The name Easter has been problematic for some Christians, especially over the last two hundreds years or so. No orthodox Christian denies the importance of the day, that is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the grave. Some think the event should be celebrated each Sunday, noting correctly that the very fact that we worship on Sunday is related to the first day of the week and Christ’s victory over sin and the grave. But should we celebrate one day as Easter?
The term Easter comes from the Germanic root “dawn” and came into Anglo-Saxon, perhaps, by way of reference to the spring and the goddess of the spring. This, in itself, is not a reason to reject the celebration at all, since it clearly pre-dates the Germanic root. But this has caused some Christians to quibble more than a little about Easter.
The point is not about the word but rather about the celebration of the greatest mystery of our faith—the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The other important point to make here is that this is the principal and most ancient of all Christian feasts in antiquity. It does appear that the initial celebration was weekly. I would personally like to see this become a both/and, not an either/or. I think great reform includes this approach. Liturgical churches run the risk of limiting the impact of resurrection thought and joy to one day a year. Non-liturgical churches, for all their talk about a weekly celebration of the resurrection, tend to focus on everything but the resurrection. Somehow, some way, we could stand to regain both the apostolic and the liturgical emphasis.
At some point, in early Christian history, people began to associate the Passover, connected to the Jewish date of the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar month of Nisan, with both the Passover and the resurrection of Jesus. You can clearly see why this happened. In Rome, in the second century, a feast was adopted that celebrated the resurrection on the Sunday following 14 Nisan. Disagreements arose regarding the determination of 14 Nisan until the Council of Nicaea in 325 called on the churches to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox. By this means Easter comes between March 22 and April 25. Because the Eastern Orthodox Churches calculate Easter by means of the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian (reformed in 1582) there is sometimes a discrepancy between their date for Easter and that observed in the rest of the churches. (This year they are the same date.)
The primary celebration of Easter became the Easter Vigil, which dates to the second century, maybe even the early second century. This requires some consideration of the importance of this celebration given its proximity to the apostles.
The interesting thing is that the Easter season only begins today. It continued, in the third century and beyond, until Pentecost Sunday, seven weeks after Easter. This made Easter a fifty-day celebration in the church. This development was broken, however, by the development of Ascension Sunday and the insertion of a feast associated with that day. In 1972 the Roman Catholic Church established the entire season as a period of catechesis and called this “mystagogy” to associate it with the development of the newly baptized.
The whole season, beginning with today, is a time of great praise. This is why you frequently hear the “Alleluia” in the liturgy and see the lighting of the Easter candle and the wearing of white vestments in more liturgical settings. Scripture readings are also drawn from the four Gospels and the First Letter of John for the same reason.
So regardless of how liturgical your practice may be today this is a day for great celebration. If there had been no first Easter, or resurrection day, then there would be no justification. This is why Paul says that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
All day long you may say, and say it with great joy: “He is risen, alleluia, he is risen from the dead!”