Easter, what does it mean?
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6b, RSV).
Every gospel provides an account of the resurrection, which makes perfect sense, because the bodily resurrection of Jesus is and has been the cornerstone of the Christian faith.
St. Paul makes this clear when he reminds us that our faith is in vain without Christ’s resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14). Easter (also called “Pascha” or some variant by most non-English speaking Christians) celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and it is the greatest and oldest feast of the church.
Even the term “Pascha” is borrowed from the Jewish word for “Passover,” and Easter is calculated based on the lunar calendar (all other feasts are on the solar calendar). These facts show the ancient, probably Apostolic, origins of Easter. We even possess a baptismal liturgy of Easter dating to the mid-third century.
Traditionally, the Pascha celebration began with a lengthy vigil, the “mother of all vigils” according to St. Augustine. The whole history of salvation is retold during the vigil, through scripture and liturgy. At the Easter Vigil (in the West) three traditions developed: The baptism of new converts, lighting of the paschal candle and the blessing of the new fire (taken from the Jewish blessing of the lamp on the eve of the Sabbath).
The new fire is often processed into the church to light the Paschal candle. Eucharist is then celebrated in the morning hours, being also the first Eucharist of new converts.
In general, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Vigil services consist of variants of this ancient model. The West also celebrates the octave of Easter. These eight days are all solemnities in the Western liturgical calendar. Actually, these days even take precedence over other solemnities that can fall within the Octave of Easter, including the Annunciation.
Easter follows Holy Week, and is the third and final day of the Paschal Triduum, the three-day period that began on the evening of Holy Thursday. The evening prayer of Easter Day officially ends the Triduum. The Triduum contains the heart of the Christian faith: Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Easter is not just a day, but an entire 50-day season, called Eastertide, marked by joyful festivities and liturgical fullness.
You might hear “Christ is Risen!” and “Alleluia!” frequently during the Easter season, because we are joyfully celebrating Christ’s bodily resurrection. The Feast of the Ascension falls within Easter season. The 50-day season of Easter runs up to, and includes, the Feast of Pentecost.
Of note, Western and Orthodox celebrations of Easter (Pascha) vary in certain ways.
Usually Orthodox and Western Christians celebrate Easter on two different Sundays. The reason is that Orthodox churches still base their calculation of Easter’s day on the Julian calendar, whereas Western churches follow the Gregorian calendar.
In order to keep the date of Easter on a Sunday, the date changes yearly based on the Paschal full moon. The possible date range for Western Easter day is March 21 to April 25.
So what is the rule for finding the date of Easter?
Put simply, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is the beginning of astronomical spring. However, ecclesiastical rules are slightly more complicated than this formula.
As mentioned above, in the ancient church the feast of Christ’s resurrection was the pinnacle of the Christian year.
Following a three-year process of training and education, converts were baptized and received their first communion at Easter.
Saturday night (Holy Saturday) began with candlelight, and anticipated the return of Jesus Christ. As dawn came, Christians joyfully celebrated Christ’s resurrection and victory over evil.
Easter was not entirely without controversy in the early church. Different church regions were celebrating Easter at different times, and all claimed Apostolic authority. This controversy is called the Quartodeciman (Latin for “fourteenism”) controversy.
In Asia Minor, many churches, including the church at Smyrna under the pastoral care of St. Polycarp, were celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan, following Jewish Passover customs.
However, church historian Eusebius tells us that the church in Rome and most other Catholic dioceses always celebrated Easter on a Sunday. Both customs may have derived from Apostolic authority, but by the time of Origen (230 AD), the numbers of Quartodecimans were few.
Also, differences arose between the churches of Antioch and Alexandria as to the computation of the Paschal Moon. The Council of Nicaea settled the date of Easter (for the time being), in favor of the Alexandrians, putting Easter on the Sunday after the vernal equinox.
However, as discussed above, Eastern Orthodox and Western/Eastern Catholic Easter falls on different dates because of differing calendars.
The English word for the feast of the resurrection, Easter, differs from the feast’s name in other regions. In other regions the term is “Pascha,” which is derived from the word for “Passover.”
The word “Easter” might come from an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess. This is probably because the festival of Easter overlapped some pagan holiday in ancient England. While some have used this fact to say celebrating Easter is pagan, the fact is that only the name comes from a pagan source, probably stemming from popular usage.
Today, Easter is celebrated in a variety of ways.
Usually (in liturgical Churches) Easter follows a week of busy Holy Week services (Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, etc.). Often the first service of Easter is the Great Vigil. Many times the service is shortened from the earlier all-night celebrations.
Some modern ones go from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., with Eucharist occurring at 12 a.m. or so. Unfortunately, in many churches the festival of the resurrection is simply another day of the year, while to the early Christians, it was the most important day.