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.
An occasional offering from Faith & Leadership, Duke Divinity School’s online magazine on the practice of Christian leadership.
We walked together, some carrying placards, some taking turns carrying the 5-foot-tall cedar cross. Not a large crowd — 25 or so. Enough to be intentional, enough to attract attention. I wore my collar and black cassock, signs of my ministry, signs of the church.
It was Good Friday, and we were walking the Way of the Cross through our town, Carrboro, N.C. This made church public — we felt a little timid and a little bold at the same time.
Somewhere between the fifth and sixth stations, a man rode by on his bicycle.
“F*** God!” he yelled, waving his fist in the air. “F*** religion!”
We walked on.
Good liturgy both expresses and shapes what we believe. That day, the people of my church understood a little better how it felt to publicly claim our identity as Christians, and how a God-made-flesh was vulnerable to the powers of this world.
My congregation, the Church of the Advocate, is a 21st-century mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Launched in 2003, we are rooted in the traditions and liturgies of the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer.
Because don’t have a building, though, we experience the liberation and the challenge of inheriting the liturgies without the usual structures in which they take place. From the beginning, members of the Advocate have asked, “Why are we doing this? What does it say? How does it form us?”
This has allowed us to consider our Holy Week liturgies from scratch and to take them into new and different places, including outdoors.
In the past year, imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday in public has gained traction in cities and towns as “Ashes to Go.” We have found that the liturgies of Palm Sunday and Good Friday are also conducive to exposure and practice in the world.
After all, that’s where they started.
Remembering Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, we gather as the people of the first century did, outdoors by the walls of the city (in our case, town hall).
Standing in the cool spring air, we hear the story of Jesus, the colt, the people, the palms. And we, too, wave palm branches and carry redbuds, azaleas, daffodils from our own gardens and trees, as the citizens of first-century Jerusalem did with the original palms.
We walk in procession to the entrance of our town commons (home to a playground and a weekly farmers’ market), singing “Jesus is coming! Hosanna! Glory!” I encourage people to crowd as close to the cross as they can.
Before entering, we cast our palms before the crucifer and cross and enter singing, “This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by; the palm shall strew its branches, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull, and dumb, and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.”
The service quickly moves to the Passion story, a liturgical jolt. Yet experiencing these two narratives in one hour helps us realize that we, like the people of first-century Jerusalem, can quickly convert from cries of “Hosanna!” to shouts of “Crucify him!”
All who pass by are welcome to join. Some do: people walking with kids or dogs, people who have never been to church, people who remember the church of their childhood and are intrigued to see it being made new. Some stand on the periphery; others take a seat on chairs we have brought with us.
At noon on Good Friday, we return for a simple service from the Book of Common Prayer. Once again we hear the Passion narrative — the third time in a week — and it begins to penetrate our hearts and our bones. When it’s cold and rainy, we identify with Peter, warming his hands by the fire as he denies he knows the Lord.
Someone brings forth the cross, made of two pieces of cedar lashed together, and we see and feel its heft. We walk to town hall and begin the Way of the Cross/Via Dolorosa with the first station: Jesus is condemned to die.
We have recast the traditional stations for a 21st-century context, so as we walk through our own town, we also reflect on the state of our world, our nation, our community and ourselves. We walk past social service agencies, nonprofits, a center for conflict resolution, the police station, the local food co-op. We realize and make known Christ’s presence in all of these places.
We read the stations in English and in Spanish in recognition of our Spanish-speaking neighbors, many of whom come from countries where the Fridays in Lent are marked by a public procession of the cross. And every year strangers spontaneously join us on the Way, sometimes just for a station or two, sometimes to the end.
Last year we added placards as a way of showing how we were applying the gospel today: “Love the World”; “Jesus Welcomes the Alien and the Stranger”; “Dichosos los Pobres.”
The signs made us feel even more public and vulnerable. We were cheered and jeered. Drivers honked support and annoyance.
Yet when we talked about it afterward, we agreed that we felt strangely empowered and formed as Christians in the world. We realized that we can be open with our faith.
Moving outside the confines of a church building allows us to remember profoundly the experience of Jesus and his followers on the streets of Jerusalem, in the upper room, before the councils of church and state, and on the road to Calvary. And we come to understand more fully Christ’s gift of vulnerability to us all.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st-century mission in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, N.C.