Easter commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, although the word ‘Easter’ actually has nothing to do with Christianity. Jesus had been crucified on a Friday and rose from the dead on the following Sunday. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is a foundation of their faith. The Bible book, Acts, records the words of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers and an eyewitnesses to his resurrection. He tells a crowd, ‘You handed him over to be killed and you disowned him before Pilate…. You killed the author of life but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.’
Because the resurrection took place on a Sunday, the first Christians soon adopted Sunday as the day of the week when they gathered to pray together and worship God. But it took much longer for Easter Sunday to emerge as an annual day to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. And Christians in different countries marked it at different times and in different ways.
Churches used Easter Day to praise God for raising Jesus from the dead
Churches use Easter Day to praise God for raising Jesus from the dead and to remember Christian martyrs – believers who had been put to death rather than give up their faith. In some traditions it was also the day on which new converts to Christianity were baptised, usually dressed in white.
The timing of Easter
The birth date of Jesus is not known. It is commemorated on Christmas Day and in most Christian traditions this is always 25 December. However, Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 7 January because they have a different calendar. Nor was the date of Jesus’ death and resurrection recorded. As a result, Easter is not fixed. It can fall any time between 22 March and 25 April. This is because Easter is linked to the Jewish festival of Passover, which was taking place when Jesus died. The timing of Passover depends on the cycles of the moon. In the 4th century church leaders agreed that Easter would always be on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox. But to add to the complexity, they referred to the mathematically-calculated ‘Paschal’ full moon which is not always the same day as when the moon appears full in the sky!
It got even more complicated in the 18th century when the Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches decided to use different calendars. As a result, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different Sunday. In recent decades, Church leaders and governments have tried to settle on a specific date for Easter in April but no agreement has been reached.
Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life or fresh start that people receive when they become Christians.
How Easter got its name
In most countries, the name for Easter is derived from the word Passover. In French it is Paques; in Spanish, Pascua, and in Italian, Pasqua. The word ‘Easter’ comes from the name for an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess, Eostre, who was celebrated in Spring. In Germany, the festival is called Ostern because there the goddess is named Ostara. The association of eggs with Easter is very ancient and the origins are not clear. But eggs – and rabbits – are thought to be symbols of new life at springtime and Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life or fresh start that people receive when they become Christians.