Why Do We Celebrate Easter?
Easter, which celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is Christianity’s most important holiday. It has been called a moveable feast because it doesn’t fall on a set date every year, as most holidays do. Instead, Christian churches in the West celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox on March 21. Therefore, Easter is observed anywhere between March 22 and April 25 every year. Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar to calculate when Easter will occur and typically celebrate the holiday a week or two after the Western churches, which follow the Gregorian calendar.
The exact origins of this religious feast day’s name are unknown. Some sources claim the word Easter is derived from Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility. Other accounts trace Easter to the Latin term hebdomada alba, or white week, an ancient reference to Easter week and the white clothing donned by people who were baptized during that time. Through a translation error, the term later appeared as esostarum in Old High German, which eventually became Easter in English.
In Spanish, Easter is known as Pascua; in French, Paques. These words are derived from the Greek and Latin Pascha or Pasch, for Passover. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection occurred after he went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew), the Jewish festival commemorating the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Pascha eventually came to mean Easter.
Easter is really an entire season of the Christian church year, as opposed to a single-day observance. Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday, is a time of reflection and penance and represents the 40 days that Jesus spent alone in the wilderness before starting his ministry, a time in which Christians believe he survived various temptations by the devil. The day before Lent, known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is a last hurrah of food and fun before the fasting begins.
The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week and includes Maundy Thursday, which commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples; Good Friday, which honors the day of his crucifixion; and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection. The 50-day period following Easter Sunday is called Eastertide and includes a celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
In addition to Easter’s religious significance, it also has a commercial side, as evidenced by the mounds of jelly beans and marshmallow chicks that appear in stores each spring. As with Christmas, over the centuries various folk customs and pagan traditions, including Easter eggs, bunnies, baskets and candy, have become a standard part of this holy holiday.
The dichotomous nature of Easter is reflected in the celebration of the festival. On one hand, the festival is a tribute to the Resurrection of Jesus while on the other, celebration of Easter heralds the advent of the spring season. Religious observations in churches, exchange of gifts, making flower bonnets and Easter eggs mark the celebrations of the spring festival. The forty-six-day Lenten season precedes the Easter celebrations.
The Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter. The last week of Lent is said to be the Holy Week and begins with the observance of ‘Palm Sunday’. The Palm Sunday is so called, because on this day, Lord Jesus Christ succeeded in entering Jerusalem, where the crowds grandly greeted him by laying palms at his feet.
The holy week consists of many important events that lead up to Easter. The Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, when the Christ prophesized his end and his resurrection and distributed bread and wine as his flesh and blood, respectively. The auspicious day of Good Friday commemorates the day of Crucifixion of Christ, and the Holy Week culminates with Easter Sunday, which is celebrated as the day of Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apart from its religious significance, Easter has been regarded as the glorious occasion, which relieves people of the chilly winter and brings with it, the season of bloom – spring.
Originally known as ‘God’s Friday’, the present expression is believed to have emerged in the 10th or 11th century. According to Christian legend, Jesus Christ was from Nazareth, a town in modern Israel. A well-loved and respected citizen, he was considered by many to be the Son of God.
Some high officials and Jewish priests, however, felt that he was trying to usurp their authority and mislead the people. They hatched a plot against Christ with the help of one of his 12 apostles, named Judas. On charges of misleading the people, of instigating them not to pay taxes to the emperor, and of claiming to be the messenger of God, they arrested Christ. The following day, he was produced before a council comprising priest, teachers of law and elders, and questioned about the charges against him.
Finding him guilty on all counts, they presented him before the Roman Governor, who saw no reason to condemn him. But the priests were adamant. They insisted that it was his teachings, which were responsible for all the riots in the city of Judea. At the same time, they pleaded for the release of one of their men, who had been imprisoned for the crime. The Governor appealed to them, reiterating that Christ had done no wrong. When the clergy did not agree, he handed Jesus Christ to them to do as they wished. The crowd asked for his crucifixion.
As he was led away by the soldiers, he was made to wear a crown of thorns and mockingly addressed as ‘King of the Jews’ by the jeering crowd. A huge wooden cross was placed on his shoulders, and he carried it to the place assigned for his crucifixion. In a show of solidarity, a group of his followers marched in a procession behind him. Two criminals were also led to the same place to be put to death with Jesus.
At the assigned place, the three men were nailed to the crosses and left to die. Before he breathed his last, Jesus asked God, his father, to forgive those who were responsible for his death, as they were unaware of the magnitude of their sin. Jesus is believed to have died at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, three hours after being nailed to the cross.
On Good Friday, a cross, symbolic of the one on which Jesus was crucified, is unveiled in many churches. It is believed that Jesus rose from his grave on the following Sunday, which is celebrated as Easter. The rituals for Good Friday begin on the preceding Thursday. A feast symbolizing the last supper of Christ is held on Thursday night. The end of this meal marks the beginning of the fast for Easter.