The Lord, having put on human nature, and having suffered for him who suffered, having been bound for him who was bound, and having being buried for him who was buried, is risen from the dead, and loudly proclaims this message:
Who will contend against me? Let him stand before me. It is I who delivered the condemned. It is I who gave life to the dead. It is I who triumphed over the enemy, and having trod down Hades, and bound the Strong Man, and have snatched mankind up to the heights of heaven. It is I, says Christ. So then, come here all you families of men, weighed down by your sins and receive pardon for your misdeeds.
For I am your pardon. I am the Passover which brings salvation. I am the Lord slain for you. I am your life. I am your resurrection. I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your King. It is I who brings you up to the heights of heaven. It is I who will give you the resurrection there. I will show you the Eternal Father. I will raise you up with my own right hand (Melito of Sardis, Homily of the Pascha).
The Church's liturgical year, which begins with the first Sunday of Advent, finds its climax in the celebration of Easter, the festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his victory over sin, death and evil. Since time immemorial - in fact since the beginning of the Church - Easter has been the fons et culmine, the very centre of the Christian celebration of the Eucharist and the Christian gatherings mentioned already in the 'history book' of the Church, Luke's Acts of the Apostles.
Every year the Christian Church - Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox - celebrates with the greatest solemnity possible this feast of unique grandeur. However, it is never beside the point to ask: but what do we reflect upon on Easter Sunday? Is there need of an annual Easter if we do celebrate Christ's death and Resurrection in every Eucharist, during every Sunday Mass? A historical and theological look at Easter may be of help.
Date of Easter
The extract quoted above is taken from a second century homily of Melito, Bishop of Sardis, which according to tradition, is the earliest extant primary source making a reference to Easter. The homily characterises the celebration of Easter as a well-established one. Since the early centuries, authorities in the Church did not agree on the date of its celebration. St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey), who was a disciple of John the Evangelist was of the opinion that the Christian Easter must be celebrated on the day of the Jewish Passover. However, Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome, who led the Roman Church in 155 AD, was not in favour of continuity with the Jewish religion.
The controversy came to an end a generation later with the intervention of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the earliest Church Fathers of the West. He intervened between Bishop Victor of Rome and Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and his Asian followers. However it was only in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 that the universal Church agreed that Christians must celebrate the Easter "not with the Jews", the reason being that the Jews' calculations varied among themselves as they were using multiple methods.
Besides, the Church theologians thought it would be better to "Christianise" the Jewish Passover as a sign that Christ had fulfilled and superseded the Passover through his own death and resurrection.
At the Council of Nicaea, it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same Sunday throughout the Church. The Church in Rome established the first Sunday after the earliest 14th day of the lunar month that occurred on or after March 21 as Easter Sunday.
Later the Roman Church and the Church of Alexandria agreed on the date of their celebration of Easter when the Roman Church itself adopted the Alexandrian date of Easter as converted into the Julian calendar by Dionysius Exiguus.
So in our present age it is only the Eastern Orthodox Church which celebrates Easter on a different date since it never adopted the Gregorian calendar but kept the old Julian calendar, which once was also adopted by Rome.
Easter is considered by all the Christian Churches as "the queen of all Christian festivals". All Christian festivals and solemnities find their theological meaning in the Easter celebration since they are all directed towards it.
In Western Christianity Easter marks the end of the 40 days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, beginning with Ash Wednesday.
Since Easter is a primary solemnity, the eight days that precede it are known in Latin liturgy as the octava or "octave": eight days during which the glorious Easter liturgy continues to be celebrated and shared by the faithful. So the Gloria is said during the eight days following Easter Sunday and the weekdays following it are known as Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, etc. In Southern Europe, a statue of the Risen Christ is placed in churches as a sign of the solemnity and on Easter Sunday a short procession is held with the statue.
However the Easter Vigil, i.e. the liturgy of the evening before Easter Sunday, contains the core of the Easter liturgy. During this liturgy, seven readings from the Old Testament are proclaimed to the faithful, succeeded by the Epistle and the Gospel. The Gospel contains the episode of the Resurrection of Christ and the proclamation of this good news to the world. In Rome, the Pope greets the universal Church with the traditional urbi et orbi blessing - to the city and to the world - from St Peter's Basilica in Rome and gives Easter greetings in various languages.
The most famous liturgical piece tied with the Easter celebration is the chanting of the Exultet, the ancient Easter hymn attributed to St Ambrose of Milan. The liturgical readings cover the history of salvation as narrated in the Holy Scriptures and the service of light and blessing of the fire is at the very core of the liturgy.
Easter is therefore the crown of the Church's ancient liturgy and the breathing force of its life. All the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have words of the highest praise for the Easter celebration. The singing of the Alleluia, the tolling of bells and the sharing of the Easter wishes among the people are among the main characteristics of the Easter festival.
It is interesting enough that in most languages of Christian societies, other than English, German and some Slavonic languages, the festival's name is derived from the Hebrew Pesach which stands for Passover. The word Easter might be derived from the name of ancient goddess Eostre, but other experts hold that the term Easter is etymologically derived from "east" which refers to Christ, the "dawn" of humankind.
Whatever the origins of the name, Easter remains the most important date of the Christian calendar. And if you come from Western Europe and you happen to be visiting Greece or any other Eastern Orthodox country during Easter, you might as well decide to stay for another week and celebrate the Christian Orthodox Easter, which occurs about a week later, thus being able to celebrate two Easters in one go!
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