Holy Easter, also known as the Feast of the Resurrection, "the Sunday of the Resurrection", or "Resurrection Day", is the most important religious feast of the Christian liturgical year, observed between early April to early May in Eastern Christianity (late March and late April in the west). It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred three days after his death by crucifixion in AD 27-33 (see Good Friday).
- 1 Nature and development
- 2 Date of Easter
- 3 Position in the church year
- 4 Religious observation of Easter
- 5 Miscellaneous
Nature and development
In most languages of Christian societies, other than English, German and some Slavic languages, the holiday's name is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name of Passover, a Jewish holiday to which the Christian Easter is intimately linked. Easter depends on Passover not only for much of its symbolic meaning but also for its position in the calendar; the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion is generally thought of as a Passover seder, based on the chronology in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John has a different chronology which has Christ's death at the time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs, which may have been for theological reasons but which is regarded by some scholars as more historically likely given the surrounding events. This would put the Last Supper slightly before Passover, on 14 Nisan of the Hebrew calendar.
Easter in the early Church
The observance of any special holiday throughout the Christian year is believed by some to be an innovation postdating the early church. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus (b. 380) attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of local custom, "just as many other customs have been established", stating that neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. However, when read in context,this is not a rejection or denigration of the celebration—which, given its currency in Scholasticus' time would be surprising—but is merely part of a defense of the diverse methods for computing its date. Indeed, although he describes the details of the Easter celebration as deriving from local custom, he insists the feast itself is universally observed.
A number of ecclesiastical historians, primarily Eusebius, bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, by tradition a disciple of John the Evangelist, disputed the computation of the date with bishop Anicetus of Rome in what is now known as the Quartodecimanism controversy. Anicetus became bishop of the church of Rome in the mid second century (c. AD 155). Shortly thereafter, Polycarp visited Rome and among the topics discussed was when the pre-Easter fast should end. Those in Asia Minor held strictly to the computation from the Hebrew calendar and ended the fast on the 14th day of Nisan, while the Roman custom was to continue the fast until the Sunday following. Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus was able to convert the other to his position—according to a rather confused account by Sozomen, both could claim Apostolic authority for their traditions—but neither did they consider the matter of sufficient importance to justify a schism, so they parted in peace leaving the question unsettled. However, a generation later bishop Victor of Rome excommunicated bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and the rest of the Asian bishops for their adherence to 14 Nisan. The excommunication was rescinded and the two sides reconciled upon the intervention of bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, who reminded Victor of the tolerant precedent that had been established earlier. In the end, a uniform method of computing the date of Easter was not formally settled until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (see below), although by that time the Roman timing for the observance had spread to most churches.
A number of early bishops rejected the practice of celebrating Easter, or more accurately Passover, on the first Sunday after Nisan 14. This conflict between Easter and Passover is often referred to as the "Paschal Controversy". The bishops dissenting from the newer practice of Easter favored adhering to celebrating the festival on Nisan 14 in accord with the Biblical Passover and the tradition passed on to them by the Apostles. The problem with Nisan 14 in the minds of some in the Western Church (who wished to further associate Sunday and Easter) is that it was calcuated by the moon and could fall on any day of the week.
An early example of this tension is found written by Theophilus of Caesarea (c. AD 180; 8.774 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers") when he stated, "Endeavor also to send abroad copies of our epistle among all the churches, so that those who easily deceive their own souls may not be able to lay the blame on us. We would have you know, too, that in Alexandria also they observe the festival on the same day as ourselves. For the Paschal letters are sent from us to them, and from them to us—so that we observe the holy day in unison and together."
Polycarp, a disciple of John, likewise adhered to a Nisan 14 observance. Irenaeus, who observed the "first Sunday" rule notes of Polycarp (one of the Bishops of Asia Minor), "For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forgo the observance [of his Nisan 14 practice] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of the Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant." (c. AD 180; 1.569 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). Irenaeus notes that this was not only Polycarp's practice, but that this was the practice of John the disciple and the other apostles that Polycarp knew.
Polycrates (c. AD 190) emphatically notes this is the tradition passed down to him, that Passover and Unleavened Bread were kept on Nisan 14 in accord with the Biblical Passover and not the later Easter tradition: "As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord.... These all kept Easter on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel.... Seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth, and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven" (8.773, 8.744 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers").
Early within the Church it was admitted by both sides of the debate that the Lord's Supper was the practice of the disciples and the tradition passed down. The Last Supper is believed by some to be a Passover Seder. The Nisan 14 practice, which was strong among the churches of Asia Minor, becomes less common as the desire for Church unity on the question came to favor the majority practice. By the 3rd century the Church, which had become Gentile dominated and wishing to further distinguish itself from Jewish practices, began a tone of harsh rhetoric against Nisan 14/Passover (e.g. Anatolius, c. AD 270; 6.148,6.149 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). The tradition that Easter was to be celebrated "not with the Jews" meant that Easter was not to be celebrated on Nisan 14.
Date of Easter
|2000||April 23||April 30|
|2002||March 31||May 5|
|2003||April 20||April 27|
|2005||March 27||May 1|
|2006||April 16||April 23|
|2008||March 23||April 27|
|2009||April 12||April 19|
|2012||April 8||April 15|
|2013||March 31||May 5|
|2015||April 5||April 12|
|2016||March 27||May 1|
|2018||April 1||April 8|
|2019||April 21||April 28|
|2020||April 12||April 19|
In Western Christianity, Easter always falls on a Sunday from March 22 to April 25 inclusive. The following day, Easter Monday, is a legal holiday in many countries with predominantly Christian traditions. In Eastern Christianity, Easter falls between April 4 and May 8 between 1900 and 2100 based on the Gregorian date.
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (which follow the motion of the sun and the seasons). Instead, they are based on a lunar calendar similar—but not identical—to the Hebrew Calendar. The precise date of Easter has often been a matter for contention.
At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same Sunday throughout the Church, but it is probable that no method was specified by the Council. (No contemporary account of the Council's decisions has survived.) Instead, the matter seems to have been referred to the church of Alexandria, which city had the best reputation for scholarship at the time. The Catholic Epiphanius wrote in the mid-4th Century, "...the emperor...convened a council of 318 bishops...in the city of Nicea...They passed certain ecclesiastical canons at the council besides, and at the same time decreed in regard to the Passover that there must be one unanimous concord on the celebration of God's holy and supremely excellent day. For it was variously observed by people..."(Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verses 1,1 and 1,3. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, pp.471-472).
The practice of those following Alexandria was to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the earliest fourteenth day of a lunar month that occurred on or after March 21. While since the Middle Ages this practice has sometimes been more succinctly phrased as Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox, this does not reflect the actual ecclesiastical rules precisely. The reason for this is that the full moon involved (called the Paschal full moon) is not an astronomical full moon, but an ecclesiastical moon. Determined from tables, it coincides more or less with the astronomical full moon. The ecclesiastical rules are:
- Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the ecclesiastical vernal equinox
- this particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon)
- the ecclesiastical vernal equinox is always March 21
The Church of Rome used its own methods to determine Easter until the 6th century, when it may have adopted the Alexandrian method as converted into the Julian calendar by Dionysius Exiguus (certain proof of this does not exist until the ninth century). Churches in western continental Europe used a late Roman method until the late 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne, when they finally adopted the Alexandrian method. Since western churches now use the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date and Eastern Orthodox churches use the original Julian calendar, their dates are not usually aligned in the present day.
At a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced an equation-based method of calculating Easter with direct astronomical observation; this would have side-stepped the calendar issue and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was proposed for implementation starting in 2001, but it was not ultimately adopted by any member body.
Position in the church year
In Eastern Christianity, preparations begin with Great Lent. Following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is Palm Week, which ends with Lazarus Saturday. Lazarus Saturday officially brings Great Lent to a close, although the fast continues for the following week. After Lazarus Saturday comes Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Easter itself, or Pascha (Πάσχα), and the fast is broken immediately after the Divine Liturgy. Easter is immediately followed by Bright Week, during which there is no fasting, even on Wednesday and Friday.
The Paschal Service consists of Paschal Matins, Hours, and Liturgy, which traditionally begins at midnight of Pascha morning. Placing the Paschal Divine Liturgy at midnight guarantees that no Divine Liturgy will come earlier in the morning, ensuring its place as the pre-eminent "Feast of Feasts" in the liturgical year.
In Western Christianity, Easter marks the end of the forty days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday.
The week before Easter is very special in the Christian tradition: the Sunday before is Palm Sunday, and the last three days before Easter are Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as Silent Saturday). Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively commemorate Jesus' entry in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are sometimes referred to as the Easter Triduum (Latin for "Three Days"). In some countries, Easter lasts two days, with the second called "Easter Monday". The week beginning with Easter Sunday is called Easter Week or the Octave of Easter, and each day is prefaced with 'Easter', e.g. Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, etc. Easter Saturday is therefore the Saturday after Easter Sunday. The day before Easter is properly called Holy Saturday. Many churches start celebrating Easter late in the evening of Holy Saturday at a service called the Easter Vigil.
Eastertide, the season of Easter, begins on Easter Sunday and lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later.
Religious observation of Easter
Easter is the fundamental and most important festival of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. Every other religious festival on their calendars, including Christmas, is secondary in importance to the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is reflected in the cultures of countries that are traditionally Orthodox Christian majority. Easter-connected social customs are native and rich. Christmas customs, on the other hand, are usually foreign imports, either from Germany or the USA. Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with the Pope of Rome have similar emphasis in their calendars, and many of their liturgical customs are very similar.
This is not to say that Christmas and other elements of the Christian liturgical calendar are ignored. Instead, these events are all seen as necessary but preliminary to the full climax of the Resurrection, in which all that has come before reaches fulfilment and fruition. Pascha (Easter) is the primary act that fulfils the purpose of Christ's ministry on earth—to defeat death by dying and to purify and exalt humanity by voluntarily assuming and overcoming human frailty. This is succinctly summarized by the Paschal Troparion, sung repeatedly during Pascha until the Apodosis of Pascha (which is the day before Ascension):
|Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
|Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών,
θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας,
και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι,
|Хрїсто́съ воскре́се и́зъ ме́ртвыхъ,
Сме́ртїю сме́рть попра́въ,
И сѹ́щымъ во гробѣ́хъ
|Cristos a inviat din morti,|
Cu moartea pe moarte calcand,
Si celor din morminte
|Transliterations||Christos anesti ek nekron,
Thanato thanaton patisas,
Kai tis en tis mnimasi
|Christos voskrese iz mertvich,|
Smertiu smert poprav,
E soushchim vo grobyech
*This language is not well-supported on many systems, so it may not appear as intended here.
Celebration of the holiday begins with the "anti-celebration" of Great Lent. In addition to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, Orthodox are supposed to reduce all entertainment and non-essential activity, gradually eliminating them until Holy Friday. Traditionally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, the Midnight Office is celebrated shortly after 11:00 pm. At its completion all light in the church building is extinguished. A new flame is struck in the altar, or the priest lights his candle from a perpetual lamp kept burning there, and he then lights candles held by deacons or other assistants, who then go to light candles held by the congregation. Entirely lit by candle, the priest and congregation process around the church building, re-entering ideally at the stroke of midnight, whereupon Matins begins immediately followed by the Paschal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy. Immediately after the Liturgy it is customary for the congregation to share a meal, essentially an agape dinner (albeit at 2.00 am or later!)
The day after, Easter Sunday proper, there is no liturgy, since the liturgy for that day has already been celebrated. Instead, in the afternoon, it is often traditional to hold "Agape vespers". In this service, it has become customary during the last few centuries for the priest and members of the congregation to read a portion of the Gospel of John (20:19–25 or 19–31) in as many languages as they can manage.
For the remainder of the week (known as "Bright Week"), all fasting is prohibited, and the customary greeting is "Christ is risen!", to be responded with "Truly He is risen!"
The Easter festival is kept in many different ways among Western Christians. The traditional, liturgical observation of Easter, as practised among Roman Catholics and some Lutherans and Anglicans begins on the night of Holy Saturday with the Easter Vigil. This, the most important liturgy of the year, begins in total darkness with the blessing of the Easter fire, the lighting of the large Paschal candle (symbolic of the Risen Christ) and the chanting of the Exsultet or Easter Proclamation attributed to Saint Ambrose of Milan. After this service of light, a number of readings from the Old Testament are read; these tell the stories of creation, the sacrifice of Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the foretold coming of the Messiah. This part of the service climaxes with the singing of the Alleluia and the proclamation of the gospel of the resurrection. A sermon may be preached after the gospel. Then the focus moves from the lectern to the font. Anciently, Easter was considered the most perfect time to receive baptism, and this practice is alive in Roman Catholicism, as it is the time when new members are initiated into the Church, and it is being revived in some other circles. Whether there are baptisms at this point or not, it is traditional for the congregation to renew the vows of their baptismal faith. This act is often sealed by the sprinkling of the congregation with holy water from the font. The Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is also celebrated at the Vigil. The Easter Vigil concludes with the celebration of the Eucharist and Holy Communion. Additional celebrations are usually offered on Easter Sunday itself. Some churches read the Old Testament lessons before the procession of the Paschal candle, and then read the gospel immediately after the Exsultet. Some churches prefer to keep this vigil very early on the Sunday morning instead of the Saturday night, particularly Protestant churches, to reflect the gospel account of the women coming to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week. These services are known as the Sunrise service and often occur in outdoor setting such as the church's yard or a nearby park.
In predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the morning of Easter (known in the national language as "Pasko ng Muling Pagkabuhay" or the Pasch of the Resurrection) is marked with joyous celebration, the first being the dawn "Salubong", wherein large statues of Jesus and Mary are brought together to meet, imagining the first reunion of Jesus and his mother Mary after Jesus' Resurrection. This is followed by the joyous Easter Mass.
Some Christians wear their Sunday best to Church. This means a more formal dress and hats for some women.
Word for "Easter" in various languages
Names derived from the Hebrew Pesach (פסח) Passover
- Latin Pascha or Festa Paschalia
- Greek Πάσχα (Paskha)
- Afrikaans Paasfees
- Albanian Pashkët
- Arabic عيد الفصح (ʿAīd ul-Fiṣḥ)
- Bulgarian Пасха (Pasha; rarely used)
- Catalan Pasqua
- Croatian Vazam
- Danish Påske
- Dutch Pasen or paasfeest
- Esperanto Pasko
- Finnish Pääsiäinen
- French Pâques
- Hebrew פסחא (Pascha)
- Icelandic Páskar
- Indonesian Paskah
- Irish Gaelic Cáisc
- Italian Pasqua
- Norwegian Påske
- Tagalog (Philippines) Pasko ng Muling Pagkabuhay (literally "the Pasch of the Resurrection")
- Persian Pas`h
- Polish Pascha
- Portuguese Páscoa
- Romanian Paşte
- Russian Пасха (Paskha)
- Scottish Gaelic Casca
- Spanish Pascua
- Swedish Påsk
- Turkish Paskalya
- Welsh Pasg
- English Easter
- German Ostern
- Samoan Eseta (derived from English)
Names used in other languages
- Armenian Զատիկ (Zatik or Zadik, literally "resurrection")
- Belarusian Вялікдзень or Vialikdzen’ (literally "the Great Day")
- Bulgarian Великден (Velikden, literally "the Great Day") or Възкресение Христово (Vazkresenie Hristovo, literally "Resurrection of Christ")
- Simplified Chinese 复活节 Traditional Chinese 復活節 Pinyin Fùhuó Jié}} (literally "Resurrection Festival")
- Croatian Uskrs (literally "resurrection")
- Czech Velikonoce (literally "Great Nights" [plural, no singular exists])
- Estonian Lihavõtted (literally "meat taking")
- Farsi عيد پاك (literally "Chaste Feast")
- Georgian აღდგომა (Aĝdgoma, literally "rising")
- Hungarian Húsvét (literally "taking, or buying meat")
- Japanese 復活祭 (Fukkatsu-sai, literally "resurrection festival") or イースター Īsutā, from English
- Korean 부활절 (Puhwalchol, literally "Resurrection season")
- Latvian Lieldienas (literally "the Great Days", no singular exists)
- Lithuanian Velykos (derived from Slavic languages, no singular exists)
- Bulgarian dialect of FYROM Велигден (Veligden, literally "the Great Day")
- Polish Wielkanoc (literally "the Great Night")
- Romanian Inviere (literally "resurrection")
- Serbian Ускрс (Uskrs) or Васкрс (Vaskrs, literally "resurrection")
- Slovak Veľká Noc (literally "the Great Night")
- Slovenian Velika noč (literally "the Great Night")
- Tongan (South-pacific) Pekia (literally "death (of a lord)")
- Ukrainian Великдень (Velykden’, literally "the Great Day") or Паска (Paska)
- Calculator for the date of Festivals (Anglican)
- Paschal Calculator (Eastern Orthodox)
- Side-by-side Easter reference - for Catholic and Orthodox Easter dates, both Old style and New style, from 16th through 25th century.