Easter is close at hand, and it seems to me that it would be worthwhile to say something about it for the benefit of those who don't really care much one way or the other as long as they can munch away on a chocolate bunny.
For Christians in every denomination, it is the most important holy day of the year because it celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the grave, thus demonstrating to us that he really is God incarnate, and that even death has no power over him, nor, through him, over us. To put it into perspective, Jesus ran afoul of the ruling authorities in Jerusalem, and they nailed him to a cross to die on a Friday, just before the start of Jewish holy season of Passover. On Sunday morning, his grave was found to be empty, and he walking around, alive and well.
Not everyone buys that, but it is the very center of the way we understand our faith.
Before anyone had even the slightest thought of celebrating Christmas, the day on which Easter was observed was not just important, it was the holiest of holy days. What day that is raises some interesting questions. For instance, how do we know that a particular Sunday is the day of the resurrection?
We don't. What we do know is that it was on a spring day that we now call Sunday, about the time of the Jewish Passover sometime around the year 30 A.D. After many years of debate, some of it more than a little silly, the Western churches agreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. If that makes sense to you, good for you. It is what it is.
The Eastern churches use a different calendar, so their Easter falls on a different Sunday.
So what about the name, "Easter?" It's the name for Easter Sunday only in English-speaking countries. In most other languages, it's called "Pascha," or something like that, which is a takeoff on the Hebrew word Pesach (Passover). The Jewish Passover (Pesach) celebrates the delivery of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. On the night of Passover, death passed over the Hebrew people while the firstborn of the Egyptians were dying. Jesus' resurrection happened during the days in which the Passover was remembered. Death passed over again, but this time for all humanity, and not just the Hebrews. That's why it's called Pascha in most other languages.
So what about the name Easter? It probably comes as no surprise that the pagan religions and cultures of northern Europe each had a celebration around the time of the spring equinox as a way of welcoming spring, warmer weather, time for planting and hope for a year of good crops. In the British Isles, the time was marked with celebrations honoring a god whose name sounded a lot like Easter. As Christianity entered into Britain, it replaced those pagan celebrations with the holy day of remembrance of the resurrection, but the ancient pagan name of Easter stuck just the same. And that's the way it is.
Pagan ways of celebrating were never fully replaced by Christian worship. That's why we still have things such as Easter bunnies, baskets filled with colored eggs, candies, baby chicks and so on. It's about celebrating the renewed life of spring and hope for good times ahead. It's kind of fun, but it doesn't have anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus.
If you would like to know more, why not attend a church of your choice on Easter Sunday morning, April 8, and get a taste of it. But don't stop there. Make a date with the pastor so that you can ask all the question you want. If that's too much outside your comfort level, drop me a line and I'll get back to you.
The Rev. Steven Woolley is retired from being rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. He serves at Grace Church in Dayton and as chaplain of the Walla Walla Fire Department. Contact him at email@example.com. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.