A Study of the Origins and Features of Easter

No Comments | April 2011

This article looks at the various traditions and celebrations that have gradually become a part of Easter, and examines their origins, what place they have, if any, according to the scriptures and the teachings of Jesus(as) and the significance of the days leading up to Easter.

While the emphasis is religious, Easter has become so heavily commercialised these days that the start of spring sparks supermarkets to load the aisles with Easter cards, Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, Easter bonnets, Easter foods and spring daffodils. But for many devout Christians, the real focus of Easter is on Jesus’(as) resurrection and their belief that he died on the cross, so that their own sins could be forgiven.

Easter is the most important time of the year for Christians. In preparation for this day, many Christians around the world observe some or all of the special days associated with it, beginning with Shrove Tuesday (also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), Ash Wednesday, followed by the forty-day period of abstinence or fasting known as Lent. This period concludes with Holy Week; (Palm Sunday and Holy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Saturday, – with the last day being Easter Sunday.

Easter procession in Kurks, Russia – painting by Ilya Repin (1880-83)

 

Shrove Tuesday: Pre-Lenten confession and celebration

Shrove Tuesday is the first Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and became the last day for celebrating and feasting before the 40 day Lenten period of fasting. It takes its name from the word “shrive,” or to confess. On Shrove Tuesday, Christians confess their sins and ask God for forgiveness after the evening prayer, ushering in the advent of Lent.

‘In medieval England a priest would hear a confession and, in theory if not in practice, write down, or prescribe, an appropriate penance. After absolution, the person was said to have been shriven.’1

However, since Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving up one’s favourite things, many see Shrove Tuesday as the last chance to indulge, and to use up the foods that are not allowed in Lent, such as meat, fats, eggs, milk and fish. In the Middle Ages, as the food storage systems were not adequate and to avoid wasting the foods to be abstained from in Lent, people would hold big feasts on Shrove Tuesday. In England, the tradition of eating pancakes originated because this was the best way to consume as much milk, fats and eggs as possible before Ash Wednesday. In France, this day came to be known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, because it was a day of consumption of all fats and fatty foods. Shrove Tuesday was also the last opportunity for eating meat, the Latin for which is carnis: -flesh, hence ‘carnival’ and similar words in other languages, became associated with Shrove Tuesday.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is a half secular, half religious holiday of revelry that grew up among Mediterranean-based Catholics in anticipation of the austerities that would commence on Ash Wednesday.2

Over the years, that revelry has increased. In Europe Mardi Gras celebrations include the wearing of flamboyant masks and costumes during the carnivals. The carnival in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) includes balls, pageants, and parades with hundreds of dancers dressed in vibrant costumes. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is also celebrated during parades featuring large floats, followed by throngs of people dressed as eccentric characters. The emphasis of the day is on eating, drinking and dancing, as well as practical jokes and humorous street plays.

Ironically, for many people around the world Shrove Tuesday has evolved into a day of extravagant indulgence, but for devout worshippers the focus remains on confession of one’s sins, repentance and prayer. There are no instructions in the Bible or from Jesus(as) to observe this day.

Ash Wednesday – A universal day of penitence marked by Ashes

Shrove Tuesday is followed by Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of the Lenten season when special services are held in Churches. In preparation for this service the priest makes blessed Holy Ashes, by burning palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm day service. The Ashes are mixed with Holy water to make a paste. When worshippers go to church on Ash Wednesday, the priest dips his thumb in the Ash paste and marks the sign of a cross on each worshipper’s forehead. For Christians ashes are a symbol of remorse for their wrong doings, which they want to be rid of forever. It is also a reminder to them that “we all come from ashes, and to ashes we all will return.3” The marking on the forehead with ash marks their commitment to Jesus Christ and God, and is a symbol of repentance for the wrong things Christians think they have done in the past year.

This was the practice in Rome for penitents to begin their period of public penance on the first day of Lent. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth and obliged to remain apart until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. When these practices fell into disuse (8th–10th century), the beginning of Lent was symbolised by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation. The observation of Ash Wednesday in the Roman Catholic Church includes fasting, abstinence from meat and repentance, a day of contemplation of one’s transgressions. 4

Some have linked this Holy day to sorrowful repentance by sprinkling oneself with ashes as mentioned in the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Isaiah 58; 5 Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6.

And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that [was] on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying. (2 Samuel 13:19)

 

When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; (Esther 4:1)

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus(as) was thought to have been crucified and buried. Biblical and historical evidence prove Jesus(as) did not die on the cross.

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? [is it] to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes [under him]? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? (Isaiah 58; 5I)

And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes. (Job 2:8)

And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: (Daniel 9:3)

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered [him] with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. (Jonah 3:6.)

However, these references cannot be used to justify the practice of creating a new day called Ash Wednesday. The Old Testament clearly illustrates how early Christians grieved sorrowfully by covering themselves in ashes, or by wearing handmade garments of sackcloth covered in Ashes, not by having a little Holy Ash cross marked on their forehead by a priest or minister.

Lent – A season of prayer, penance and self – discipline

The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means spring, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word lenctentid, referring to the lengthening days in spring. This is a season of fasting observed by Catholics and other non-Catholic denominations.5

 

Christians observe Lent by fasting and by trying to abstain from sin and vice. The Church instructs Christians to seek penance by being remorseful for their sins and turning to God. The aim of the Church is to enable Christians to understand how fasting and maintaining self-discipline during Lent will enable the worshipper to gain the self control needed to purify the heart and renew one’s life.6

It is of interest to note that Lent was not observed by the church in the first century. Scholars dispute whether Lent was first mentioned in the Council of Nicea in (325 AD), when Emperor Constantine officially recognised the church as the Roman Empire’s state religion. According to the Encyclopaedia of the early church, “Lent is mentioned for the first time in 334, by Athanasius,”7 Any other forms of Christianity that held doctrines different from the Roman Church were considered to be enemies of the state. In 360, the Council of Laodicea officially commanded that Lent be observed, and by the end of the fourth century the 40 day fast was observed everywhere, not only by those who were to be baptised, but all Christians preparing themselves for Easter. 8

Originally, people did not observe Lent for more than a week. Some kept it for one or two days. Others kept it for 40 consecutive hours in the false belief that only 40 hours had elapsed between Jesus’(as) death and his resurrection, according to Christian doctrine. Eventually, Lent became a 40-day period of fasting or abstaining from certain foods.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

‘The emphasis was not so much on the fasting as on the spiritual renewal that the preparation for Easter demanded. It was simply a period marked by fasting, but not necessarily one in which the faithful fasted every day. However, as time went on, more and more emphasis was laid upon fasting…During the early centuries (from the fifth century on especially) the observance of the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day, toward evening was allowed: flesh meat and fish, and in most places even eggs and dairy products, were absolutely forbidden. Meat was not even allowed on Sundays.’9

But from the ninth century onward, Lent’s strict rules saw a gradual relaxation. Greater emphasis was given to performing “penitential works”, rather than to fasting and abstinence. According to the apostolic constitution Poenitemini of Pope Paul IV (Feb. 17, 1966), ‘abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays of the year that do not fall on holy days of obligation, and fasting as well as abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.’ 10

Christians observe Lent in different ways; some people may abstain from indulgent foods and others may abstain from a normal part of their daily routine, to remind themselves of the sacrifice Jesus(as) made for them. Some people stop “eating out” during Lent, and then donate the money they would have spent to charity.

There is absolutely no reference to Lent in the Old or New Testaments, nor any reference of Jews or Christians observing an annual fasting period of 40 days before the Passover. Those who practise it justify its observation by linking the repentance and fasting of forty days, with references relating to the number forty.

And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. (Gen 7:12)

And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28)

 

After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, [even] forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, [even] forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise. (Numbers 14:34)

 

And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. (Jonah 3:4)

 

And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year. (Ezekiel 4:6)

 

And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:8)

According to the New Testament, Jesus(as) never observed Lenten fasting, neither did he command or teach his apostles to do so. However, Christians believe that the duration of Lent can be identified with Jesus’(as) time spent in the wilderness.

 

And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season. (Luke 4:1-13)

During Lent Christians commemorate the time when Jesus(as) retired to the desert to fast and pray, before beginning his work for God. It also is a remembrance of when Jesus(as) was tempted by Satan, but was able to successfully resist and remained steadfast and thus succeeded in the eyes of God.

Clearly, the above references do not instruct that a new season of Lent should be created, so how did this come into Christianity? ‘The Roman Church developed a high mass for celebrating the resurrection of Christ, but attached to it much of the paganism of the spring festival. Included in this process was the forty-day season of fasting known as “Lent”, adopted by Rome during the sixth century. It corresponds to a forty day fast practised by ancient Egyptians. Others identify Lent with a practice among Babylonian worshippers of Semiramis. The death and resurrection of Tammuz, was celebrated by a great annual festival preceded by the Lenten fast.’11

The question arises that if the Roman church was aware that the observation of Lent was not an inherent part of the Biblical teaching nor of Jesus’(as) practice, then why did they constitute a pagan holiday? Many hold the view that the Christian Church amalgamated the festivals in the hope of subtly integrating Christianity into the nation at large. Its origin is the pre-festival fast, which was also observed at this time of  year, by those being initiated into the Christian community.

Mothering Sunday – A day of rest on the fourth Sunday of Lent

This is celebrated in England on the fourth Sunday of Lent. (In other parts of the world this day is also known as Mother’s Day, often celebrated on a different date). Over the centuries Mothering Sunday became an important day for people to return to their home or “mother” church at least once a year, in the middle of Lent. It is uncertain where the name ‘Mothering Sunday’ originated. ‘A possible explanation is that the Pope said Mass on that day at the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem), which contained the relics of the Holy Cross acquired in Jerusalem by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The epistle quoted St Paul’s reference to the heavenly Jerusalem ‘mother of us all’, – Galatians 4:26. In the same way, the local cathedral, mother church of the diocese, was the focus of worship on this Sunday…Whatever the reason, this Sunday was associated in people’s minds with the idea of ‘Mother’. Consequently, it  became customary in England for servants and apprentices to be given time off to attend the church where they had been baptised, with their families. They presented their mothers with a cake made of eggs, butter, simnel and the finest flour; ingredients which were not otherwise used in Lent.12

It is thought that this day could have been adapted from the annual spring festival held in honour of the Greek Goddess Rhea, or from the Roman spring festival dedicated to Cybele. Cybele was often referred to as the Mother of the Gods; the Greeks identified her with Rhea the mother of most Olympian Gods.13

Holy Week – Commemorating events of the days before Jesus’(as) Crucifixion

 

 

 

 

Fabergé eggs were commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia as an Easter surprise for his wife Maria Fyodorovna

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Week is the final week of Lent before Easter. It commemorates the events immediately preceding the crucifixion and the last week of Jesus’(as) life. This is the most solemn period during the church year. Christians devoutly observe this week, commemorating the Passion and Jesus’(as) death on the cross. Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Church, when devout Christians travelled to Jerusalem to re-enact events of the week prior to Jesus(as) crucifixion. (The earliest days of the church were during the first centuries after the time of Prophet Jesus(as) when Paul constituted the church and it was being formed; over the centuries the fathers, then the popes took over; later, the denominations crept in with their own views. But the main body is the Catholic Church.)

The Holy Week marks the final days of Jesus(as) before Easter Sunday. It consists of: Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The final three days are part of the Easter or paschal Triduum. Holy Week originated during the 2nd century. Two masses took place in the Early Church; one to reconcile sinners to God and the other to commemorate communion. By the 3rd century, the Great Vigil started and became the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Holy Week was first called “Great Week” by the Greeks in the second half of the 3rd century. Around the 4th century “Holy Week” was given its name by the Archbishop of Alexandria and the Bishop of Constantia. (The term “Holy Week” is a recent title; previously this was known as Passion Week.)14

 

Palm Sunday – This is the Sunday before Easter on which day an annual “procession of the palms” is held, in memory of Jesus’(as) entry into Jerusalem. This day reminds Christians of the journey Jesus(as) made into Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach). On his arrival, people welcomed Jesus(as) by shouting, waving palm branches and throwing branches down in the path of the donkey which he rode. (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11) It is believed that Palm Sunday originated in Jerusalem:

‘According to Ergia’s 4th century account of the Holy week celebrations in Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem were led to re-enact this event at the spot where it had actually happened. The faithful of Jerusalem gathered around their Bishop on the Mount of Olives…they set out carrying olive palm branches in their hands, accompanying the bishop who was seated on a mule, to the church of the resurrection…from Jerusalem this custom made its way into the churches. By the middle ages the rite of the palms had acquired a distinctly dramatic form.’15

Over the centuries the church blessed this custom and they continue to celebrate this day by re-enacting it. In countries where worshippers cannot re-enact the events, they are given small crosses made from palm leaves, which they keep in their homes all year round as a symbol of their faith. The Church keeps any palm crosses which are left over until the following year, when they burn them to use their ashes for a special service on Ash Wednesday.

 

Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – These are the three days when the Church reflects on the last days of Jesus’(as) earthly life. These days are commemorated through various church services, where hymns and scriptures are recited, following the same cycle of events recorded in the story of the Passion, as told by the Evangelists. In the home, Christians are meant to spend more time focusing on prayer, during this period. Most families also use this time for spring cleaning. It is said that  cleaning  the house during these days is similar to the Jewish tradition of cleaning before the Pesach.

 

The Easter Triduum

The Triduum (‘three days’), referred to as The Paschal Triduum, the Holy Triduum or Easter Triduum, begins on the evening of Holy Thursday and ends on the evening of Easter Day. According to Catholics, the death of Jesus(as) cannot be separated from his resurrection:

‘Christ redeemed humankind and gave perfect glory to God principally through his paschal mystery: dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life. Therefore the Easter triduum of the passion and resurrection of the Lord is the culmination of the entire liturgical year. Thus the solemnity of Easter has the same kind of pre-eminence in the liturgical year that Sunday has in the week. The Easter triduum of the passion and resurrection of the Lord begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday, the Sunday of the Lord’s resurrection.’16

The Triduum is observed for three days to celebrate the heart of the Christian faith: salvation, redemption, the death and resurrection of Jesus(as). However, many Protestant churches do not recognise the Triduum as liturgical, and observe Lent until the Easter Vigil begins.

Holy or Maundy Thursday – The Easter Triduum begins with Mass on Holy Thursday evening. This day commemorates the final Passover Jesus(as) celebrated as his last supper, with his disciples. Some of the early Christians debated whether to keep the date of Easter separate from the week-long Jewish festival of Passover, which celebrates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. It is believed that “the Last Supper” was in reality “the Seder meal”, which marks the start of Passover.

For Christians this Holy day marks four key events; the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus Christ, the institution of the Last Supper, the agony of Jesus(as) in Gethsemane and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. The re-enactment of the washing of the feet takes place in many churches, and in Britain monarchs customarily  washed the feet of a selected group of poor people. Holy Thursday is also the traditional day for a thorough cleaning of the church altar and everything associated with it. Most churches celebrate communion on Maundy Thursday. 17 There are no instructions in the Bible about the observance of Holy Thursday, nor did Jesus(as) instruct his disciples to observe this day.

Good Friday –The celebration of Good Friday is according to some historians, a custom which originated in the 4th century. Over the centuries, the day gradually became a time of penance and fasting, at the anniversary of the crucifixion and (according to Christians) the death of Christ. Many churches hold quiet services from noon until three (called Tre Ore or Three Hours). This service focuses on the words Jesus(as) uttered as he hung on the cross; i.e., Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?, which means, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Mt 27:46

 

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. (Luke 23:34)

 

And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23:46)

 

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.(John 19:28)

 

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. (John 19:30)

Another tradition is to venerate the cross by kissing a crucifix on Good Friday. As mentioned previously, Good Friday is a sombre time in the Catholic Church, thus there are no flowers, and the altar, the chancel, statues, pictures and the cross, are all draped in black to represent mourning.

However, once again, there are no biblical teachings that direct Christians to celebrate Good Friday. Not all Christians do so, with some churches refraining from communion until Resurrection Sunday.

Holy Saturday – This is the last day of the Triduum in the Holy Week and the 40 day Lenten Fast, which commemorates Jesus(as) lying in the tomb. Holy Saturday is a day to be observed as quietly as possible.

This day is also known as the ‘day of the entombed Christ’, when Christians reflect on the passion, suffering and death of Jesus(as), and how he was finally laid to rest in his tomb. No services are held on this day; the worshippers spend the day quietly reflecting and this leads them to the Easter Vigil.

The Easter Vigil – On this night Christians all over the world will gather in the dark, the darkness representing their sombre reflections of the day. The Easter Vigil is the high point of the Easter Triduum, which St. Augustine called ‘Mother of all Holy Vigils.’ Initially, this vigil was held in the morning, but this was restored to the liturgy in 1951 by Pius XII, who thought it was appropriate to restore the feast of Easter to its proper place in the life of the Church.18

The reason why this vigil takes place during the night is because it is believed to coincide with Jesus’(as) resurrection, which also occurred during the night. During this night, worshippers silently pray and focus on the hours when they believe Jesus(as) slowly came back to life. They also celebrate his profound sacrifice for their sins.

The Easter Vigil rites begin with the lighting of a new flame or fire, which represents Jesus’(as) return from the darkness of death, bringing with him the new light of hope and salvation through his resurrection. Some churches use a special Paschal Candle for this part of the service, which is then used for lighting the individual candles of every worshipper, while they sing the Easter proclamation. The Easter Vigil also includes the recitation of some readings provided by the church and the blessing of the water for baptism.  It also includes the baptism of new members wishing to be initiated into the church, who receive the Eucharist for the first time. After this, everyone rejoices in the resurrection of Jesus(as), and  celebrate Easter Day.

The rituals and traditions of Holy Week, appear to have entered Christian practice long after the demise of Jesus(as). One therefore has to question the significance placed on the rites performed, and their relevance to the teachings of Jesus(as).

Easter Day

 

Sunrise Service – While this custom is not practised by all Christians, some will participate in ‘the Easter Sunrise Service,’ when worshippers rise before dawn on Easter Day and go to an elevated place or to the side of a church, and face towards  the rising sun. After the sun rises, the worshippers  sing an Easter hymn praising the resurrection of Jesus(as), whilst holding spring flowers. They close this service by holding hands and praying together, and then proceed home to prepare for church services.

The Old Testament mentions a similar practice in Ezekiel 8:1-18, where Ezekiel saw that the people of Israel were facing towards the east when the sun rose and worshipping the sun. This was strictly forbidden, as it constituted sun-worship. But this is exactly what worshippers do in the Easter Sunrise Service. If Jesus(as) did not instruct this kind of worship then where did it come from?

‘The sunrise service originates not in Christianity but in the Pagan rites of spring. Sunrise services are not unrelated to the Easter fires held on the tops of hills in continuation of the New Year fires, a worldwide observance in antiquity. Rites were performed at the vernal equinox, welcoming the sun and its great power to bring new life to all growing things.’19

On Easter Sunday churches are decorated with flowers to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus(as), likening it to the flowers blossoming in the spring. The ‘Easter lily’ flower also crept into Christianity much later, again with no basis in scripture or the teachings of Jesus(as).

 

Easter – also known as Pascha, is a spring festival which is celebrated on the Sunday following  holy week. Easter celebrates the central event of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus(as) three days after his crucifixion. Easter is the oldest Christian holiday and the most important day of the church year. All the Christian movable feasts and the entire liturgical year of worship, are arranged around Easter which is followed by a fifty days Easter season (Easteride) which extends to the Pentecost.

On Easter day Christians celebrate and rejoice Jesus’(as) sacrifice of his life to free mankind from sin. It is widely believed amongst the Christian world that Jesus(as) was the sacrificial lamb offered at the Passover as mentioned in Exodus 12:13-14. According to the biblical account of this first Passover, the Israelites marked their doors with the blood of a lamb to prevent the Angel of Death killing their first born; their doors were therefore literally “passed over”. Jewish temples began to sacrifice lambs ritually to mark the Passover. It was only the blood of the slain lamb that protected each Israelite home, while Egypt suffered the plague of death, the Israelites were spared death by obeying God’s command and by faith in His promise to protect them. Following this, the Jews celebrated the Passover meal in remembrance of God’s Mercy. In keeping with the tradition of the Old Testament Jewish laws, which Jesus(as) devoutly followed, he also observed the Passover.

From the Biblical accounts of the New Testament, it is determined that Jesus(as) was put on the cross when he was observing the feast of the Passover ( Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-15, John 18:28,39, 19:14). But Jesus(as) did not predict or indicate that this would happen. So where does the concept of Jesus(as) atoning for the sins of mankind as the paschal or sacrificial Lamb originate? It emerged from the Christians celebrating the death of Jesus(as) with a Paschal meal (Eucharist), on the lunar date of the Jewish Passover:

Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 1 Corinthians. 5:7-8. 20

These verses prove that it was Paul’s teaching to replace the Old Testament Passover. His New Testament concept of the Passover allowed Christ to supersede the paschal lamb. Despite Paul’s claims to love and honour Jesus(as), he did not hesitate to replace the Old Testament Passover (which Jesus(as) and his disciples followed), with his new concept.

According to the New Testament accounts of the evangelists, the resurrection should have been celebrated on the first Sunday after the Jewish Passover. However, ‘controversy surrounded the determination of the date of Easter from the 2nd Century to the 8th century’21. After centuries of debate the Council of Nicea finally fixed the date of Easter to A.D. 325, i.e. to fall on the first Sunday after the full moon, on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). This means that Easter can be observed anywhere between March 22 and April 25. The Council was also responsible for separating the celebration of Easter from the Jewish Passover, probably because over the years Easter did not fall on a Sunday in accordance with the Jewish Passover, (the Sunday after the spring equinox rather than the biblically directed 14 Nisan in the Jewish Calendar), and the Church wanted to keep the observance of Easter day on a Sunday in line with the biblical account of Jesus’(as) resurrection on a Sunday. Not only was a new date selected for the celebration of Passover, but a new theme was introduced – Easter replaced Passover – and an official day was designated to commemorate the Resurrection.

The word “Easter” represents the festival observed by many Christian churches in honour of the resurrection of the Saviour. Easter is a word used in Germanic languages to denote the festival of the vernal equinox22. The word Easter is not found anywhere in the Old or New Testament, except for one reference in the King James Bible.

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people (Acts 12.4).23

After reading the above one may assume that the festival of Easter may have been observed during the time of the apostles. According to the New Bible dictionary, the original word in the above translation has no reference to that, nor is there any evidence that any such festival was observed at the time when this book was written. The original word should have been ‘Passover’ (pascha) not ‘Easter.’24

The word Paschal used to describe many things associated with Easter, itself derives from Pascha the Greek/Latin transliteration of Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover.

As the observation of Easter is not instructed in the Bible, then where did Easter originate?

Scholars agree that the name Easter has its roots in Paganism. It is never used in original scriptures and its exact origin remains uncertain; according to Bede it is connected with an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess.25 The time, the customs, and the traditions of Easter all come from ancient pagan, non-Christian, religious celebrations. Thus, Easter was originally a pagan festival in honour of the Goddess of Spring. The word “Easter” is supposed to be derived from “Eostre or “Eastre.” Eostre was the deity of both the dawn and spring, and “the pagan symbol of fertility.” At her festival in April, sacred fires were lighted on the hills especially in the Nordic lands. (During this same season, the ancient Romans observed the Feast of the Vernal Equinox.)26

Even though it is quite evident that Easter was clearly pagan in origin, it was the early Christian leaders of the first two centuries after Jesus’(as) crucifixion who created this festival. It was probably easier for them to draw pagan worshippers into Christianity by having it coincide with the spring resurrection feast of the pagans. Over the centuries, Easter celebrations have also supplemented many more customs, mainly incorporated from springtime fertility celebrations. Hot Cross Buns stemmed from the pagan festival which had the Saxon fertility Goddess sacrifice an ox. Thus, the horns in the form of a cross became a symbol of the season, carved into breads. The cross represented the moon, the heavenly body associated with the Goddess and its four quarters. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, buns were made in the traditional method, but the cross now symbolised the crucifix of Jesus(as). The Easter Bunny and eggs both represent fertility. Dyed eggs were also used as part of the rituals of the Babylonian religions. In the pagan spring and fertility festivals eggs were painted and given as gifts. Eggs represented fertility and to be given one was to wish children upon the receiver.27 None of these Pagan traditions have any relevance to Biblical teachings. Moreover, in accordance with the Old Testament such practices should never be adopted:

Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing so ever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32)28

Conclusion

There is no celebration of any Christian holidays in the New Testament. Easter was not observed by the early followers of Jesus(as), nor by those who believed that they should follow the command of the Bible rather that of men. Unfortunately, over the centuries, pagan rituals have become so deeply embedded in society, that it is now generally assumed that they are Christian in origin. However, the Christians who do not follow the pagan customs and traditions associated with Easter, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus(as) at Easter by focusing on the resurrection narrative as mentioned by the evangelists. The one important verse which strikes many Christians is:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:40).

 

Many Christians accept that this was the one sign that Jesus(as) gave as proof that he was the messiah, that he would be in the grave exactly three days and three nights. They take this verse as evidence that Jesus(as) was resurrected. Regarding this, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV(ru) has said:

‘We prove from the Bible that God did not abandon him and saved him from the ignoble death upon the cross. This can be studied in the light of the facts relating to the period before the Crucifixion, as well as the facts of the Crucifixion itself and after it, as related by the New Testament.’

Long before that incident, Jesus(as) promised that no sign would be shown unto the people other than the sign of Jonah:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.’ He answered, ‘a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38–41)

‘So before we determine what happened to Jesus(as), we must understand what happened to Jonah, because Jesus(as) claimed that the same miracle would be repeated. What was the Sign of Jonah? Did he die in the belly of the fish and was he later on revived from death? There is unanimity among all Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars that Jonah did not die in the belly of the fish. He precariously hung between life and death and was miraculously saved from that situation; while any other person in his place would have died. Yet some subtle laws of nature, under the Divine command, must have conspired together to save him from death. Remember, we are not debating the issue of that being possible or not. We are only pointing out that Jesus(as), when he pointed out that the like of what happened to Jonah would also happen to him, he could only have meant that what everyone understood to have occurred in the case of Jonah would occur in his case. No one in the entire world of Judaism, whether in the land of Judea or anywhere else the Jews had dispersed and settled, would have received a different message from this claim of Jesus(as). They all believed that Jonah, miraculously or otherwise, survived for three days and nights in the belly of the fish and did not die in that period for a single moment. Of course we have our own reservations regarding this view. The story of Jonah as told to us in the Qur’an does not mention anywhere that it was for three days and nights that Jonah suffered his trials in the belly of the fish. However, we return to the case in point and try to bring to light the actual similarities which were predicted by Jesus Christ between Jonah and himself. Those similarities spoke clearly of spending three days and nights in extremely precarious circumstances and a miraculous revival from near death, and not of coming back to life from the dead. The same, Jesus(as) claimed, would happen in his case.’ 29

 

Careful examination of the biblical texts clearly indicate how Jesus(as) survived death on the cross. He was not God who became a man, he did not die on the cross for the sins of mankind, and he had no desire to do so. He was not resurrected from death on the cross because he did not die.

If correctly understood and applied, the resurrection of Jesus(as) cannot mean the return of his soul to the same human body it had deserted at the moment of death. The term ‘resurrection’ only means the creation of a new astral body. Such a body is spiritual in nature and works as a sort of crucible for a rarefied soul within. It is created for the eternal continuation of life after death. Some call it a sidereal body or astral body, and some call it athma. Whatever name you give it, the essential meaning remains the same; resurrection applies to the creation of a new body for the soul which is ethereal in nature and not, we repeat, not, the return of the soul to the same disintegrated human body it left previously.

St. Paul has spoken lengthily in exactly these terms about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He believed in the resurrection of not only Jesus(as), but the resurrection in general of all those who die and are deemed fit by God to be given a new existence and a new form of life. The personality of the soul remains the same, but its abode changes. According to St. Paul this is a general phenomenon which has to be accepted, otherwise there would be no significance to either religion or Christianity.

We invite readers to examine accounts of Jesus’(as) survival from death on the cross, from a biblical perspective, brought to light by the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as), in his book Jesus in India.

Endnotes

1  Metford, 1991

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

3  Metford, 1991

4  Metford, 1991

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 1992

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

10 The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

11 Ingram, 2000

12 Metford, 1991

13 Classical Mythology, Dictionary, 2002

14 Metford, 1991

15 The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003

16 McGloin, 2001

17 Metford, 1991

18 The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003

19 Ingraham, 2000

20 King James Bible

21 The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003

22 New Bible Dictionary, 1996

23 King James Bible

24 New Bible Dictionary, 1996

25 Livingston, 1978

26 Ingraham, 2000

27 Ingraham, 2000

28 King James Bible

29 Ahmad

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