Easter

Easter is a Christian festival as well as a cultural holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament of the Bible and having occurred on the third day of his burial following his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary c. 30 AD. It is the culmination of the Passion of Jesus, preceded by Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer and penance. Christians refer to the week before Easter as ‘Holy Week’, which in Western Christianity contains the days of the Easter Triduum, or the period of three days that begins with the liturgy on the evening of Maundy Thursday, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday. It is a moveable observance recalling the Passion, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as portrayed in the canonical gospels. In Eastern Christianity, the same days and events are commemorated with the names of days all starting with “Holy” or “Holy and Great”; and Easter itself might be called “Great and Holy Pascha”, “Easter Sunday”, “Pascha” or “Sunday of Pascha”. In Western Christianity Eastertide, or the Easter Season, begins on Easter Sunday and lasts seven weeks, ending with the coming of the 50th day, Pentecost Sunday. In Eastern Christianity the Paschal season ends with Pentecost as well, but the leave-taking of the Great Feast of Pascha is on the 39th day, the day before the Feast of the Ascension. Easter and its related holidays are movable feasts, not falling on a fixed date but computed based on a lunar calendar, the solar year plus the Moon phase, similar to the Hebrew calendar. The first council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops, was convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325AD and was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Nicene Creed, mandating uniform observance of the date of Easter and promulgation of early canon law. No details for the computation were specified, these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. It has come to be the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or soonest after March 21st. Even if calculated on the basis of the more accurate Gregorian calendar, the date of that full moon sometimes differs from that of the astronomical first full moon after the March equinox. Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by its name, as pesach and pascha are the basis of the term by its origin (according to the synoptic gospels) where both the crucifixion and the resurrection took place during the Passover and by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar. In most European languages the feast is called by the words for passover in those languages and in the older English versions of the Bible the term Easter was the term used to translate passover. Easter customs vary across the Christian world and include sunrise services, midnight vigils, exclamations and exchanges of Paschal greetings and one I had never heard of before, called ‘clipping the church’. I have learned that this is an ancient custom traditionally held only in England on Easter Monday, Shrove Tuesday or a date relevant to the saint associated with the church. The word “clipping” is Anglo-Saxon in origin and is derived from the word ‘clyppan’, meaning ‘embrace’ or ‘clasp’. So ‘clipping the church’ involves either the church congregation or local children holding hands in an inward-facing ring around the church, and can then be reversed to an outward-facing ring if a prayer for the wider world beyond the parish is said. Once the circle is completed, onlookers will often cheer and sometimes hymns are sung. Often there is dancing and after the ceremony a sermon is delivered in the church, then there are sometimes refreshments. Christians adopted this tradition to show their love for their church and the surrounding people, but currently there are only a few churches left in England that hold this ceremony, and all of these appear to honour it on a different day. Other customs include the decoration and the communal breaking of Easter eggs, a symbol of the empty tomb. The Easter lily, a symbol of the resurrection in Western Christianity, traditionally decorates the chancel area of churches Easter Day and for the rest of Eastertide. Additional customs that have become associated with Easter and are observed by both Christians and some non-Christians include Easter parades, communal dancing (in Eastern Europe), the Easter Bunny and egg hunting. There are also traditional Easter foods that vary by region and culture.

The modern English term ‘Easter’, with modern Dutch ‘ooster’ and German ‘Ostern’, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form ‘Ēastrun’, but also as ‘Ēostre’. Bede provides the only documentary source for the etymology of the word, in his eighth-century ‘The reckoning of Time’. He wrote that ‘Ēosturmōnaþ’ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as ‘Paschal month’) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”. In Latin and Greek, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called ‘Pascha’, a word derived from Aramaic to Hebrew. The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover, commemorating the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The supernatural resurrection of Jesus from the dead, 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 resurrected to dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven. Easter is linked to the Passover and the exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Old Testament of the bible, through the Last Supper, the sufferings and subsequent crucifixion 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 the apostle 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.

In early Christianity, the first Christians were certainly aware of the Hebrew calendar. Jewish Christians, the first to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, timed the observance in relation to Passover. Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Pascha (Easter) begins to appear in the mid-2nd century but perhaps the earliest surviving primary source referring to Easter is a mid-2nd-century Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis (the bishop of Sardis, near Smyrna in western Anatolia and a great authority in early Christianity) which characterises the celebration as a well-established one. Evidence for another kind of annually recurring Christian festival, those commemorating the martyrs, began to appear at about the same time. While martyrs’ days (usually the individual dates of martyrdom) were celebrated on fixed dates in the local solar calendar, the date of Easter was fixed by means of the local Jewish lunisolar calendar. This is consistent with the celebration of Easter having entered Christianity during its earliest, Jewish period, but does not leave the question free of doubt.

A stained-glass window depicting the Passover Lamb.

Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts in that they do not fall on a fixed date in either the Gregorian or Julian calendars (both of which follow the cycle of the sun and the seasons). Instead, the date for Easter is determined on what is known as a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. In 325AD the First Council of Nicaea established two rules, the independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the council. No details for the computation were specified, these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. In particular, the Council did not decree that Easter must fall on Sunday, but this was already the practice almost everywhere. In Western Christianity, using the Gregorian calendar, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April, within about seven days after the astronomical full moon. The following day, Easter Monday, is a legal holiday in many countries with predominantly Christian traditions. Eastern Orthodox Christians base Paschal date calculations on the Julian calendar. Because of the thirteen-day difference between the calendars between 1900 and 2099, 21 March corresponds, during the 21st century, to 3 April in the Gregorian calendar. Since the Julian calendar is no longer used as the civil calendar of the countries where Eastern Christian traditions predominate, Easter varies between 4 April and 8 May in the Gregorian calendar. Also, because the Julian ‘full moon’ is always several days after the astronomical full moon, the eastern Easter is often later, relative to the visible Moon’s phases, than western Easter. Amongst the Oriental Orthodox, some churches have changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and the date for Easter, as for other fixed and moveable feasts, is the same as in the Western church. The Gregorian calculation of Easter was actually based on a method devised by a doctor from the Calabria region in Italy using the phases of the Moon and has been adopted by almost all Western Christians and by Western countries which celebrate national holidays at Easter. For the British Empire and colonies, a determination of the date of Easter Sunday using Golden Numbers and Sunday Letters was defined by the 1750 Calendar (New Style) Act with its annexe. This was designed to match exactly the Gregorian calculation.

Receiving the Holy Light at Easter.
St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Adelaide, Australia.

The above image shows the congregation lighting their candles from the new flame, just as the priest has retrieved it from the altar – note that the picture is illuminated by flash, as all electric lighting is off and only the oil lamps in front of the Iconostasis remain lit. In the 20th century, some individuals and institutions put forward changing the method of calculating the date for Easter, the most prominent proposal being the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. Despite having some support, proposals to reform the date have not been implemented. An Orthodox congress of Eastern Orthodox bishops, which included representatives mostly from the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Serbian Patriarch, met in Constantinople in 1923 where the bishops agreed to the revised Julian calendar. The original form of this calendar would have determined Easter using precise astronomical calculations based on the meridian of Jerusalem, however all the Eastern Orthodox countries that subsequently adopted the Revised Julian calendar adopted only that part of it that applied to festivals falling on fixed dates in the Julian calendar. The revised Easter computation that had been part of the original 1923 agreement was never permanently implemented in any Orthodox diocese. Here in the United Kingdom, the Easter Act of 1928 set out legislation to change the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April (or, in other words, the Sunday in the period from 9 to 15 April). However, the legislation has not been implemented, although it remains on the Statute book and could be implemented subject to approval by the various Christian churches. At a summit in Aleppo, Syria in 1997 the World Council of Churches (WCC) proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced the present divergent practices of calculating Easter with modern scientific knowledge taking into account actual astronomical instances of the spring equinox and full moon based on the meridian of Jerusalem, while also following the tradition of Easter being on the Sunday following the full moon. The recommended World Council of Churches changes would have sidestepped the calendar issues and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was proposed for implementation starting in 2001, and despite repeated calls for reform, it was not ultimately adopted by any member body. In January 2016, Christian churches again considered agreeing on a common, universal date for Easter, whilst also simplifying the calculation of that date, with either the second or third Sunday in April being popular choices. So far, no date has yet been agreed.

Easter is seen by many as the state of new life, of rebirth and as one might expect, the egg is one such symbol. In Christianity it became associated with Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection and the custom of the Easter egg originated in the early Christian community of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs red in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at his crucifixion. As such, for Christians, the Easter egg is a symbol of the empty tomb. The oldest tradition is to use dyed chicken eggs. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Easter eggs are blessed by a priest both in families’ baskets together with other foods forbidden during Great Lent and alone for distribution or in church or elsewhere.

Traditional red Easter eggs for blessing by a priest.

Easter eggs are a widely popular symbol of new life among the Eastern Orthodox and the folk traditions of many Slavic countries. I have learned of a decorating process known as ‘pisanka’, a common name for an egg (usually that of a chicken, although goose or duck eggs are also used) richly ornamented using various techniques. The word ‘pisanka’ is derived from the verb ‘pisać’ which in contemporary Polish means exclusively ‘to write’ yet in old Polish meant also ‘to paint’. Originating as a pagan tradition, pisanki was absorbed by Christianity to become the traditional Easter egg and Pisanki are now considered to symbolise the revival of nature and the hope that Christians gain from faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The celebrated House of Fabergé workshops created exquisitely jewelled Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial family from 1885 to 1916. A modern custom in the Western world is to substitute decorated chocolate filled with sweets. As many people give up these as their Lenten sacrifice, individuals enjoy these at Easter after having abstained from them during the preceding forty days of Lent.

Easter eggs, a symbol of the empty tomb.

Manufacturing their first Easter egg in 1875, the British chocolate company Cadbury sponsors the annual Easter egg hunt which takes place in over two hundred and fifty National Trust locations here in the United Kingdom. On Easter Monday, the President of the United States holds an annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn for young children. In some traditions children put out empty baskets for the Easter bunny to fill whilst they sleep, they wake to find their baskets filled with chocolate eggs and other treats. Many children around the world follow the tradition of colouring hard-boiled eggs and giving baskets of sweets. One fascinating fact to me though is that since the rabbit is considered a pest in Australia, the Easter Bilby is used as an alternative. Bilbies are native Australian marsupials who are an endangered species, so to raise money and increase awareness of conservation efforts Bilby-shaped chocolates and related merchandise are sold within many stores throughout Australia as an alternative to Easter bunnies. But this time should surely be remembered as a new beginning, as it has been for centuries throughout the world. Happy Easter!

This week…
Not everyone has a home computer these days, but more and more folk find them useful as part of doing research on a range of subjects. Happily most public libraries allow folk free access to the ones they have, but time is strictly limited and use must be allocated. Sadly I can never get in to my local library, as every time I phone up they tell me they are fully ‘booked’…

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