CHRISTIANS AND THE CELEBRATION OF EASTER

Easter is a celebratory time in the life of Christians world-wide, as it is a time when special emphasis is placed on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. However, every year when Easter rolls around there are some Christians who become very vocal that no Christian should celebrate Easter, contending it has roots in paganism. Over the years I have read all the arguments, pro and con, as to Easter’s origin and whether Christians should or should not be engaged in any activities associated with the annual holiday. The arguments sometimes become more emotional than rational, more historical than practical, more hurtful than helpful.

From the very beginning of the church, Sunday, the day on which Christ arose from the dead, was a day Christians honored and a time for gathering for worship. By the middle of the second century it is known Christian communities engaged in annual festive celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Historian and Christian scholar Philip Schaff confirms from the writings of early Church Fathers, the beginning of festivals celebrating the resurrection of Christ by the middle of the second century, and in some Christian circles much earlier (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol 2, (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1874), 246). Schaff notes that the early Christians commemorated the entire period between the death and resurrection of Christ with vigils, fasting, special devotions, meetings, culminating in a feast celebrating His victorious resurrection (246-247).

It is needful to understand our determining the time we today celebrate Christ’s Resurrection can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. As Constantine came to power many Jewish Christians celebrated the resurrection immediately following the Passover festival according to their lunar calendar, which fell on the evening of the full moon, the 14th day in the month of Nisan (March/April), and as such from year to year fell on different days of the week. Gentile Christians desired to commemorate the resurrection on the first Sunday following Passover; and as such celebrating Christ’s resurrection occurred on the same day of the week (Sunday), but from year to year it fell on different dates. Both ways for determination in celebrating Christ’s resurrection could be traced back to apostolic traditions.

In 325 A.D., at the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Christian leaders came together to grapple with various issues confronting the early church, and sought to arrive at a consensus as to a standardized time when Christ’s Resurrection should be celebrated. The Council of Nicaea arrived at a formula for calculating a date to separate the Christian celebration of Christ’s Resurrection from the Jewish celebration of Passover. While it was recognized that Christ’s resurrection and Passover were related historically, the Council of Nicaea contended that because Christ was symbolically the sacrificial Passover lamb, the holiday of Passover no longer had theological significance for Christians. They sought to resolve the issue by setting a date that would be the following Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. That means that Easter as we know it today is always the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after March 21, which can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. The Council also decided that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, the Resurrection should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of resurrection commemoration and the Passover was thus avoided.

While it is true pagan festivities were held during the vernal equinox in honor of the pre-Christian goddess Eostre of spring and renewal, the only reference to this festive time linked with the celebrating of the resurrection of Jesus comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede (673-735), a British Benedictine monk, who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. Religious studies scholar Bruce Davis Forbes points out, “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.” (Bruce David Forbes, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press; 2015), 79-114).

Forbes asserts that for later Christians the name stuck, thus Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans and Americans refer to the time of Jesus’ resurrection. However, the annual spring celebration of the resurrection of Jesus was not called Easter until centuries after Christians began celebrating His resurrection. The celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is interwoven into the very fabric of Christianity and predates any sort of early medieval Anglo-Saxon considerations. Easter is clearly historically linked with the Jewish Passover, apostolic tradition, and its time celebrated determined historically by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Hence, one is not  historically accurate to assert celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus is a pagan holiday. Historical evidence even indicates that the name Easter has more in common with the old Germanic Indo-European root austron for “dawn,” corresponding to the celebration of the Easter Mass at dawn. But even if the name Easter was derived from a pre-Christian spring festival, this would only mean the name Easter was borrowed, not the character of the feast itself.

Anthony McRoy says it well, “And even if Christians did engage in contextualization—expressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people—that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms” (Anthony McRoy “Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?” Christianity Today, April 2, 2009).

Now let it be said, if one is fully persuaded that in good conscience one cannot observe Easter, then do not observe it. If one is convinced that it is linked to paganism in some way that one cannot honor God, then one needs to abide by that conviction. This writer will respect your position and support your right to exclude it as a Christian celebration. However, at the same time, if one is fully persuaded that one can honor, glorify and worship God through engaging in Easter activities that are for the purpose of exalting and uplifting the Resurrected Savior, then joyfully honor and worship Him in celebration and in Christian liberty. And it behooves those who are convinced they shouldn’t participate in the Easter celebration, not to cast aversion upon those who seize the time to honor, worship, and glorify the Risen Lord and use the time as a way to evangelize the lost.

Let us as Christians, redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16; Colossians 4:5). The Greek word “redeem” Paul uses is “karios,” meaning a time of opportunity. And Easter is a wonderful time to take advantage of an opportunity to point others to the truth about Christ that, “He is Risen.” It is an opportune time to proclaim that we serve a Savior who overcame sin, death and the grave. It is a time for those who but once a year darken the door of a church to hear the glorious news that Christ holds the keys to life and death in His hands, and with outstretched arms He invites all to come unto Him.

Whatever one’s position on Easter, let us not lose focus of the truth that for the Christian every day is Resurrection Day and invites celebration. Let every Christian, whether during the Easter season or any other time, be about the business of redeeming the time to exalt the glorious name of Christ who has conquered death and ever lives to transforms the lives of those who place their faith and trust in Him.

Blessings,
Dr. Dan

 

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