Quite a bit of history and a great deal of faith converge this week as Christians in America and throughout most of the world celebrate their most important holy days of the year, culminating in the observance of Easter Sunday.
Christians place Easter at the very core of their doctrines, and belief in the biblical account of Jesus Christ rising from the dead on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion is central to their faith. But nearly 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth, there is still no consensus on when Easter should be celebrated.
The various Christian denominations commemorate the last supper, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday respectively, but not all celebrate them in the same manner or even on the same dates. Holy Week traditions have evolved from both Old Testament accounts and several historical events: notably the Jewish Passover and the Exodus from Egypt, the Roman Church’s Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the Protestant Reformation that began early in the 16th century, and Pope Gregory XIII’s 1582 replacement of the Julian Calendar of Julius Caesar with the more accurate Gregorian Calendar.
The heart of Christianity is the belief that Jesus is one with God, that he freed mankind from the burden of sin through the willing sacrifice of his earthly life, and that he gave promise of eternal life through his resurrection.
Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth may be the holy day that receives the most notice, and it has of course become a huge commercial event in the secular world. Without Christmas there is no Jesus Christ. But without Easter Sunday and the resurrection, and without the executed Jesus walking the earth again with his disciples before ascending to heaven, there is no Christianity.
The birth and death of Jesus are well documented and supported not only by the Bible’s New Testament but by first century historians and extensive oral tradition. Scholars almost universally agree that Jesus was in fact an historical figure. But where that is a matter of history, the miraculous resurrection cannot be proven and is taken as an article of faith by Christians.
The centuries-long process that led to establishment of a movable date for modern celebrations of Easter makes an interesting study. The fourth century Council of Nicaea was held in part to commit to paper the essential beliefs of the Roman Church. That of course included the resurrection. And the council determined when Easter would be observed by tying it to the Jewish Passover and the “paschal” full moon.
As recorded in the New Testament, the Last Supper of Christ with his apostles took place at the beginning of the Jewish Passover in or around the year 33 AD. And so Easter was set by Nicaea on the first Sunday after the paschal full moon, which takes place either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. That seems straightforward enough, but there were complications. Since the full moon occurs on different dates in different parts of the world, further clarification was needed.
Somewhat arbitrarily, it was decided in Nicaea that March 21 would always be used as the date of the equinox for the purpose of scheduling Easter. And with later fine-tuning by Pope Gregory, the same formula has been used ever since. There was another complication, however, in the form of the tumultuous Protestant Reformation. An array of differences led most of Northern Europe and parts of Central Europe, under the leadership of clerics including Martin Luther and John Calvin, to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. In England, King Henry VIII also broke away from Rome, so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon in 1533. He transferred the authority of the pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury and formed what is now the Episcopal Church.
The schism was prolonged and bloody, and over time the various Protestant denominations established their own doctrines and patterns of worship. But the central theme of the redemptive nature of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus remained as a vital common thread.
The Roman Catholic Church led up to Easter each year with a 40-day “Lent,” a time for reflection, fasting and sacrifice. This practice is taken from the New Testament account of Jesus going to the desert to pray for 40 days. Lent actually began 46 days before Easter, because the six Sundays in that time frame were not considered as part of Lent. Ash Wednesday was thus observed 46 days before Easter, and still is to this day.
The breakaway Protestant denominations maintained the same date as the Catholics for their observance of Easter, but few retained the Lenten traditions. Meanwhile, various Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox churches continued their observance of Easter but arrived at its date based on Caesar’s Julian Calendar of 46 BC.
Over the years, nearly all Protestant churches have revisited Lent and some of its traditions. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 22, 46 days before Easter, which of course is this Sunday. But for the Eastern churches, Easter will not arrive until Sunday, April 15.
Although it took many years for western Christianity to get on the same page of the calendar for the observance of Easter, the theology and traditions of Holy Week have been consistent through the ages.
As marked by ceremonies each year, Jesus gathered with his apostles for the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening. That meal is the basis for the Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion and also for Protestant commemorations of the event. Later that evening, Jesus was arrested by the Romans. He was taken before both Jewish and Roman authorities, and was flogged by the Romans.
On the next day, now called Good Friday, Jesus was crucified under the orders of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The New Testament relates that after dying on the cross outside the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was hurriedly buried in a nearby tomb. Under Jewish tradition, the burial had to take place before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
On Sunday morning after the Sabbath, women followers of Jesus went to his tomb but found it empty. The Bible says that an angel told them that Jesus was no longer there, and shortly after that he appeared to the women. Over a 40-day period, Jesus continued to teach his followers, and he then ascended into heaven.
Christians teach that Jesus Christ is God and that he will return to Earth at the end of times and usher his believers into heaven. Non-believers put little stock in the first coming of Christ, let alone the second. But more than 2 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, ascribe to Christian beliefs. About 70 percent of Americans are Christian. And for them, this is the holiest week of the year.
From time to time, proposals are made to use a more modern method of setting the date of Easter, but no action has been taken toward building a consensus. In the meantime, the earliest that Easter can fall under the Gregorian Calendar is March 22, and it can be as late as April 25. If you are planning ahead, Ash Wednesday will fall on Feb. 13 next year, and Easter will be celebrated on March 31.