Easter Sunday: A Sunday of Hope and Joy

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Easter Sunday: A Sunday of Hope and Joy

The Origin of Name:

Easter, Latin Pascha, Greek Pascha, the principal festival of the Christian church, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion on Friday. The earliest recorded observance of an Easter celebration comes from the 2nd century, though the commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection probably occurred much earlier.

This year Easter is celebrated on Sunday, April 4, 2021.

The English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin. There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term. The Latin and Greek Pascha (“Passover”) provides the root for Páscoa, the Portuguese word for Easter, from which the Konknni word Pask or Paskh is derived.

The date of Easter and its Controversies:

Fixing the date on which the Resurrection of Jesus was to be observed and celebrated triggered a major controversy among the early Christians in which an Eastern and a Western position can be distinguished. The dispute, known as the Paschal controversies, was not definitively resolved until the 8th century. In Asia Minor, Christians observed the day of the Crucifixion on the same day that Jews celebrated the Passover offering—that is, on the 14th day of the first full moon of spring, 14th Nisan. The Resurrection, then, was observed two days later, on 16th Nisan, regardless of the day of the week. In the West the Resurrection of Jesus was celebrated on the first day of the week, Sunday, when Jesus had risen from the dead. Consequently, Easter was always celebrated on the first Sunday after the 14th day of the month of Nisan. Increasingly, the churches opted for the Sunday celebration, and the Quartodeciman (“14th-day” proponents) remained a minority. The council of Nicaea in 325 decreed that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21). Easter, therefore, can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.

Eastern Churches use a slightly different calculation based on the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar (which is 13 days ahead of the former), with the result that the Orthodox Easter celebration for them usually occurs later than that celebrated by Protestants and Catholics.

In the 20th century, several attempts were made to arrive at a fixed date for Easter, with the Sunday following the second Saturday in April specifically proposed. While this proposal and others had many supporters, none came to fruition. Renewed interest in a fixed date arose in the early 21st century, resulting from discussions involving the leaders of Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Churches, but formal agreement on such a date remained elusive.

Theological Aspect:

The resurrection of Jesus, which Easter celebrates, is one of the chief tenets of the Christian faith. The resurrection established Jesus as the Son of God and is cited as proof that God will righteously judge the world. For those who trust in Jesus’s death and resurrection, “death is swallowed up in victory.” Any person who chooses to follow Jesus receives “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Through faith in the working of God, those who follow Jesus are spiritually resurrected with him so that they may walk in a new way of life and receive eternal salvation, being physically resurrected to dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Easter is linked to Passover and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt recorded in the Old Testament through the Last Supper, sufferings, and crucifixion of Jesus that preceded the resurrection. According to the three synoptic gospels, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the bread and cup of wine as his body, soon to be sacrificed, and his blood, soon to be shed. Paul states, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed”; this refers to the Passover requirement to have no yeast in the house and to the allegory of Jesus as the Paschal lamb.

Easter Observances:

In the Christian calendar, Easter follows Lent, the period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter, which traditionally is observed by acts of penance and fasting. Easter is immediately preceded by Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples; Good Friday, the day of his crucifixion; and Holy Saturday, the transition between Crucifixion and Resurrection. Liturgically, Easter comes after the Great Vigil, which was originally observed sometime between sunset on Easter Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. Later it would be celebrated in Western churches on Saturday evening, then on Saturday afternoon, and finally on Sunday morning. In 1955 the Roman Catholic Church set the time for the vigil at 10 PM, which allowed for the Easter mass to be celebrated after midnight. In the Orthodox traditions, the vigil continues to be an important liturgical event, while in Protestant churches it is little known.

In the 4th century, the Easter vigil was well established in various liturgical expressions. It was characterized by a spirit of joyful anticipation of the Resurrection and—because of the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming would occur on Easter—the return of Jesus. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Easter vigil has four parts: 1. the celebration of lights focused on the Paschal candle; 2. the service of the liturgy of the word which consists of readings from the Old Testament and New Testament; 3. the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to adult converts; 4. and the Easter Mass.

The use of the Paschal candle, to denote the appearance of light out of darkness through the Resurrection, was first recorded in the year 384; by the 10th century, it had gained general usage. The prominence of baptism at Easter goes back to early Christianity, probably the 4th century, when baptism was administered only once a year, at Easter. In the Roman Catholic service, the priest blesses the water to be used in the forthcoming year for baptism, with the faithful taking some of that holy water with them to receive protection from vicissitudes. Lutheran and Anglican churches use variations of this vigil service.

All Christian traditions have their own special liturgical emphases for Easter. The Easter sunrise service, for example, is a distinctive Protestant observance in North America. The practice may derive from the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection, which states that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “while it was still dark” (John 20:1) or as dawn was breaking (Matthew 28:1 and Luke 24:1). It is a service of jubilation that takes place as the sun rises to dispel the darkness.

Easter Traditions:

Easter, like Christmas, has accumulated a great many traditions, some of which have little to do with the Christian celebration of the Resurrection but derive from folk customs. The custom of the Easter lamb appropriates both the appellation used for Jesus in Scripture (“behold the lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world,” John 1:29) and the lamb’s role as a sacrificial animal in ancient Israel. In antiquity, Christians placed lamb meat under the altar, had it blessed, and then ate it on Easter. Since the 12th century, the Lenten fast has ended on Easter with meals including eggs, ham, cheeses, bread, and sweets that have been blessed for the occasion.

The use of painted and decorated Easter eggs was first recorded in the 13th century. The church prohibited the eating of eggs during Holy Week, but chickens continued to lay eggs during that week, and the notion of especially identifying those as “Holy Week” eggs brought about their decoration. The egg itself became a symbol of the Resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the tomb, the egg symbolizes new life emerging from the eggshell. In the Orthodox tradition, eggs are painted red to symbolize the blood Jesus shed on the cross.

The custom of associating a rabbit or bunny with Easter arose in Protestant areas in Europe in the 17th century but did not become common until the 19th century. The Easter rabbit is said to lay the eggs as well as decorate and hide them. In the United States, the Easter rabbit also leaves children baskets with toys and candies on Easter morning. In a way, this was a manifestation of the Protestant rejection of Catholic Easter customs. In some European countries, however, other animals—in Switzerland the cuckoo, in Westphalia the fox—brought the Easter eggs.

The keywords of Easter are Hallelujah (Praise the Lord) and Shalom (Peace). Both are Hebrew words. May Hallelujah and Shalom fill our beings and the entire universe during the Easter Season.


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