Even though Easter is firmly entrenched as a cultural tradition throughout the entire world, many questions concerning its meaning, significance, and origin remain. And some of those questions have stirred a significant amount of controversy.
What is the Meaning of Easter?
To understand the meaning of Easter, one must first understand Christianity, a monotheistic faith that holds Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Jewish teacher, to be the divine Son of God (John 3:16) sent to redeem the world from its sins (Romans 10:9-10).
The time of Easter coincides with the Jewish Passover. Christians regard this timing as particularly significant, since the Passover honored the time when Jewish families put sheep’s blood on their homes to spare them from the final divine plague against the Egyptian Empire.
When the Death Angel saw the blood, he passed over the Hebrew homes and did not take the lives of their firstborn sons. So devastating was this final plague on Egypt that Pharoah (briefly) relented and allowed the Hebrew slaves to leave Egypt.
When Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, he did so in the context of honoring Passover, symbolically affirming his role as the “Lamb of God” who atones for the sins of the world. Though the entire world is accountable to God for its sins (and heading for judgment), Christians believe that those who accept the blood sacrifice of Jesus will be spared.
Shortly after this Passover meal (known as the “Last Supper”), Jesus was arrested and crucified at the hand of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea.
Following Jesus’ crucifixion, many of his followers claimed to have seen him alive (I Corinthians 15). These resurrection appearances fueled the rise and spread of Christianity.
Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, which the Apostle Paul taught was a validation of Jesus’ deity and a sign of his completed work in atoning for the sins of the world. According to Paul, the resurrection is so central to Christianity, that, without it, the entire Christian faith is empty (I Corinthians 15).
When Was Easter First Celebrated?
Jesus was crucified sometime between 26 and 36 A.D., with most scholars fixing the year at 30 or 33 A.D. Reports of Jesus’ resurrection spread within days of his crucifixion. By the end of the third decade of the first century (just a few years after Jesus’ death), a well-established church creed (at least a portion of which is apparently contained in I Corinthians 15) testified to hundreds of eyewitnesses who had seen the risen Jesus.
While critics and skeptics doubt the accuracy of the Gospel accounts, virtually all scholars (Christian and non-Christian alike) concede the authenticity of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth (written between 53 and 57 A.D.) as well as his letter to the church at Galatia (written sometime between 48 and 57 AD).
Analysis of these letters shows that belief and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection then can be traced to the same time-frame of the event itself.
Though Jesus’ resurrection would be celebrated for years to come, the earliest evidence of fixing that celebration to the Easter season is a homily by second-century Christian Melito of Sardis.
The History of Easter Since the First Century
As the early church began to honor Easter with feasts and festivities, controversy surrounding the dating of Easter and the nature of the holy day erupted in the early second century and lasted through the third and fourth centuries.
Further complications arose with the rise of the Vatican and Bishop of Rome as the central authority for the Christian community, the changing of the calendar, and the incorporation of many pagan traditions into the celebration of Easter. Easter is now a “movable feast” connected with the observance of Passover, Lent, and the vernal equinox.
Though modern celebrations of Easter are two thousand years removed from the primary event it was originally intended to be a celebration. Christians today recognize that Easter Sunday is the most significant day on the calendar. For the event behind Easter, namely the resurrection of Jesus, is at the very heart of Christianity. As Paul wrote two thousand years ago: “If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain” (I Corinthians 15).