Easter marks the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after His death on the Cross. His disciples stated that on the third day after Christ’s death, He rose from the dead and that He appeared to them on various occasions and dwelt among them for forty days. The resurrection of Christ was the cornerstone of the ministry of St. Paul.
Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday and rose from the dead the following Sunday. Today, all Western Christians observe Easter on the same day. This falls on the first Sunday after the full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox, March 21st. Should the full moon fall on a Sunday, then Easter Day will be observed the Sunday following. This means that Easter may occur between March 22nd and April 25th. However, the Orthodox Eastern Church calculates the date in a slightly different way, so that Easter may occur one, four or five weeks later than this. Easter is a very important festival in the Christian year, around which the whole year of worship is organised. It is regarded as the Christian Passover. From earliest Christian times, Sunday, ‘little Easter”, has been kept as the weekly commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. A banner showing a red cross on a white ground, symbol of the resurrection, is often flown on Sundays from a church tower or spire. This is also the flag of Saint George, patron saint of England…
In almost all Churches, the period of Lent features as a preparation for the festival of Easter. It is a season of contrition. After Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist, and before he began His ministry, he spent an exemplary period of fasting in the desert lasting 40 days and 40 nights. In the Roman Catholic Church, this period of fasting, known as Lent, begins on Ash Wednesday, Six and a half weeks before Easter and lasts forty days, not counting Sundays. In the Orthodox Church, it begins eight weeks before Easter, and fast days do not include Saturdays and Sundays. The last week of Lent is known as Holy Week, the Friday of Holy Week, two days before Easter Day is called Good Friday, and is the day on which Christ’s crucifixion is commemorated.
The Roman Catholic Easter services include renewal of the blessing of fire by lighting Easter candles, reading lessons from the Holy Bible concerning the sacrament of baptism and celebrating Easter Mass. In the early years of Christianity, the sacrament of baptism was administered only once a year on Easter Sunday. In the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, Easter begins before Saturday night worship with a procession outside the church. This is followed by the sacrament of Easter communion. When the procession is leaving the church, no lights are lit, but on its return, hundreds of candles and coloured torches are lit to symbolise the splendour of Christ’s resurrection.
On returning home after midnight, eggs painted crimson are banged together in celebration of Easter Sunday. Then a rich variety of dishes are served for the mid-day meal. The spicy Easter Loaf, woven like a plait is essential to the feast. In England, small spicy round loaves, decorated with a cross, called Hot Cross Buns, are produced at Eastertide. The proper time for eating them is Good Friday. In the Lutheran church services, and in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer there are special liturgies for Easter. In different sects of Protestant Churches, the Easter sacrament of Communion is held on different days in Holy Week.
Among Christian communities, various folk traditions have arisen within the framework of Easter celebrations. Most of these, in the context of the theme of resurrection, stem from the ancient rites of pagan spring festival and from symbols originating in Europe and the Near East. This festival may be thought to be derived from the Sumerian legends of Tammuz or the Anatolian Attis and Agdistis and the Greek Adonis. The death and rebirth of these figures symbolised the death of the year in autumn and its rebirth in spring. Eggs, a food forbidden during Lent and later gaining great significance as the symbol of new life and rebirth, have become, when painted or decorated, the symbol of Easter. During this festival, Christians present each other with gifts of eggs or egg-shaped objects. Eggs may be painted crimson or other colours, white representing the divinity of Christ, red expressing the idea of His sacrifice shows the blood of Christ spilt for the salvation of the whole world. According to a different interpretation, the egg symbolises the world, the shell being the sky, the membrane the air, the white the seas and the yolk the earth’s surface. On the day after Easter, it is customary to visit the graves of loved ones and services of prayers for the souls of the dead are offered up around this time. The rabbit, ancient Egyptian symbol of fecundity is later adopted in Europe. Especially in North America, the Easter bunny, still a symbol of human fecundity features prominently at Eastertide.
Syrian Christians celebrate Christ’s ascension into heaven forty days after His resurrection. During the ceremonies held in their churches, the congregation dip walnut leaves into holy water that has been blessed, and sprinkle each other with it, water being the symbol of the Holy Ghost.
Crucifixion was used from the 6th century BCE on, by Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans as a punishment for pirates, slaves and political or religious dissenters. In 337 CE, Constantine I, the first Christian emperor, put an end to the practice of crucifixion within the Roman Empire, out of deference for Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Jesus took place the day before the Jewish Sabbath at the time of the Passover, at a place called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. Jesus had refused to acquiesce to the demands of the High Priest, so was considered guilty of an offence punishable by death. Therefore He was delivered into the hands of the Roman authorities as a threat to the state. At the age of about 32 He was crucified by order of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
As recounted in the Gospels of the New Testament, the story of Christ’s crucifixion is as follows: first He was scourged, stripped by Roman soldiers and given a scarlet robe to wear. Then a crown of thorns was placed on His head and He was mocked as the King of the Jews. As He was led away to be crucified, a man called Simon from Cyrene was compelled to help Jesus carry His under whose weight He was about to collapse. He was stripped of His robe and given back His own garments, and, at the third hour, He was nailed to the cross by His hands and feet. Above His head was the inscription, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. The soldiers at the foot of the cross divided His clothes among them and again derided Him saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save yourself”. There were two thieves on either side of Jesus, also being crucified. One of them addressed Jesus saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Christ answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. At the ninth hour, Jesus gave up the ghost. A centurion who stood watching said, “Truly, this man is the Son of God”. When one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, blood and water poured out from the wound. When Jesus was taken down from the cross His body was given to Joseph of Arimathea who buried it in a tomb recently hewn from the rock and a great stone was rolled across the entrance.
Christians believe that Christ’s is a reconciling or atoning death that it is a means of atonement, or “at-onement” with God. The early Christians did not depict the crucifixion realistically until the 5th century, but usually described the event using symbols. The picture of a lamb and a cross adorned with precious stones were the symbols of the crucifixion. The first paintings showed the crucified Christ alive, open-eyed, and triumphant over death, His face showing no sign of suffering. In the 9th century, Byzantine art for the first time depicts Christ dead, with eyes closed.
Two symbolic details systematically mentioned in the Bible are featured in the early illustrations of the crucifixion. One is Adam’s skull at the foot of the cross, the other the wound in Christ’s side, from which blood and water flow. These two items are, iconographically, the pictorial representations of Man’s Original Sin, and Christ’s sacrifice which paid its ransom. By sacrificing His life to atone for the sin of Adam, (Adam’s skull) Jesus becomes the new Adam. The crucifixion of Christ represents the founding of the new Church, the blood and water are used symbolically in the sacraments of Communion and Baptism. In the illustrations produced for the early Church, the two thieves and the two Roman soldiers represent the Church and the Synagogue. According to the teaching of the Christian Church at this time, the repentant thief and the centurion who recognised Christ’s divinity symbolise the Church, while the thief who denied Christ and the soldier who rejected His divinity symbolise the Synagogue. After the 13th century, figures, such as the Virgin Mary (the new Eve) featured on the right hand side of Jesus are identified as the new, while those on His left are the old.