Jesus was removed from his cross with a very particular timing. The people who handled the corpse needed to restore their ceremonial cleanliness before the Sabbath arrived. So, sometime before sunset on Friday, Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb. Two Roman guards were placed on duty, as the Romans expected someone to come and try to steal the body.
What happened next is not recorded in The Bible, and each of the gospels presents a different group of followers who claim to have seen him first. Earlychristianwritings.com has a copy of the apocryphal Gospel of Peter that records two angels coming from heaven and escorting the now living Jesus from the tomb, with a cross following behind them. The stories differ, but the sources all agree – he who was formerly dead is now living. Not a ghost. Not the un-dead. Living. We remember Jesus’ resurrection, and celebrate the promise of new life the story contains.
Do People Really Believe That?
Both the Nicene and Apsotle’s Creeds assert that, “…on the third day he (Jesus) arose from the dead…” Traditionally, the definition of “Christian” has been one who publicly states the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was both the offspring of the Jewish deity, AND returned from death to the living state. However, there was enough argument around the issue as early as 300 CE, that there had to be a world-wide council called. That really has not changed. There are groups of Christians who insist on a literal, historical-factual interpretation of these ideas. There are others who interpret them in a more spiritual or even metaphorical manner.
All agree, however – that through whichever version of resurrection – Christ brings new life. For some, it may be new life for one whom death took too soon. For others, it may be their own new life free from the demons of addiction. For most, it is a new life promising that whatever it is that brings us down today is temporary. The promise of new life brings hope. With hope comes added strength to endure the myriad problems of this life.
What About the Bunnies and Eggs?
Ahh- the Easter Bunny. Bringing colorful boiled eggs, candy and goodies to all the good boys and girls. Much like a spring-time Santa Claus. This would be the part where Easter is a secular (meaning: outside the church, in the community) holiday. The church exists in the world, and can never be wholly separate from it. Since the world comes to church in the form of members, some melding of ideas can be expected.
Easter is a time when people enjoy the company of family and friends. Where I live, we have four distinct seasons. Easter comes when spring is in full bloom, and Nature is displaying her most vibrant colors. Easter serves as a reminder that spring (life) follows winter (death) in the cycle of our years.
Depending on which site you pull up, Easter derives its name either from Eoster (goddess of dawn) or Eostre (goddess of spring and fertility.) The rabbits and eggs were her symbols. I would disagree that the incorporation of pagan (meaning: outside the church, in a nature-based religion) symbols means the holiday has completely pagan roots. I think that as the symbols and teachings of a resurrected Jewish rabbi came to people more accustomed to the Rites of Spring, the two sets of symbols merged and grew into a new meaning.
How Can I Celebrate Easter?
Go to a Sunrise Service: Because the tomb was discovered empty at sunrise on Sunday, most communities have a Sunrise Service. These services are often held outdoors, weather permitting, and well-advertised in local newspapers, or other announcement outlets.
Go to Church: The Story of Easter is the foundational story of Christianity. Most churches plan special music. Some may even have dancing or play – though churches are not well-known for advertising these things. You may need to do some calling around to find something that will interest you.
Plant a Tree: When I was young, my church planted a dogwood every year at Easter. Many traditions insist that Jesus’ cross was made of dogwood. Flowering trees are obvious heralds of spring’s arrival.
Have a Picnic: spend some time with friends and family just enjoying the great outdoors.
Whatever it is you choose to do to celebrate the advent of new life, hope and resurrection – make it something fun that has meaning for you.