By Don Zoller
For two thousand years, the annual celebration of Easter has been the highpoint of the Church calendar. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so important that it is celebrated for seven consecutive Sundays beginning with Easter Sunday.
The meaning and place of Easter in our life of faith is greatly enhanced by understanding the purpose of Lent—the forty days of preparation of repentance and reflection that precede what is commonly referred to as Easter Week or Holy Week. Holy Week invites us to walk with Jesus during His last days of suffering and spiritual struggles that bring Him to His crucifixion and end with His glorious resurrection.
The apex of Holy Week is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a time to celebrate life over death and the assurance of sins forgiven (I Corinthians 15:17). It is a time to rejoice in a risen Christ with anthems of “hallelujahs.”
Unlike the celebration of the birth of Jesus (Christmas), which is observed on the twenty-fifth of December by the Western Church, Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This range of Sundays was determined, after much controversy, at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to be on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox (March 21).
But, it was not always so. According to early writings, the Church prior to AD 325, and eventually the Eastern Church, observed the day of the Crucifixion on the same day that the Jews celebrated the Passover offering—that is, on the fourteenth day of the first full moon of spring, the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan (the first month on the Jewish calendar). According to early Church writings, the Resurrection, then, was to be observed two days later, on the sixteenth of Nisan, regardless of the day of the week. Over the centuries attempts were made between the Eastern and Western Churches to resolve these dating differences, but they remain unresolved.
The first record of a Resurrection (Easter) celebration by the Church dates from the second century. But when did the reality of the Resurrection event actually occur? The narrative of Scripture leaves no doubt. Among other things, the reality of a risen Christ resulted in great joy and a desire to quickly tell others.
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So, they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Matthew 28:5–7 (ESV)
However, the more important question is, when did God first commemorate “Easter?” The answer goes back almost 1500 years before that early morning encounter between the women and the angel in Matthew 28:5–7. The Bible suggests that the first mention of an “Easter” message began with the Passover event while the Jewish people were still in Egypt. As recorded by Moses, Passover began with the killing of an unblemished lamb, whose blood was sprinkled above the doorway and on each door post of the homes of God’s people. This was followed with a special memorial dinner of the lamb that had been just killed, herbs and unleavened bread. At midnight, the Angel of Death passed over the houses which had the blood on the doorway. Those inside their houses were spared death and assured deliverance from their bondage of slavery (Exodus 12.1–28). With great joy and speed, they left Egypt the very next day.
(To be continued)