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The Glory of Easter

Easter is a festival celebrated by Christians and non-Christians across the globe. Christians believe, according to Scripture, that Jesus came back to life, or was raised from the dead, three days after his death on the cross. As part of the Easter season, the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion is commemorated on Good Friday, always the Friday just before Easter. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus paid the penalty for sin, thus purchasing for all who believe in him, eternal life in Christ.

Easter is the culmination of the passion of Christ, preceded by Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance. The last week of Lent is called holy week, and it contains the days of the Easter Triduum, including Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday), commemorating the Last Supper and its preceding foot washing, as well as Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Easter is followed by a fifty-day period called Eastertide, or the Easter season, ending with Pentecost Sunday. The word Easter is held by some to have originally referred to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre. Easter is held by others to have originally referred to the name of a Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. Others surmise that Eostre and Ishtar, pronounced identically, are two forms of the same word, referring to two forms of the same goddess, although the spelling is differentiated through time and distance.

In Greek and Latin mythology, the Christian celebration was and is called ??s?a, Pascha, words derived through Aramaic, from the Hebrew term Pesach, known in English as Passover which originally denoted the Jewish festival commemorating the story of the Exodus. Already in the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to Christ, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual. In most of the non-English speaking world, the feast is known by names derived from Greek and Latin Pascha.

The method for determining the date of Easter is complex and has been a matter of controversy. Put as simply as possible, the Western churches (Catholic and Protestant) celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.

But it is actually a bit more complicated than this. The spring equinox is fixed for this purpose as 21 March and the ‘full moon’ is actually the paschal moon, which is based on 84-year ‘paschal cycles’ established in the sixth century, and rarely corresponds to the astronomical full moon. These complex calculations yield an Easter date of anywhere between 22 March and 25 April. The Eastern churches (Greek, Russian, and other forms of Orthodoxy) use the same calculation, but based on the Julian calendar (on which 21 March is 3 April) and a 19-year paschal cycle. Thus the Orthodox Easter sometimes falls on the same day as the western Easter (it does in 2010 and 2011), but the two celebrations can occur as much as five weeks apart. This year Easter will be celebrated on 20 April (Sunday).

There is evidence that Christians originally celebrated the resurrection of Christ every Sunday, with observances such as Scripture readings, psalms, the Eucharist, and a prohibition against kneeling in prayer. At some point in the first two centuries, however, it became customary to celebrate the resurrection specially on one day each year. Many of the religious observances of this celebration were taken from the Jewish Passover.

The specific day on which the resurrection should be celebrated became a major point of contention within the church. First, should it be on Jewish Passover no matter on what day that falls, or should it always fall on a Sunday? It seems Christians in Asian countries took the former position, while others (Christians of other continents) insisted on the latter. The eminent church fathers Irenaeus and Polycarp were among the Asiatic Christians, and they claimed the authority of St. John the Apostle for their position. Nevertheless, the church majority officially decided that Easter should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Eusebius of Caesarea, our only source on this topic, reports the affair as follows:

The policy was adopted throughout the empire, but Rome adopted an 84-year lunar cycle for determining the date, whereas Alexandria used a 19-year cycle. Use of these different ‘paschal cycles’ persists to this day and contributes to the disparity between the eastern and western dates of Easter.

Common elements found in most Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant religious Easter celebrations include baptisms, the Eucharist, feasting, and greetings of ‘Christ is risen!’ and ‘He is risen indeed!’
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