Easter: Timing, Meaning, Events and Special Days Linked to It

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Easter is held on the First Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. It celebrates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion, signifying his triumph over death and the promise of eternal life. For both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year. It grew out the Jewish holiday of Passover and the pagan spring festivals.

According to the 7th century English historian Venerable Bede, Easter is named after Eostre, a pre-Christian goddess in England, worshiped by the Anglo-Saxons that may have been honored in festival that took place around the same time as Easter. According to some sources, Christian missionaries from Rome encountered the Saxon holiday while traveling in Germany. In an effort to win converts they incorporated element of Christianity into the festival and brought home elements of the Saxon holiday for their celebration of Christ' resurrection.

The religious studies scholar Bruce Forbes wrote: “Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.” Bede was so influential for later Christians that the name stuck, and hence Easter remains the name used by Britons, Germans and Americans. [Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “When death and resurrection mix with magical bunnies and chocolate eggs, you get Easter — perhaps the most misunderstood Christian holy day. Yet it is also the most essential; without this holiday, the Christian faith would be meaningless. In the popular mind, Easter was subsumed by Christmas long ago. People don’t spend weeks shopping for Easter gifts, hours writing Easter cards to friends and relatives, or days on end watching “An Easter Story” on TBS. [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, April 18, 2014. Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” |~|]

“Yet Easter is the key event in Christian history. This is not to denigrate the importance of what Christians call the “Incarnation,” the belief that God became human in Jesus, which we celebrate on Christmas. But the Resurrection changes everything: It’s a reminder not just that Jesus rose from the dead but that love is stronger than hatred, that hope is stronger than despair, and that life is stronger than death. More simply, it reminds us that nothing is impossible with God. Choose not to believe in the Resurrection, and Jesus is just another prophet. Believe in the Resurrection, and your whole life changes.” |~|

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Denominations: Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org BBC on Baptists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; BBC on Methodists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; ; Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org

Easter- Holy Week Season

According to the BBC: “Easter celebrates Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead, three days after he was crucified. Easter Sunday is the culmination of Holy Week. According to the BBC: “Easter is the most important Christian festival, and the one celebrated with the greatest joy. The date of Easter changes each year, and several other Christian festivals fix their dates by reference to Easter. Churches are filled with flowers, and there are special hymns and songs. But not all Easter customs are Christian; some, such as the Easter Bunny, are pagan in origin. [Source: July 5, 2011 BBC |::|]

Easter procession

“The Easter story is at the heart of Christianity On Good Friday, Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. His body was taken down from the cross, and buried in a cave. The tomb was guarded and an enormous stone was put over the entrance, so that no-one could steal the body. On the following Sunday, some women visited the grave and found that the stone had been moved, and that the tomb was empty. Jesus himself was seen that day, and for days afterwards by many people. His followers realised that God had raised Jesus from the dead. |::|

"Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter, beginning on Palm Sunday, including Maundy Thursday and ending on Holy Saturday. It is the most solemn week of the Christian year. Christians remember the last week of Jesus's life. Pilgrims in Jerusalem enact the Way of Suffering of Jesus at this time." [Source: October 7, 2011 BBC |::|]

Timing of Easter

Easter is celebrated on a Sunday between March 22 to April 25th. Fixed by the Nicea Council in A.D. 325, it is always on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens after the 21st of March. If the full moon falls on the March 21st it is celebrated on the following Sunday. Most movable feasts and at least a dozen other important Holidays that takes place before and after Easter — including Shrovetide, Lent, Holy Week, the Ascension, Whit Sunday, Holy Trinity — are all fixed according to the date set for Easter. Thus the accurate fixing of Easter has traditionally been of great importance.

Brent Landau wrote: dating of Easter goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries. Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all of these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together. Most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons. This is especially obvious in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about what time of year Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus’ birth came to be celebrated on December 25 is because that was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar. Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer and less dark, it was ideal symbolism for the birth of “the light of the world” as stated in the New Testament’s Gospel of John. [Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

Similar was the case with Easter, which falls in close proximity to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and darkness. For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter. Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.

Easter and Passover

One reason Easter takes place when it does is that the church wanted to pick a date that didn't interfere with Passover. Calculation were initially made using the Julian calendar. By the 12th century the normal ways of predicting the date had gone way wrong. Later dates were fixed with the Gregorian calendar.

Easter occurs in the Jewish Passover season. The Bible says that Jesus came to Jerusalem to take part in Passover celebrations, implying that it is likely the Last Supper took place during the Passover Seder (dinner). The Bible also says the crucifixion took place before the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, and the resurrection took place after it. Fixing a date for Easter was an efforts to pick a day which matched up with Passover — which falls in early spring and is set by the lunar calendar but can fall any day of the week — and make that jive with the Jewish Sabbath, which is always on Saturday.

Easter date graphs

Brent Landau wrote: It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pascha” in Greek) — a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover.

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover is a festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, as narrated in the Book of Exodus. It was and continues to be the most important Jewish seasonal festival, celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox.[Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

At the time of Jesus, Passover had special significance, as the Jewish people were again under the dominance of foreign powers (namely, the Romans). Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem every year in the hope that God’s chosen people (as they believed themselves to be) would soon be liberated once more. On one Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the festival. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession and created a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that both of these actions attracted the attention of the Romans, and that as a result Jesus was executed around the year A.D. 30.

Some of Jesus’ followers, however, believed that they saw him alive after his death, experiences that gave birth to the Christian religion. As Jesus died during the Passover festival and his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead three days later, it was logical to commemorate these events in close proximity. Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover, which fell around day 14 of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as Quartodecimans (the name means “Fourteeners”). By choosing this date, they put the focus on when Jesus died and also emphasized continuity with the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged. Some others instead preferred to hold the festival on a Sunday, since that was when Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been found.

History of Easter and Holy Week

In A.D. 325, Christian Roman Emperor Constantine convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. Among the decisions made there was determining that Easter should be fixed on a Sunday, not on day 14 of Nisan. As a result, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox.

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”;In 325 A.D., at the Council of Nicea, the date of Easter was fixed as the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Despite this decision, the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars resulted in a celebration of Easter on different days among Western and Eastern Christians. As the tradition developed, the period from Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to Easter Sunday was set aside as Holy Week. Thursday through Saturday of Holy Week became known as triduum, and the Saturday Easter Vigil was an extended service for biblical lessons and the lighting of candles. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

In early Christianity the Easter Vigil became the most appropriate time for baptizing new members, with a part of their preparation being a period of fasting that was gradually extended to 40 days, in imitation of Jesus' fast in the wilderness. Over time the fast was extended to include all Christians, with the church defining Lent as a period for self-denial and contrition for sins. Lent did not require a total fast, and in its modern Roman Catholic form it typically involves refraining from eating meat on Fridays from Ash Wednesday until Easter. In Orthodoxy there are differing dietary restrictions, forbidding milk and eggs as well as meat, and the total period of time was extended, since neither Saturdays nor Sundays were regarded as appropriate for fasting and Orthodoxy wished to keep the number of fast days at exactly 40. Orthodox Christians also fast during Advent and before certain major festivals. By the second century the Christian Easter celebration initiated a 50-day period of rejoicing, the season of Pentecost. By the fourth century a celebration of Jesus' ascension into heaven occurred on the 40th day following Easter, and the sending of the Holy Spirit 10 days later, on the day of Pentecost, or Whitsunday.


Easter Bunnies and Easter Eggs

Why are eggs and bunnies linked with Easter? Some say it is because eggs and bunnies are associated with rebirth and resurrection. According to legend, Simon of Cyrne, who helped Christ carry the cross, was an egg merchant. Many historians also link rabbits and eggs to pagan symbols of new life. Lilies are also associated with Easter. They too are linked with the resurrection.

There is nothing in the scriptures about Easter eggs nor a bunny that delivers them. Brent Landau wrote: The fortunes of Easter and Christmas changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy. [Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

But Easter and Christmas also became reshaped as domestic holidays because understandings of children were changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. The historian Stephen Nissenbaum noted: “children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices — who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.” From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as as time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated. It is at this point in the holiday’s development that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become especially important.

After Easter in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “XL Again, on the Octave of Easter, that is, on the Lord's Day, all the people go up to Eleona with the bishop immediately after the sixth hour. First they sit for awhile in the church which is there, and hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said; prayers suitable to the day and to the place are likewise made. Then they go up to the Imbomon with hymns, and the same things are done there as in the former place. And when the time comes, all the people and all the apotactitae escort the bishop with hymns down to the Anastasis, arriving there at the usual hour for lucernare. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

“2. So lucernare takes place at the Anastasis and at the Cross, and all the people to a man escort the bishop thence with hymns to Sion. And when they have arrived, hymns suitable to the day and to the place are said there also, and lastly that passage from the Gospel is read where, on the Octave of Easter, the Lord came in where the disciples were, and reproved Thomas because he had been unbelieving. The whole of that lesson is read, with prayer afterwards; both the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, and every one returns to his house as usual, just as on the Lord's Day of Easter, at the second hour of the night.

“XLI Now, from Easter to the fiftieth day, that is, to Pentecost, no one fasts here, not even those who are apotactitae. During these days, as throughout the whole year, the customary things are done at the Anastasis from the first cockcrow until morning, and at the sixth hour and at lucernare likewise. But on the Lord's Days the procession is always to the martyrium, that is, to the great church, according to custom, and they go thence with hymns to the Anastasis. On the fourth and sixth weekdays, as no one fasts during those days, the procession is to Sion, but in the morning; the dismissal is made in its due order. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

Ascension, Pentecost and Christian Holidays That Start 40 Days after Easter

Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, honors the day Christ rose to heaven. Pentecost, or Whitsunday, 50 days after Easter, honors the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Church with the Apostles. Marking the end of Easter period and regarded as the day of the inception of the church, Pentecost is a Christian adaption of a Jewish holiday that commemorates the day in which the Law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Trinity Sunday is the Sunday after Whitsunday. It honors the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost). It comes very late on the liturgical calendar because the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is regarded as the beginning and the end of the entire Christian life. Whitmonday is the day after Whitsunday.

Corpus Christi Day is two Thursdays after Whitsunday and the Thursday following Trinity Sunday. Celebrating the Eucharist, it is a popular festival marked by the worshipping and procession of the Holy Sacraments. Several towns around he world are famous for their spectacular processions. The procession route is sometimes strewn with foliage or decorated with designs made from dyed sawdust.

The Corpus Christi Day feast dates back to early medieval times when a nun in Liége, Belgium had a strange vision of a moon with a dark object in front it every time she prayed. She didn't understand what the vision meant until Christ came to her and told the dark object represented the lack of a celebration dedicated the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Official recognition of the holiday by the Catholic church was given in 1246. Later it was decreed that the body of Christ should be part of a solemn procession which takes place on the Thursday following the eighth day of Whitsunday

Sacred Heart is a festival celebrated on the second Friday after Trinity Sunday. It is centered around the idea that Christ’s humanity lives as suggested by the episode during which his heart was pieced after his death on the cross and blood and water flowed from the wound, symbolizing the sacraments, which spring forever from Jesus’s open heart.

Transfiguration, August 6, is when Christ's disciples saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, and his face "did shine as the sun, and his raiment was as white as the light." The Assumption, on August 15, marks the day when the Virgin Mary was bodily taken into heaven, where she rejoins her son. As opposed to Christ who ascended to sky on his own, Mary was taken up by angels. Assumption is from the Latin word “assumere”, “to lift up, to raise.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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