Easter or Resurrection Sunday is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the dead. Even before theologians explained the death of Jesus in terms of various atonement theories, the early church saw his resurrection as the central witness to a new act of God in history and the victory of God in vindicating Jesus as the Messiah. This event marks the central faith confession of the early church and was the focal point for Christian worship, observed on the first day of each week since the first century (Acts 20:7; Sunday was officially proclaimed the day of Christian worship in AD 321). Easter as an annual celebration of the Resurrection that lies at the center of a liturgical year has been observed at least since the fourth century. Even in churches that traditionally do not observe the other historic seasons of the church year, Easter has occupied a central place as the high point of Christian worship.
Origin and Significance of Easter Observance
Prior to the fourth century, Christians observed Pascha, Christian Passover, in the Spring of the year. Adapted from Jewish Passover, Pascha was a festival of redemption and commemorated both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the vehicle for God’s grace. While historical records are not clear, it is likely that early Jewish Christians observed both Passover (Pesach) and Pascha. However, many Gentile converts were hesitant to adopt the Jewish festival, especially since the Jerusalem Council had decided that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to observe Jewish religious practices (Acts 15). Gradually by the fourth century, with an increasing emphasis on Holy Week and Good Friday, Easter moved into a distinctively Christian celebration of the Resurrection, with Good Friday commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
Easter, like Passover, is a movable feast. That is, the date of Easter (and Passover) is not fixed but is determined by a system based on a lunar calendar adapted from a formula decided by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. In this system, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox (the day when the sun’s ecliptic or apparent path in the sky crosses the equator, thus making days and nights of equal length). This usually occurs on March 21, which means the date of Easter can range between March 22 and April 25 depending on the lunar cycle. Since Jewish Passover is calculated differently, the dates for Passover and Easter do not correspond, although often the first Day of Passover falls during Holy Week. Much of the calendar of the Church year is determined by the date of Easter (see The Hebrew Calendar of the Old Testament).
In the Christian church year, the two major cycles of seasons, Christmas and Easter, are far more than a single day of observance. Like Christmas, Easter itself is a period of time rather than just a day. It is actually a seven-week season of the church year called Eastertide, the Great Fifty Days that begins at sundown the evening before Easter Sunday (the Easter Vigil) and lasts for six more Sundays until Pentecost Sunday (some traditions use the term Pentecost to include these Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost Sunday). These seven Sundays are called the Sundays of Easter, climaxing on the seventh Sunday, the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday. This is often celebrated as Ascension Day (actually the 40th day after Easter Sunday, which always falls on Thursday, but in churches that do not have daily services it is usually observed the following Sunday). Ascension Day marks not only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but his exaltation from servanthood to Ruler and Lord as the fitting climax of Resurrection Day (Eph 1:20-22).
These special days and seasons are a means to shape sacred time, a structure in which to define what it means to be Christian and to call God’s people to reverent and faithful response to God. Easter encompasses a time of preparation (Lent; Advent for Christmas) as well as a following period of reflection on its significance for the life of God’s people (Pentecost; Epiphany for Christmas). However, while Epiphany following Christmas focuses on the mission of God’s people to the world, the Pentecost season following Easter focuses on the church as the witness to the resurrection. In anticipation of this emphasis at Pentecost, the Scripture readings during the Sundays of Easter are different, with readings from the Acts of the Apostles replacing readings from the Old Testament. This emphasizes that the church, as empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is the best witness to the resurrection and the work of God in the world in Jesus the Christ.
The Colors of Easter
Color used in worship is especially important during the season of Easter (see Colors of the Church Year and The Meaning of Church Colors). The changing colors of the sanctuary from the purple of Lent to the black of Good Friday provide graphic visual symbols for the Lenten journey. The change of colors for Easter and the following Sundays helps communicate the movement of sacred time as well as personal faith journeys.
The Sanctuary colors for Easter Sunday and Ascension Day are white and gold, the colors of sacred days throughout the church year. For the Easter season, white symbolizes the hope of the resurrection, as well as the purity and newness that comes from victory over sin and death. The gold (or yellow) symbolizes the light of the world brought by the risen Christ that enlightens the world, as well as the exaltation of Jesus as Lord and King. The sanctuary color for the other five Sundays of Easter is usually also white and gold, although some churches use Red, the color of the Church, for these Sundays as well as for Pentecost Sunday. During this time worshippers are called to celebrate God's ongoing work in the world through his people, and to acknowledge and reflect upon the their purpose, mission, and calling as God’s people, which makes Red an appropriate color for this season.
The Easter Vigil
There are a variety of ways to celebrate Easter and various emphases that can be placed on the season. But from the early days of the church, the Easter Vigil was the primary means by which Easter was observed. This practice has evolved in modern observance into the Easter sunrise service that many churches observe, but its history is much richer.
From the earliest days of the church, the Easter Vigil was primarily a means of preparing new converts for baptism into the Christian Faith, which was normally done on Easter Sunday as the focal point of the entire year. This preparation traditionally arises from a set of Scripture readings from the Old Testament that recounts the unfolding of God’s creation of a people in the Exodus, and a promise of restoration from Zephaniah (see Readings for the Easter Vigil). Following the lead of the Gospels themselves, this provides a crucial link between the revelation of God in Christ and the creation of the church with God’s past revelation of himself and the creation of his people Israel. This important emphasis on the continuity of the church with the Old Testament’s witness to God also helps define the nature of the church and its mission in the world, thoroughly grounding it in the ongoing work of God in history. The Gospel readings at the Vigil are not normally read until after sunrise on Sunday, or at the very end of the Easter Vigil.
The Vigil itself can begin at any time after sundown on Saturday, although there has been a tendency in Protestant churches to begin just before sunrise on Sunday and conclude the service just after the Gospel readings while singing praises at sunrise. In more temperate climates, this is often an outdoor service.
In church traditions that observe a Service of Shadows on Good Friday, the Easter Vigil begins in darkness as a flame is lit. This can either be the Christ candle returned to the sanctuary or to the worshippers, or a "new fire" lit amid the darkness. From this "new fire" all the other candles in the sanctuary are lit. Some churches use a special Paschal Candle as the focal point for this part of the service. All the worshippers light individual candles from the Paschal candle as they sing a song of praise.
This return of light symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus from the grave and the light of salvation and hope God brought into the world through the resurrection, the triumph of the light of God’s grace and salvation over the darkness of death and sin. If celebrated in a sanctuary, the lights are then either turned on all at once or in stages as the Scriptures are read, thus reversing the effects of the Service of Shadows and dramatically symbolizing the "true light that enlightens everyone" (John 1:9). Of course, if this is done as an Easter sunrise service outdoors, the spreading dawn serves the same purpose. In any case, the service intends to celebrate the newness, the fresh possibilities, new beginnings out of old endings that Jesus’ resurrection embodies.
In the early church, the Easter Vigil concluded with the baptism of new converts, celebrating not only Jesus’ resurrection from death to life, but also the new life that God has brought through the death and resurrection of Jesus to individual believers. Those baptized changed into new white clothes to symbolize their new life in Christ, which is the origin of the tradition of buying new clothes at Easter. Although Easter baptism is rarely practiced today among Protestants, the Anglican practice of renewing baptismal vows during the Easter Vigil is becoming popular.
An ancient tradition from the early centuries of the church intensifies the fasting of Lent, so that no food of any kind is eaten on Holy Saturday, or for forty hours before sunrise on Easter Sunday. The breaking of the fast is the Eucharist or Communion that is celebrated at Easter sunrise at the end of the Easter Vigil.
Ways to Observe Resurrection Sunday
Probably the most traditional way of celebrating Easter among Protestant and evangelical churches is the Easter musical or cantata, or a series of special music and song. This has a revered history in the Western church. Given the important place of music among most churches that tend to shy away from liturgical worship, it is easy to understand why music emerged as a primary means of worship for Easter. But even with music at the heart of many Easter services, there are still other symbols and activities that can be equally important and creative in communicating the message of the resurrection.
The Flowering Cross
This is an especially striking and beautiful way to symbolize the new life that emerges from the death of Good Friday. There are many adaptations of this symbol, but they center on a very rough-cut wooden cross, often of cedar since it easily retains a rough texture. This cross can be of various sizes but a full sized cross six to seven feet high is most impressive (and most expensive to decorate!). For added effect, there can be three metal spikes driven into the wood at the arms and feet. This cross is usually erected at the front of the sanctuary on Ash Wednesday or on Palm Sunday. If it is erected on Ash Wednesday, it can also be used as a Prayer Cross throughout Lent (see The Journey of Lent). Sometimes it is draped with the purple of Lent and a crown of thorns made of thorny vines, but is often left bare throughout Lent until Good Friday. On Good Friday, the cross is draped in black, the color of mourning for the death of Jesus.
Before the Easter Sunday service, the spikes and black drape are removed and the cross is covered with real flowers and the top draped in white. There are various ways to do this. Some churches use a chicken wire mesh over the cross and have worshippers each place flowers on the cross as part of the Easter Vigil service or as they arrive at church on Easter morning. For this to be effective, there must be enough flowers to cover all of the front and sides of the cross. Another approach is to have small holes drilled in the wood to accept florist-type vials that hold cut flowers. The entire cross is covered with the flowers and is placed prominently at the front of the church to greet worshippers as they enter the sanctuary on Easter Sunday. The contrast between the starkly bare cross that worshippers have seen for 40 days and the living flowering cross of Easter Sunday dramatically and visually represents the new life that they are celebrating as thy witness the very instrument of death and endings transformed into life and new beginnings.
Easter Garden or The Empty Tomb
This is a small model or symbolic representation of the tomb in which Jesus was placed. It can be constructed very simply from several hand-sized rocks stacked to make an enclosure, with a single rock at the front to serve as a closure for the tomb. If possible, a light is placed inside the tomb or a white candle placed near it, or both. If a candle is used, this can be the Christ candle that is removed from the sanctuary at the end of the Service of Shadows.
The tomb is usually placed at the front of the church in a visible location, often beside or near the communion table in Protestant churches. It is usually put into place on Ash Wednesday as a visible symbol throughout Lent of Jesus’ impending death, although some churches only use it during Holy Week. It is normally left open during Lent, but with no light inside. On Good Friday as the last action at the end of the Service of Shadows, the tomb is closed by placing the rock in front of the opening. A loud sound usually accompanies the closing of the tomb to symbolize the feeling of finality that the disciples experienced on Good Friday.
On Easter morning before worshippers arrive for service, the tomb is opened and the light inside is turned on or the candle is lit. Often flowers are placed over and around the rocks to symbolize the new life that has sprung from death.
Symbols of Easter
The origin of the English name "Easter" is not certain, but many think that it derived from the Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre or Eastre. This fact, and other aspects surrounding Easter observance such as eggs and bunnies, has generated considerable debate concerning the origin of some traditions used in Easter observance, mostly since the Reformation and especially among evangelicals and low church traditions. Some argue that Easter is little more than an adaptation of a pagan fertility festival and has little to do with Christian tradition.
There is little question that many symbols of Easter have been adopted from various cultures. But this is true for almost all Christian symbols, including the cross (the sign of the fish is the most unique and original Christian symbol). But this has always been the case since the days of Abraham and Moses. That is, God’s people have always used symbols with which they were familiar from the surrounding culture, and then infused them with new meaning to commemorate and worship God. In the process the symbols are radically transformed into a means to express faith in the only true God in spite of their "pagan" origins. Such sacred Old Testament institutions as animal sacrifice, circumcision, temple worship, the priesthood, and prophets, even names for God like El, were all adapted from preexisting counterparts in Canaanite religious practice. Even the rituals of Passover itself were adapted from two preexisting Canaanite festivals associated with fertility, one celebrating the Spring birthing of livestock (the day of Passover) and the other celebrating the early barley harvest (the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread that begins on Passover; see The Festival of Passover)
This simply suggests that the origin of the name Easter or other aspects of the Easter celebration are probably not as important as how those symbols have been transformed by a worshipping community or what is actually celebrated by the symbols and event. That does not mean that all elements should automatically be accepted uncritically or without question as to their Christian connection. And it certainly should encourage us to emphasize clearly, especially to children, what we are actually celebrating and the meaning of the symbols, and to do so deliberately and with purpose (Easter it is not a celebration of the coming of Spring!). But neither should it allow us to adopt a negative or hypercritical attitude toward the event so that people who should be hearing our witness to the grace and power of God at work in the world bringing hope and the promise of renewal amid endings, only hear grumbling and carping.
Easter should be the most openly joyful time of celebration of the church year. Celebrated against the background of the shadows and darkness of Lent and Holy Week, this season truly becomes a living expression of the hope that God has brought into the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since this hope of renewal and new life, both present and future, is at the heart of the Good News that the church is commissioned to proclaim and live in the world, every possible avenue of proclaiming that Good News should be utilized. No doubt that is why many traditionally non-liturgical churches are increasingly recovering the value of the various traditions of the Easter Season as a means of bearing witness to their Faith. Seen as Proclamation, the various aspects of worship during this season can become vehicles for God’s grace and transforming work in the world, and among his people.
Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2007, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved