What Is Easter?
Easter is the most important holy day of the Christian faith. The English-language name for the day (not the religious celebration itself) comes from pagan celebrations of the spring equinox (when day and night balance out). The sun rising in the east was its symbol, hence their pagan god-name : Old English eostor. The Christian holiday itself is quite different. Its roots are tied to the Jewish Passover, which was the season in which Jesus was executed. Passover (Heb. pesach) is when Jews remember how God liberated them from Egypt. For Christians, the more proper name is Resurrection Sunday, and it marks the discovery of the empty tomb and the return of Jesus from death. It is the liberation of all humans from the consequences of our stubborn refusal and inability to follow God.
What Christians Do on Easter
The Easter Service is not some sort of a stand-alone thing. It is part of a series of events, the devotions of Holy Week, that the early Church treated as one worship service. It starts at the Thursday of the Command (also 'Holy Thursday' or 'Maundy Thursday'), which marks Jesus' mandates to serve, to take Holy Communion, and to love as He loved. On that day Jesus was betrayed and arrested. At the end of the Thursday service, the altar (sometimes the whole sanctuary, the halls and entryways) is stripped bare and treated as if preparing for a funeral, and lights are made low or candles made fewer. That's because it is for a funeral -- Good Friday is the day of Jesus' execution, the first day of Jesus' death. Today, Good Friday services are usually in the early evening, but tradition puts it at late-afternoon, when the gospels say Christ died. The Catholic tradition has a lengthy Easter Vigil of believers awaiting Christ's return by acts of worship, for Saturday or the early morning hours of Sunday. The empty tomb was discovered at sunrise on Sunday morning, so Christians often start celebrating the resurrection with worship at sunrise, with more worship services throughout the morning. Traditionally, the church uses the Easter services to baptize new adult believers, after using the Lent period for teaching them about the faith.
The Season Isn't Just Easter Sunday
The Easter season isn't just Easter Sunday. It's 50 days long, and the last of those days is Pentecost, marking the birth of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit with power. In that time there are some special times to mark. In most years, the commemoration of certain saints falls in the Easter season : Catherine of Siena (April 29), Monica (Augustine's mom, May 4), Gregory of Nazianzos (May 9), and the gospel author, St. Mark (April 25). In some places, Easter Monday is celebrated with dinners and parties and mirth. (Indeed, the whole Easter season is supposed to be one big feast and celebration because of the overflowing of resurrection joy. But over the years, the institutional church has been really good at putting a damper on such celebrations.) As the last weeks of the Easter season come, the attitude gets a bit more nervous. What's God going to do next? What am I to do next? Just before Pentecost, Christians mark Ascension Day, when Christ left us after His return, telling us to make disciples, and promising to return again to bring His Kingdom to full fruition. But there are still the nervous questions - you don't have what it takes, even to know what it means.
The last day of the Resurrection season is Day 50, or Pentecost (Greek for 'fiftieth'). In older English traditions, it's called 'Whitsunday' because the traditional color for church clothing and decor on Pentecost is white. On that day the Holy Spirit arrives to be with us, and that Spirit sends a fresh wave of joy. On that day, the question of 'what next?' is answered with power - go prophesy, tell the gospel, heal, teach, serve, love. The Holy Spirit will bring the results. And they went and did it. If they didn't, I wouldn't have anything to tell you about.
There are some ways to celebrate Easter that families can do, together:
- Easter plants, such as tulips and Easter lilies. They're plants that hide themselves underground during the winter, and pop out around Eastertide. It's a symbol of rebirth and resurrection.
- Hot cross buns. (Yes, I'm not supposed to eat them, but I usually sneak just one....). They have the cross marked on them, in icing.
- Teach the Easter story to your kids. No, not the one about the Great Big Bunny. Teach them the one about the Christ who lives. As with Lent, it's helpful to have them see it from the perspective of the others involved -- Mary, Peter, the tomb-sealers, angels, those walking the road to Emmaus, and so on. One thing which narrows our faith is how we see Jesus through hindsight, as His onlooking supporters who know exactly what's going on. That is not the place where we meet Christ. We meet Christ through the witnesses found in the Gospels -- some scornful, some scared, some puzzled, some at a loss for word, all of them sinners in need of what Christ is doing on Holy Week, all in need of a resurrection.
- Another way into the Easter story is to have each child go over a specific Gospel scene of the resurrected Lord, in as much detail as they can, with a nudge to go a little bit further. If they're older, start asking them the 'why' questions. Don't be satisfied with a simple answer, ask a followup.
- Go on a nature walk. Maybe it's right there in your backyard, if you've got large enough natural areas there. Or, maybe in a park or arboretum, if they're open. Look closely -- really closely -- for the budding signs of flowers and trees, or maybe the baby animals coming out for the first time.
Of course, the plants only work in areas where there is spring, which is how it works in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, where Christianity (and Christian tradition) first took root. But the story-telling and the buns apply anywhere.
What Easter is Not
Easter is not the celebration of the Easter Bunny, a character who seems to have multiplied like, well, rabbits, in today's era when some folks would rather worship inclusiveness than the real God. (By the way: bunnies make poor pets for little kids.) Easter is not just a good excuse for a spring break from school, nor is it just a good time to start the baseball season. Easter is not about the Easter Egg, though the decorative Egg is a cherished Christian tradition and work of art, especially in Eastern Europe. The egg is a symbol of new life which awaits its time to burst its shell and come out.
Easter is not the celebration of the spring equinox, even though that's where the name came from. It is, however, common in Christian circles to use the coming of spring as an analogy to the resurrection of Christ. In winter, most plants die off and many animals go into hibernation or reduce their activity levels; it seems like death has taken over. When spring comes, the plants turn green and give leaves and bloom flowers, the insects return, and the animals arouse, as if new life has sprung from the dead. (That's why white lilies are a popular Easter gift.) Christianity started in the northern hemisphere, so the timing of Passover/Easter matched the coming of spring, making a powerfully visible analogy.
But it is just that: an analogy, saying that one thing is like another. Analogies can only be pushed so far before they become untrue, because the two things are alike but not the same. For those in the southern hemisphere, like Australia, southern Africa, Chile, or Argentina, fall begins as Easter begins, and autumn's march toward winter is under way. Autumn makes for an analogy that is well-suited to the introspection and awareness of death found in Lent and Holy Week, which come before Easter.
There's also an untruth in the very nature of the spring analogy. It infers that life after death is part of some vast natural cyclical system -- nature's recycling. You live, you die, you live again. (And you die again, and this world keeps circling you through life and death, just like the seasons.) Christians believe that death is real, and that it's hell to have to go through it even once. The 'natural' thing is that death is final. Your body's atoms get recycled, but that which made you 'you' is ended. Worse, part of what you learn during Lent is that this is just and right and necessary. You die because on your own you're not good enough or whole enough to live forever. If not for death, there would be no end to the wrongs you have done or the lies you have lived. And there would be no new creation, just a plumb-tuckered-out old one.
If death is our just and 'natural' end, then what is Resurrection Sunday about? Simply this: the One who made it all loves us so much that losing us became a divine challenge. God hates losing us so much that God had to be with us, even to die as we die, so God and us could once again live in love toward each other. So much that God had to make a way for us to be alive with God, a new life in a new beginning in a new Kingdom, without the wrongs and the lies and the fears. When Jesus was killed He couldn't stay dead, for if He did, so did we. Thank God for loving us that much!
Empty Tomb. Big Deal.
Thus, an empty tomb. In doing this, God's not saying, "See? I did it, now you try". God's also not saying, "Now you'll live and not suffer and die". God is saying, "You'll decay and die. But I've made it so death's not the last word. Death won't stop you from being with me and from living as I meant you to be. Please accept my invitation to the banquet in the Kingdom." This resurrection does you no good if you put it in the trash can (though God will seek you more stubbornly than a direct-mail marketer). It does no one any good if you go around telling people that the banquet's actually being held at the house of the goddess of Self, or at the Citadel of Technology, or at the Power and Control Room, or at the Cuddly Teddy Bear School of Fuzzy Spirituality. They'll go there and miss the Easter party at God's mansion complex.
The big deal is not that God could overcome and transcend death. It figures the Almighty could resurrect, if such a being would think it worth bothering to do. The big deal is that:
- the Almighty actually did do it, and did it so we could live again;
- Jesus did it while treating death full-on for what it really is;
- after death we are being led by God into something much better, much more life-full than what we now have; and
- hints and glimpses of this grand new life can be seen and lived in our current world, and one of these glimpses is Easter.
Christians believe that the pattern of death leading to life has been there, in nature, in human society, and in the course of peoples' lives, from the very beginning. God was doing that to tell us something. Jesus showed what that is.
This really is a big deal! That is what the empty tomb means, and why it's cause for such joy.
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more on the church calendar.
Church History and the Resurrection Feast
The first known exercise of the authority of the bishop of Rome over far-away churches came in AD 190, when Victor, Bishop of Rome, declared that the whole church was to use the Roman date for Easter, instead of figuring the date in a way common to Asia. Victor then excommunicated the bishop of Ephesus for his refusal. And it stuck.