What is Easter?
Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Christians choose to celebrate this resurrection, because they believe that Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised from the dead in order to pay the penalty for sin. His death assured that believers would have eternal life.
When is Easter?
Like Passover, Easter is a movable feast. Using the lunar calendar as determined by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Most often Spring occurs between March 22 and April 25. In 2007 Easter occurs on April 8.
So, why doesn't Passover necessarily coincide with Easter as it does in the Bible? The dates do not necessarily coincide, because the date for Passover uses a different calculation. Therefore Passover usually falls during the first few days of Holy Week, but not necessarily as it does in the chronology of the New Testament.
The Celebrations of Easter
There are a number of Christian celebrations and services leading up to Easter Sunday. Here is a description of some of the major holy days:Lent:
The purpose of Lent is to search the soul and repent. It began in the 4th century as a time to prepare for Easter. Lent is 40-days long and is characterized by penance via prayer and fasting. In the Western church Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 6 1/2 weeks, because Sundays are excluded. However, in the Eastern church Lent lasts 7 weeks, because Saturday is also excluded. In the early church the fast was strict, so believers ate only one full meal per day, and meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products were forbidden foods. However, the modern church puts a greater emphasis on charity prayer while most fast meat on Fridays. Some denominations do not observe Lent.
In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It occurs 6 1/2 weeks prior to Easter, and its name is derived from the placing of ashes on believer's foreheads. The ash is a symbol of death and sorrow for sin. In the Eastern church, though, Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday due to the fact that Saturdays are also excluded from the calculation.
Holy Week is the last week of Lent. It began in Jerusalem when believers would visit in order to reenact, relive, and participate in the passion of Jesus Christ. The week includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Palm Sunday commemorates the beginning of Holy Week. It is named "Palm Sunday," because it represents the day that palms and clothing were spread in Jesus' path as he entered Jerusalem before the crucifixion (Matthew 21:7-9). Many churches commemorate the day by recreating the processional. Members are provided with palm branches used to wave or place on a path during the re-enactment.
Good Friday occurs the Friday before Easter Sunday, and it is the day in which Jesus Christ was crucified. Using the term "Good" is an oddity of the English language, as many other countries have termed it "Mourning" Friday, "Long" Friday, "Big" Friday, or "Holy" Friday. The day was originally commemorated by fasting and preparation for the Easter celebration, and no liturgy occurred on Good Friday. By the 4th century the day was commemorated by a procession from Gethsemane to the sanctuary of the cross. Today Catholic tradition offers readings about the passion, a ceremony of the veneration of the cross, and communion. Protestants often preach of the seven last words. Some churches also have prayer at the Stations of the Cross.
Easter Traditions and Symbols
There are several Easter traditions that are solely Christian. The use of Easter lilies is a common practice around the Easter holidays. The tradition was born in the 1880s when the lilies were imported to America from Bermuda. Due to the fact that Easter lilies come from a bulb that is "buried" and "reborn," the plant came to symbolize those aspects of the Christian faith.
There are many celebrations that occur in the Spring, and some say that the dates of Easter were actually designed to coincide with the Anglo-Saxon celebration of the goddess Eostre, who represented Spring and fertility. The coincidence of Christian holidays like Easter with pagan tradition is not limited to Easter. Often Christian leaders found that traditions ran deep in certain cultures, so they would adopt an "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude. Therefore, many Easter traditions have some roots in pagan celebrations, though their meanings became symbols of Christian faith. For instance, the hare was often a pagan symbol of fertility, but was then adopted by Christians to represent being born again. Eggs were often a symbol of everlasting life, and adopted by Christians to represent rebirth. While some Christians do not use many of these "adopted" symbols of Easter, most people enjoy how these symbols help them grow deeper in their faith.
Passover's Relation to Easter
As most Christian teens know, the final days of Jesus' life occurred during the celebration of Passover. Many people are somewhat familiar with Passover, mostly due to watching movies like "The Ten Commandments" and "Prince of Egypt." However, the holiday is very significant to the Jewish people, and was just as significant to early Christians.
Before the 4th Century, Christians celebrated their own version of Passover known as Pascha, during the Spring. It is believed that Jewish Christians celebrated both Pascha and Pesach, the traditional Jewish Passover. However, Gentile believers were not required to participate in the Jewish practices. After the 4th Century, though, the Pascha festival began to overshadow the traditional Passover celebration with more and more emphasis being placed on Holy Week and Good Friday.