The death and resurrection of Jesus have been the central events of the church’s faith confession since it was founded (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). It’s not surprising that the Lord’s crucifixion and rising to life should become the focal points of communal Christian worship and remembrance.
There is evidence that the apostolic church celebrated Jesus’ resurrection in worship gatherings on the first day of each week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). The Lord’s death was remembered in the bread and wine communion that was probably part of Christian fellowship meals (Luke 22:19-20).
The “Easter” festival begins
At some point in the first two centuries, it became customary in the church to have a yearly celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection called “Pascha.” It is the same word used for “Passover” in the Greek version of the Scriptures. Our Easter1 season has grown out of the old Pascha celebration. In time, the Pascha became observed throughout the church.
The early church saw the symbolic continuity between the slaughtered lamb of the Passover and the crucified Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. When Paul speaks of Christ as “our Passover Lamb” (Greek, pascha) in 1 Corinthians 5:7, he is affirming that the God who acted mightily in ancient Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage, typified by the Passover, is the same God who acted in Christ to free us eternally from all spiritual prisons of sin and death.
Originally, the great Paschal celebration of the church was a unified commemoration of the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord. Only later were the events divided into separate commemorations, with the ascension observance being moved to the 40th day of the Easter season.
Gradually, in the early centuries of the church, with an increasing emphasis on Holy Week and Good Friday, Pascha took on its distinctive character as the Christian celebration of the resurrection. Good Friday commemorated Jesus’ crucifixion and death. The feast of the resurrection, which completed the work of redemption, became the most prominent part of the Christian Pascha, and identical with our Easter Sunday.
Since as early as the fourth century, Resurrection Sunday (what we call “Easter Sunday” in the English language) has been the center of the Christian liturgical year and calendar.
When to observe Easter?
Before A.D. 325, Christian communities in different regions celebrated Easter on a variety of dates and on different days of the week, and not always on Sunday. However, the Christian Council of Nicea of that year issued the “Easter Rule.” The Council decided that the resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated by all churches throughout the world on the same Sunday.
The council standardized the Easter observance date so that Easter is the first Sunday following what is called the Paschal Full Moon for the year. The date of Easter Sunday can range between March 22 and April 25, depending on the lunar cycle.
The Eastern Orthodox churches use the same calculation, but base their Easter date on the old Julian calendar and use different Paschal Full Moon tables. The situation is that the Orthodox Easter Sunday in most years follows the Western Easter by one or more weeks.
Discussions began in the last century in hopes of forging a possible worldwide agreement on a consistent date for Easter. Various proposals were put forth by churches, Christian organizations and clergy of various denominations. One idea is to disregard the moon altogether in determining the date of Easter. None of the proposals have been adopted by any church up to now.
Whatever change in the Easter date occurs in the future, it won’t affect our worship. Christians do not worship days or “holy time.” They use such days and seasons as opportunities to worship Christ. Easter is a time when we can reflect on and contemplate the meaning of the wondrous events of our common salvation — a pure gift of God in Christ.
1 Some claim the word “Easter” is “pagan” because it may have once been associated with ancient heathen gods. However, Christian churches were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in spring long before the English word “Easter” was used by English-speaking Christians. The objection against “Easter” is irrelevant in other nations because a different word is used for the Christian spring festival. In most other languages of the world, the name for the festival is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name of the Jewish Passover. The holiday is called in French Paques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Scottish Pask, Dutch Paasch or Pashen, Danish Paaske, and Swedish Pask, to name a few.
Author: Paul Kroll