History of Easter
The Christian festival of Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The spring festival has its roots in the Jewish Passover, which commemorates
Israel's deliverance from the bondage of Egypt, and in the Christian reinter-
pretation of its meaning after the crucifixion of Jesus during the Passover
of AD c.30 and the proclamation of his resurrection three days later.
Early Christians observed Easter on the same day as Passover (14-15 Nisan,
a date governed by a lunar calendar). In the 2d century, the Christian
celebration was transferred to the Sunday following the 14-15 Nisan, if
that day fell on a weekday. Originally, the Christian Easter was a unitive
celebration, but in the 4th century Good Friday became a separate
commemoration of the death of Christ, and Easter was thereafter devoted
exclusively to the resurrection. According to the Venerable Bede, the name
Easter is derived from the pagan spring festival of the Anglo- Saxon goddess
Eostre, and many folk customs associated with Easter (for example, Easter
eggs) are of pagan origin.
Easter Day is currently determined as the first Sunday after the full moon
on or after March 21. The Eastern Orthodox churches, however, follow the
Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar, so their celebration usually
falls several weeks later than the Western Easter. Easter is preceded by
the period of preparation called Lent.
Reginald H. Fuller Bibliography: Torvend, Samuel, ed., Passage to the
Paschal Feast (1993); Williams, Rowan, Resurrection: Interpreting the
Easter Gospel (1994).
For Christians, Lent is a 40-day penitential period of prayer and fasting
that precedes Easter. In the Western church, observance of Lent begins
6 1/2 weeks prior to Easter on Ash Wednesday; (Sundays are excluded). In
the Eastern church the period extends over 7 weeks because both Saturdays
and Sundays are excluded. Formerly a severe fast was prescribed: only one
full meal a day was allowed, and meat, fish, eggs, and milk products were
forbidden. Today, however, prayer and works of charity are emphasized.
Lent has been observed since the 4th century.
In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and the
seventh Wednesday before Easter. Its name comes from the practice of
placing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers to symbolize death and
sorrow for sin. In the Orthodox church, Lent begins on a Monday rather
than on Ash Wednesday.
Good Friday is the Christian commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ,
observed on the Friday before Easter. Originally, it was a day of fasting
in preparation for the unitive celebration of the death- resurrection-
exaltation of Jesus; no liturgy was held on that day. In the 4th century,
at Jerusalem, a procession was staged from Gethsemane to the sanctuary of
the cross, followed by readings about the passion. This was the beginning
of the Good Friday observance as it is now known. In the Catholic tradition,
the liturgy of the day consists of reading the passion, the ceremony of the
veneration of the cross, and communion from the sacrament consecrated the
day before. The service of preaching on the seven last words, of Jesuit
origin, has become popular in Protestantism.