This article has been updated from a previous version originally published in 2019
The church is once again engaged in the celebration of the Easter season. It’s springtime, which is familiarly considered as a time of renewal and new beginnings. We are blessed with another opportunity to reflect on our lives and spiritual condition while embracing the idea of love and sacrifice. But, what is the real meaning of Easter to the church and its believers? While critically exploring the current moral issues and tolerance within the body of Christ, are we genuinely progressive enough to honor our faithfulness? Well, this commentary invokes one simple, yet soul-stirring stream of conscience and inquiry. For the sake of clarity, let’s define the biblical meaning of the church as described in 1 Corinthians 12:13 “we as believers have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit (NLT).” The key emphasis here is placed on the phrase “one body.” Now, hold that thought.
When we prepare for a wedding or marriage anniversary, our focus is on two bodies joined as one. The courtship has advanced to the desire for a lifelong union that includes faith and trust. We prepare for the celebration of the relationship. We declare our hope of endless love and a desire for a continuous commitment. We witness new or renewed vows. Of course, that comes with the anticipation that the lover of our soul will return the same level of truth and their unconditional vow and love to create an eternal bond.
Similarly to the biblical passage in Romans 5:8 “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (NLT).” We celebrate this juncture with familiar traditions and the belief of future joy, happiness, and sincere appreciation. These events can be paralleled to the profession of our faith and acceptance of our new union with Christ and His biblical teachings.
During these occasions, there is little or no focus on the vague reality of betrayal and disappointment, nor its impact. But, what if you became a jilted lover whose promises are filled with hypocrisy? As Christians get underway to celebrate this Easter season, could we lose focus, leading us to become hypocritical lovers who are jilting Jesus Christ? Would we expect Jesus to honor His promises to give us another chance to win His confidence and love in the future or should He? Let’s ponder the truth of the matter that through His sacrifice, Jesus has offered us forgiveness for generations.
As we approach this Easter season and its true meaning, there is little debate about the fact that we should focus on the biblical perspective of our remembrance of the holy occasion. However, this is where things get a little sticky and please don’t blame the messenger. The portion of this dialogue is a real message to the followers of Christ. Regardless, many Christians will dedicate ample time preparing to spend enormous resources on physical items with far fewer thoughts of the spiritual restoration that this season should resonate for all. We live in a global society that successfully dictates the affairs that govern our lives and can compromise our beliefs. The world marketplace is unfortunately quite intentional. So the question we may ask ourselves is, do we have enough strength in our faith to honor truth despite the mere habit of performing learned behavior and supporting commercialism?
Sharing the truth of the gospel can have a significant impact on those who seek to become followers of Christ. Perhaps the following true story may help us gain a reasonable perspective. As a child minister mentored by older and more seasoned clergy, a young person began his walk of faith at the tender age of only 12-years-old. He enjoyed learning about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. His mom was a devoted believer and raised all her children based on her genuine understanding of God and His principles. He grew up to become enthusiastic about his service in the church and blessed many through his ministry. However, due to his large family of siblings and obvious limited resources, he was not economically able to dress as well as he wished when called on to deliver his pulpit message. But, with his talent, love for the gospel, a dedicated family, and ministerial support, he persisted. Then something changed. He will not fully disclose any details even today, nearly 49 years later. He only mentioned a brief version of a visiting minister that witnessed his unique potential and offered him a promise of better clothes and shoes in exchange for favors. In his humble opinion, he was subject to hypocrisy. As a result, he did not abandon the entire gospel that he had learned, but his faith was shattered in many ways.
Yes, Christians can make unintentional mistakes, but Matthew 23:27-29 reminds us that “it is the same with you. On the outside, you seem to be doing what is right. But on the inside, you are full of what is wrong. You pretend to be what you are not (NIRV). Hypocrisy and deception still cause many unresolved questions today, especially within the church.
Whether you choose to call it disillusioned or heartbroken, the young adolescent came home and expressed to his mom that he “was never going back to that church!” Surprised, his mother asked for his explanation. He then explained that he had been disheartened by what grownups repetitious spoke about others including untrue things that were not in the bible. He went on to say that even she has not told the truth that “there was no Santa Claus and ask her why she had allowed him to believe in “an Easter bunny that lays eggs?” Perhaps disappointed, his mom’s eyes of understanding were opened to the effect on his spiritual and impressionable misguided journey. Long story short, today he still struggles with some spiritual truths.
Realistically, Christians love celebrations that align with biblical values. Our intentions are good. We believe and love the value of witnessing to non-believers that encourages them to embrace our faith in redemption and eternal salvation. However, if we are truly honest about our faithfulness in Christ’s sacrifice, we must admit that far too many believers are sitting on a fence of societal traditions. Regardless, marketing professionals depend on influencing us for their increased profits, while we provide a continuous financial stream that contributes more and more to support their mission.
There will be baskets, colored eggs, fake grass, new dresses with matching buttons and bows, new suits and shiny shoes, big dinners, and, oh yes, that infamous Easter bunny that will never lay an egg. Certainly, not everyone participates in all of these traditions, but many Christians worldwide will indeed in a number of ways. How many individuals within our faith community are sincerely committed to opening their hearts to confess the level of historical pagan practices included in numerous celebrations? To whom do we teach or what is conveyed to those who are new to our faith? In today’s times with the unbelievable amount of deception we hear, shouldn’t we as Christians have the courage to remain sharp and alert when educating biblical principles that teach our children and others? This issue does not only rest with Christ’s sacrificial efforts to save us from ourselves but in our vulnerability as believers to appropriately dismiss the distractions that the world presents to us. Can our well-intended practices become a source of confusion to the non-believer who is searching for clear answers and a better understanding of our belief in Jesus Christ?
Easter has a distinct meaning to the church as the one body of Christ. This meaning is described as all those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Honestly speaking, the truthful bond in our Easter celebration is simple. Jesus should never become our jilted lover for He has demonstrated His true love to all believers and non-believers within the following passage of Scripture as we remain mindful that “this is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it and why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him (John 3:16-18 (MSG).”
Therefore, it is crucial to remain cognitive as we are directed in 2 Timothy 2:15, “the believers within the body of Christ are indeed obligated to “work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth (NLT).” The answer does not lie in the value of a bunny nor does it advocate that anyone discontinue celebrating Easter with all the bells and whistles that come with it. As we have learned in Psalm 40: 4-6, “Oh, the joys of those who trust the Lord, who have no confidence in the proud or in those who worship idols. O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them… I take joy in doing your will, my God, for your instructions are written on my heart (NLT).” Hopefully, this holistic message encourages us to both celebrate and teach the true meaning of Easter to those who are seeking meaningful answers about Christ’s acts of love, sacrifice, and resurrection.
This is an updated version of an article published in April 2019.
On April 4, Christians will be celebrating Easter, the day on which the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place. The date of celebration changes from year to year.
The reason for this variation is that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. So, in 2022, Easter will be celebrated on April 17, and on April 9 in 2023.
I am a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, and my research shows that this dating of Easter goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries.
Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all of these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together.
Easter as a rite of spring
Most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons. This is especially obvious in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about what time of year Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus’ birth came to be celebrated on December 25 is because that was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar.
Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer and less dark, it was ideal symbolism for the birth of “the light of the world” as stated in the New Testament’s Gospel of John.
Similar was the case with Easter, which falls in close proximity to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and darkness. For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter.
Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.
The naming of the celebration as “Easter” seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. As religious studies scholar Bruce Forbessummarizes:
“Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.”
Bede was so influential for later Christians that the name stuck, and hence Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans and Americans refer to the festival of Jesus’ resurrection.
The connection with Jewish Passover
It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pascha” in Greek) – a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover.
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover is a festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, as narrated in the Book of Exodus. It was and continues to be the most important Jewish seasonal festival, celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
At the time of Jesus, Passover had special significance, as the Jewish people were again under the dominance of foreign powers (namely, the Romans). Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem every year in the hope that God’s chosen people (as they believed themselves to be) would soon be liberated once more.
On one Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the festival. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession and created a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that both of these actions attracted the attention of the Romans, and that as a result Jesus was executed around the year A.D. 30.
Some of Jesus’ followers, however, believed that they saw him alive after his death, experiences that gave birth to the Christian religion. As Jesus died during the Passover festival and his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead three days later, it was logical to commemorate these events in close proximity.
Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover, which fell around day 14 of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as Quartodecimans (the name means “Fourteeners”).
By choosing this date, they put the focus on when Jesus died and also emphasized continuity with the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged. Some others instead preferred to hold the festival on a Sunday, since that was when Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been found.
In A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine, who favored Christianity, convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The most fateful of its decisions was about the status of Christ, whom the council recognized as “fully human and fully divine.” This council also resolved that Easter should be fixed on a Sunday, not on day 14 of Nisan. As a result, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox.
The Easter bunny and Easter eggs
In early America, the Easter festival was far more popular among Catholics than Protestants. For instance, the New England Puritans regarded both Easter and Christmas as too tainted by non-Christian influences to be appropriate to celebrate. Such festivals also tended to be opportunities for heavy drinking and merrymaking.
The fortunes of both holidays changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy.
But Easter and Christmas also became reshaped as domestic holidays because understandings of children were changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. As historian Stephen Nissenbaumwrites,
“…children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices – who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.”
From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as as time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated.
Yet it was only in the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter hare” bringing eggs to good children came to be known. Hares and rabbits had a long association with spring seasonal rituals because of their amazing powers of fertility.
When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare also became supplanted by the more docile and domestic rabbit, in another indication of how the focus moved toward children.
As Christians celebrate the festival this spring in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, the familiar sights of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs serve as a reminder of the holiday’s very ancient origins outside of the Christian tradition.
Last fall, I planted bulbs in the front of our house. Daffodils, lilies, tulips, crocuses, you name it. I went a little crazy because it felt like a junior high science experiment and I wondered if it’d work. If it did, I knew that by spring I’d be seeing petals.
For urban types like me, our gardening experience is limited to a few window boxes from community block parties. So I consider it downright amazing to bury one thing in the ground and have it emerge months later something altogether different. It seems an impossible feat: in spite of concrete, asphalt and broken beer bottles, flowers with colors as bright as any New York taxi can burst forth.
I’m convinced we need the power of nature, of art and color and story, to move beyond existing and enter that place where we live fully, or at least, well. We do need words that spring forth from flowerbeds, that speak of newness and beauty and hope all wrapped up in one. If nothing else, we need the colors and fragrances of a changing season like spring to soften the concrete struggles around us. They keep us going. They inspire.
That’s the nature of resurrection.
To be sure, this undercurrent of the Christian life, this back-story of every story we encounter — death, resurrection, transformation — runs deep in our collective soul. It is the theme of more songs and films, paintings and novels, missions and centers than any other in the history of art (which is the history of humanity). We cheer for the underdog on the screen who conquers each obstacle set in her path; we marvel at the painting that stirs some feeling we’d forgotten we had. We turn the dial, change the channel or visit another creative ministry until we connect to a song or an image that draws us to a new place, a new perspective, a new way to press on.
We’re wired to hope. To look forward, not backward. We want to believe the impossible. Why? My guess is we know there is more to this earthy existence.
Thank God there is.
After Jesus died, he went for walks on the beach. After he spent three days buried in the soil of death, he cooked breakfast for a few friends. He chatted and lingered on sidewalks and in gardens, telling stories, holding hands, eating bread. Sure, he lived well before he died. Admirably. Heroically. Boldly. But after he died — that is, after his lungs collapsed and his heart stopped — he spent the next month and a half strolling through the Middle East; 40 full days of handing back hope to women who’d lost it, reminding men of the truth of scripture, encouraging hundreds of friends that there was indeed more to this world than what they saw each day as the sun came up.
Yes, that was some living.
And those days on earth after his execution were apparently so full, so exciting and rich, that John says he couldn’t record them all in his Gospel account (John 20:30, 31). Maybe the Risen Christ drew pictures in the sand; maybe he sang hymns with his friends. Maybe he picked figs or went fishing or danced jigs. Whatever else he did in his resurrected life — apart from the stories we do have — history testifies to the reality that he gave us plenty to keep reveling in the wonders of living.
To keep planting bulbs and watching for petals.
There are the stories, of course, from the Gospel narratives about his earthly ministry before death. But we should know, too, that there are other stories from the life of our Risen Lord. They are equally true stories and equally reflective of the magic — or miracle — of what happens in the garden of a human heart when the Person of God in Jesus appears.
After Jesus died, he spent what I call “very-much-alive-time” with utterly desperate friends. He walked with them (Luke 24:15), ate with them (Luke 24:41-43), comforted them (Matt. 28:9-10), taught them (Luke 24:27). He spent so much time with them, in fact, that the stories of their lives changed history. His death and resurrection planted in them new life.
And what happened to them also happened to others, and others beyond them. It still does. Miracle stories. Impossible new beginnings. Spring fragrances.
Bright daffodils that once were only hard dull bulbs. A desperate faith that blossoms into hope all because a Holy Presence dug through the soil to make a garden.
One of the gravest mistakes of the tradition of faith that I walk and love is the valorization of the violence of the cross, mixed with a shallow celebration of the heroism of the spectacle. It makes many of us inordinately emphasize sacrifice as negation, asceticism as an idolatrous form of faith. This often leads us ironically to hunger to be recognized for our sacrifice. When we are not…it leads destructively to resentment, to vicious forms of passive-aggressiveness that masquerade as “help” but are really desperate measures to punish and control. Christians, I believe, are the worst when it comes to this.
The cross can be of great help here; but, it must be preached and taught properly. We need our greatest preachers and theologians to reflect on suffering and violence (overt and emotional forms) in ways that are life-giving and not “pornographic”—by this I mean ways that excite us deliciously but shallowly; stimulating us without building relationship; encouraging privatistic and consumerist spirituality: in a word, pornographic. Yes, pornographic violence because of what is hidden, the processes and instruments of the humiliation that serves us. We cover the most probable nakedness of Jesus on the cross—always! Why? It’s easier to celebrate a Disney-ized view of good and evil than to grapple with the self-critical reality that the cross actually represents.
Jesus is not a victim of history or theology. He is an agent of the reconciliation and the wholeness that deep change makes possible. Sacrifice is not an end. Rather, the giving of one’s self is a grace. If self-giving leads to emptiness and “crooked-twig” abusiveness it is not a grace: it is faith misguided, faith misused.
How does the cross teach us the limits of our own self-sacrificing? I am not entirely certain. I am still grappling with the centrality of violence in this spectacle…but I am certain that we do not need to be Jesus, but simply like him. I am sure that our crosses are specific to our fears and our callings; sure that our crosses are not an end in and of themselves. I am confident that healthy sacrifice does not require acknowledgement. Healthy sacrifice, instead, is intrinsically valuable for us as well as those we seek to serve. We each have a cross, a rightful one—not Golgotha’s, but our own. When we face our deepest fears we achieve a victory so deep that it inspires the grace we need to forgive, to endure, and to thrive without resentment or regret: wholeheartedly.
The light of the cross shines within us; the most truly heroic things we do are often small and insignificant to most people but work transformation in our lives and the lives of others. I am sure that pain is involved, but not destruction and that on the other side of real sacrifice is the negation of fear’s powers over us.
I am coming to the realization that some of us sacrifice too much. Some of us are asked to bear the costs for whole families, whole communities, and whole systems. This pressure misshapes us, often making us practitioners of abuse ourselves: self-abuse, unfairness, quiet, destructive, and often secret forms of resentment-driven despair—even rage—almost certainly rage in us or those we love the wrong way.
The cross of Jesus seeks to end the cycle of violence, the curse of fear and hatred. Sometimes our cross is facing and ending our victimhood. Our cross might be the pain and sadness we must face to end our own willingness to be used by others. Our cross could be facing own need to be thought of as good, right, helpful, noble, useful, or nice; to be thought of as the peacemaker, the good son, the good daughter, the good wife, the good friend. Our cross may entail putting an end to crosses themselves—in our life and in the lives of others we sentence to the isolation and pain of our pettiness. Jesus dies once and for all, for us the living, a living sacrifice.
It is hard to see this on “Good Friday,” but it is certainly there proleptically. In Jesus’s actions through the Passion we are somehow freed from the bondage of sacrifice systems that purport to free us but perniciously feed on us. The victory of the Cross is the victory of over fear; the victory over the sting of death; the victory that stalks every vengeance-driven tale or politics or religion; the victory over triumph shallowly understood. We are more than conquerors.
In this way the cross can free us from the need to win that often attends sacrifice for sacrifice sake and the ultimately corrosive resentment and passive aggression that attends such “victories.” Jesus frees us from this game with His cross: Once and for all.
Our faith is often in need of reformation, individually and collectively. The cross does this work forever. Every Easter we are asked to encounter these ironies and to encounter this challenge as a form of renewal. And we do not undertake this work alone, for the Holy Spirit—who comes at Pentecost—augments and undergirds our strength.
Is it time for Easter again? It doesn’t feel like Easter season. Easter (or Resurrection Sunday for the purists) is around the corner, and yet many Millennials feel little reason to celebrate. When I think of Easter, I think of special sermons, church presentations, fancy outfits, and big dinners. I also think of bunnies, eggs, and baskets thanks to corporate marketing. Ironically, what I don’t think about immediately is the Resurrection. But isn’t that the reason for the season?
For the past few years, social media campaigns have tried to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It has become so commercialized that people come out of the woodwork you didn’t even know were Christian. They remind everyone following them that Jesus is the reason for the season, that Jesus is the best gift we could get in the season, that Jesus wants us to give in this season, and that we should be content whether we get other gifts or not.
But Easter doesn’t have gift-giving traditions. Were it not for multi-colored chocolate eggs, most of us would not even think about what we receive on that holiday. But Easter is supposed to be the center of the Christian faith. Jesus goes to the Cross, dies for our sins, and resurrects with power, giving hope of salvation to all the earth.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Easter doesn’t immediately remind us of resurrection is because resurrection hope seems so far removed from our current situation. Current events in our world—from politics to protests, global warming to global injustice, doubt in our lives and doubt in our faith—have caused many to lose hope.
The Sweet By-and-By
It is hard to think about the hope of resurrection when we are surrounded by so much death. But that is exactly why we as Christians need to remember the Resurrection. What greater hope is there in the midst of a death culture than the revelation that death is not the end of the story? That our God loved us enough to take death on Himself and then overcame death itself?
Resurrection is not just about “the sweet-by and-by” either. We have to hold on to the promise of life after this life, but resurrection also comes when we hear the testimonies of those who are still living, still striving, still fighting, still hopeful despite facing ridiculous obstacles and even threats to their very lives.
Jesus gives new hope to a woman with an issue of blood who was treated as dead by society, and He not only wasn’t afraid of a man with a legion of demons, He set the man free and made him a missionary. Jesus is hope for resurrection in a world that needs new life.
Time to Remember
It could be because of Saint Patrick’s Day that takes place around the same time, so people are focused on Irish beer and clovers. It could be because we feel like we’ve heard the Easter sermon before, so we’ll catch it on livestream. It could be that you didn’t know Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Lent had anything to do with Easter, so it just isn’t in your mind.
It could be because no one you know buys Easter clothes, or because there will be no big dinner, or because you’ve got so many other things going on that you just forgot. But whatever the reason we weren’t thinking about the Resurrection yet for Easter, we should take time to remember it now.
It is the story of our salvation. It is the “right now” power of God. It is what we need to face today together.