Holy Week: Easter Its Meanings, Traditions, and History
Easter brings Holy Week to a close, as it is the celebration of Jesus Christ raising from the dead. While Easter is now recognized this way in Christianity, there are traditions, history, and meanings to Easter that are apart from Christianity, and some that have been adopted by the faith.
Biblical Beginning of Easter
Easter, which is often called “Resurrection Day” amongst many Christians, commemorates the day that Jesus was found to be raised from the dead. According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, and was placed in a tomb as his burial site. He had foretold that He would rise from the dead, so guards were placed in front of His tomb to guard it. The Jewish religious leaders were concerned that someone would steal the body, and would claim that Jesus had risen, so Roman soldiers were placed to guard the tomb.
On Sunday, followers of Jesus came to the tomb to find it empty, and later they would see that He was alive, and that He had actually risen from the dead. According to the Bible, His Disciples could see the wounds from the nail marks in his hands, and the spear mark in His side, and one Disciple actually touched the spot where a nail had been driven through His hand. They were sure He had risen, and that He truly was the Messiah.
As discussed in a previous article, the resurrection was actually celebrated by followers on Friday, along with the Last Supper and Good Friday. This was referred to as Pasch. Pasch was the tradition for nearly 300 years, that the three events would be celebrated as one. Believers spent the day gathered together, in solemn prayer.
When Constantine became the emperor of the Roman Empire, he converted to Christianity. As part of his conversion, he wanted to follow a faith that was a lot more grandiose than Christianity had been to that point. He built huge churches throughout the empire, and had the bishops create much more elaborate ceremonies and rituals to go with the new faith. One of those changes was the separating of the three events into three separate days to be celebrated.
Easter was the final day of the Triumvirate grouping, and was celebrated with the Eucharist, a vigil service, and reading of the psalms and the Gospel accounts of Jesus showing Himself to be alive. Within a short period of time, however, the lighting of candles was included in the ceremony, as a sign of Christ’s light shining over the world.
How Did ‘Easter’ Get Its Name
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, missionary groups began to form, and they took the Gospel message to many of the Teutonic and Germanic peoples in the northern parts of Europe. Within the Anglo-Saxon people, they celebrated the goddess of spring, Eastre, around the same time as the resurrection of Jesus was to have occurred. The missionaries wanted the people to follow Jesus, and found that if they tried to remove the lavish celebrations that occurred around Eastre, the people would be hesitant to follow. Thus they took the name, and applied it to the resurrection date.
This was a common practice of the church early on, especially in Europe. The church leadership wanted to spread the Gospel message throughout the Earth, as Jesus had commanded, but they found that most people were hesitant to give up their own religious practices and traditions, because they had such important significance to their way of life. The decision was made that these holidays would simply be incorporated into the Church as holidays, but would be changed to celebrate something related to Jesus. This is how Easter and Christmas were fused into Christianity.
What Was the Pagan Tradition?
Since the word is derived from a “pagan” religious belief, it makes sense to understand the meanings, history, and traditions related to Easter, if it is going to be properly understood as part of Holy Week. Understanding this history and traditions makes it easy to see how “natural” it was to equate Easter with the resurrection.
Eastre was the great mother goddess of the Saxon people. She was the goddess of fertility, which went by many variations of the name, with Estre and Eastur bring two of the most common. The word eastre, from which her name is derived, means “spring.”
According to many religions of the Mediterranean and Europe in general, there was usually a fertility goddess, much like Eastre. Another of the most common was Cybele, the fertility goddess of the Phrygian people. According to this story, Cybele had a romantic interlude with Attis, who was believed to have been born of a virgin. According to the myth, Attis was believed to have died and been resurrected during a period of March 22-25.
The story of an Attis type character is incorporated in many different pagan religions, with a similar Attis character being mentioned, who died and rose from the grave. While not conclusively proven as fact, it is believed that some of these traditions actually pre-date Jesus, and there is some speculation that the death and resurrection of Jesus was actually fabricated by the missionaries to appeal to followers of these other religions.
The problem with this theory is that missionaries did not attempt to go among these people to evangelize until the second century A.D., and the first Gospel account, Mark, was written around 40 A.D.
While making up the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection to reach the people of other religions is highly unlikely, the fact remains that it was very easy for missionaries to take stories, such as Attis, and tell the people that it was not Attis or any other person who died and rose from the grave; it was Jesus.
The Easter Traditions That Followed
Once these people accepted Jesus, many missionary groups were accepting of the idea that the traditions which had been practiced around pagan gods and goddesses were acceptable, as long as Jesus was the focus of these traditions. This led to a myriad of rituals being added to the faith.
Easter Eggs – Eggs were always viewed as a symbol of new life. Because of this, it was included during many spring celebrations. Christians liked the idea of eggs representing life, but did not want that life associated with pagan goddesses. Over time, the idea developed that the egg represented Jesus emergence from the grave (the shell), and his raising from the dead.
Into the so called Medieval Times, because the egg was seen as a sign of Jesus resurrection, eggs were forbidden to be eaten during Lent. This became a wide-standing policy amongst the church, in fact. The problem was that many people could not afford or were unwilling to simply throw the eggs away. Eggs were an important source of protein, and, thus, to throw them away or let them spoil was not viable as an option. To resolve the matter, the eggs were boiled, and then eaten, hard-boiled, on Easter Sunday.
Into the 13th century, the boiling of eggs were a standard practice for most Christians. However, the resurrection was to be seen as a festive event, and eating eggs from a simple white shell did not seem festive enough. Thus the tradition of coloring, dying, and decorating the eggs began, and spread quickly.
Easter Bunny – Since the egg was included as a symbol of fertility, other such symbols began to be included. The most famous of these is the Easter bunny. After all, it is common knowledge that rabbits are some of the most prolific animals at reproduction. Because of this, it became natural for Christians to include bunnies in the Easter celebration.
Easter Traditions in the Church
With the day being seen as such a festive event, traditions in the church began to develop. One of the most common was that of new Christians to be baptized on Easter Sunday. Since the day was to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, and since the Apostle Paul spoke frequently of baptism as the rising of a person out of the water, to be reborn, it only made sense that the practice would be incorporated as part of Easter.
A new follower would often fast from Good Friday until Sunday, and then would be baptized early in the morning, to celebrate Jesus’ appearance to His Disciples early in the morning. Then they would eat and celebrate the “rebirth” of their life.
This is not as common a practice today, but one part of this that is found in many denominations is the blessing that is given to many newly converted Christians on Easter Sunday. Those who are new to the faith are blessed, and welcomed into the faith.
Virtually all churches have an Easter Sunday service, where they read the Gospel accounts, share in communion, and sing hymns and songs celebrating the resurrection. Many Eastern Orthodox churches begin the service with a procession where the members of the church walk around the church first, in a symbolic search for Christ’s body, then enter the church and proudly announce, “Christ is Risen!” Hundreds of candles are then lit, as a symbol of Christ’s light shining over the whole world
The history, meaning, and traditions of Easter are a very interesting part of Holy Week. These ritual and traditions have developed over 2000 years, and demonstrate a desire to recognize one of the most important days in the history of the world.