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What Is Easter (Pascha)?

Easter Sunday and Season History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions

Easter Definition and Summary

Easter, also called Pascha, is a solemnity that celebrates Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead. It is celebrated on Easter Sunday, the Sunday following Holy Week. Easter is also a 50-day season, often called Eastertide. In 2014, in the Western Calendar, Easter falls on April 20th (dates in other years). Prayers: Easter Prayers

Basic Facts About Easter

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Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation
Time of Year: Varies; follows Holy Week and Lent
Duration: Fifty Days; Easter Sunday up to Pentecost, inclusive
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Resurrection of Christ
Alternate Names: Pascha (Easter is the Anglo-Saxon name)
Scriptural References: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20Introduction

But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said (Matthew 28:5-6b, RSV).

Every gospel provides an account of the resurrection of Jesus, which makes perfect sense, because the bodily resurrection is and has been the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Saint Paul makes this clear when he reminds us that our faith is in vain without Christ's resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14). Easter (also called "Pascha" or some variant by most non-English speaking Christians) celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and it is the greatest and oldest feast of the Church. Even the term "Pascha" is borrowed from the Jewish word for "Passover," and Easter is calculated based on the lunar calendar (all other feasts are on the solar calendar). These facts show the ancient, probably Apostolic, origins of Easter. We even possess a baptismal liturgy of Easter dating to the mid-third century. Traditionally, the Pascha celebration began with a lengthy vigil, the "mother of all vigils" according to St. Augustine. The whole history of salvation is retold during the vigil, through scripture and liturgy.

At the Easter Vigil (in the West) three traditions developed: the baptism of new converts, lighting of the paschal candle, and the blessing of the new fire (taken from the Jewish blessing of the lamp on the eve of the Sabbath). The new fire is often processed into the Church to light the Paschal candle. Eucharist is then celebrated in the morning hours, being also the first Eucharist of new converts. In general, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Vigil services consist of variants of this ancient model. The West also celebrates the octave of Easter. These eight days are all solemnities in the Western liturgical calendar. Actually, these days even take precedence over other solemnities that can fall within the Octave of Easter, including the Annunciation.

Easter follows Holy Week, and is the third and final day of the Paschal Triduum, the three day period which began on the evening of Holy Thursday. The evening prayer of Easter Day officially ends the Triduum. The Triduum contains the heart of the Christian faith: Jesus' death and resurrection. Easter is not just a day, but an entire fifty day season, called Eastertide, marked by joyful festivities and liturgical fullness. You might hear "Christ is Risen!" and "Alleluia!" frequently during the Easter season, because we are joyfully celebrating Christ's bodily resurrection. The Feast of the Ascension falls within Easter season. The 50-day season of Easter runs up to, and includes, the Feast of Pentecost.

Of note, Western and Orthodox celebrations of Easter (Pascha) vary in certain ways. Usually Orthodox and Western Christians celebrate Easter on two different Sundays. The reason is that Orthodox churches still base their calculation of Easter's day on the Julian calendar, whereas Western churches follow the Gregorian calendar. In order to keep the date of Easter on a Sunday, the date changes yearly based on the Paschal full moon. The possible date range for Western Easter day is March 21st-April 25th. So what is the rule for finding the date of Easter? Put simply, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is the beginning of astronomical spring. However, ecclesiastical rules are slightly more complicated than this formula. These dates coincide with spring in the Northern hemisphere, and the "resurrection" that occurs in nature during the spring provided rich symbolism for the early Christian celebration of Easter (see, for example, the Easter Poem of Venantius Fortunatus).

The name "Easter," used only in English-speaking countries, is derived from the name Eostre (i.e. Ostara), an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess. Her name was also the name of a month (equivalent to April), which is why her name became associated with the Christian celebration of the resurrection. However, outside of the name, no connection to Eostre remains.

History

As mentioned above, in the ancient Church the feast of Christ's resurrection was the pinnacle of the Christian year. Following a three year process of training and education, converts were baptized and received their first communion at Easter. Saturday night (Holy Saturday) began with candlelight, and anticipated the return of Jesus Christ. As dawn came, Christians joyfully celebrated Christ's resurrection and victory over evil.

Easter was not entirely without controversy in the early Church. Different Church regions were celebrating Easter at different times, and all claimed Apostolic authority. This controversy is called the Quartodeciman (Latin for "fourteenism") controversy. In Asia Minor, many churches, including the church at Smyrna under the pastoral care of St. Polycarp, were celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan, following Jewish Passover customs. However, Church historian Eusebius tells us that the Church in Rome and most other Catholic dioceses always celebrated Easter on a Sunday. Both customs may have derived from Apostolic authority, but by the time of Origen (230 AD), the numbers of Quartodecimans were few. Also, differences arose between the Churches of Antioch and Alexandria as to the computation of the Paschal Moon. The Council of Nicaea settled the date of Easter (for the time being), in favor of the Alexandrians, putting Easter on the Sunday after the vernal equinox. However, as discussed above, Eastern Orthodox and Western/Eastern Catholic Easter falls on different dates because of differing calendars.

The English word for the feast of the resurrection, Easter, differs from the feast's name in other regions. In other regions the term is "Pascha," which is derived from the word for "Passover." The word "Easter" might come from an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess. This is probably because the festival of Easter overlapped some pagan holiday in ancient England. While some have used this fact to say celebrating Easter is pagan, the fact is that only the name comes from a pagan source, probably stemming from popular usage (see FAQ below).

Today Easter is celebrated in a variety of ways. Usually (in liturgical Churches) Easter follows a week of busy Holy Week services (Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, etc). Often the first service of Easter is the Great Vigil. Many times the service is shortened from the earlier all-night celebrations. Some modern ones go from 10PM-1AM, with Eucharist occurring at 12:00AM or so. Unfortunately, in many churches the festival of the resurrection is simply another day of the year, while to the early Christians, it was the most important day.

Worship And Prayer Resources

Easter (Pascha) Prayers
Poem on Easter by Venantius Fortunatus
Sermon on the Resurrection I by Pope St. Leo
Paschal Sermon by St. John Chrysostom
Sermon for Easter Three: Called in Our Weakness
Sermon for Easter Six: The Struggle of the Early Church
Sermon for Easter Seven: Full Participation in the Life of God
Catholic Hymns for the Easter Season (MIDI format)

Easter Art, Photos, and Images

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Icon of the Resurrection (Obermeyer)

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He is Risen! The First Easter (Arthur Hughes)

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The Morning of the Resurrection (Burne-Jones)

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Easter Eggs (D. Bennett)

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Spring Flowers (D. Bennett)

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Resurrection (Albrecht Altdorfer)

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Noli Me Tangere (Correggio)

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Easter Procession at St. Mark's (Prendergast)

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Spring Road (D. Bennett)

More Liturgical Artwork

Traditions, Symbols, & Typology

Traditions
White Vestments and Linens
Ringing Bells in Celebration
Baptizing New Converts
Lighting of the Paschal Candle
Having Lamb for Easter dinner

Symbols
Lambs (Christ as lamb)
Lily (symbolizes the resurrection)
Colored Easter Eggs
Spring Flowers and Blossoms
Empty Crosses

Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing the Resurrection
Samson Carrying Off the Gates of Gaza
Daniel Coming Forth from the Lion's Den
The Three Youths Emerging from the Furnace
Jonah Coming Forth From the Whale

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is Easter Pagan?

2. Why Make So Much of a Fuss at Easter?
Easter is a big deal...a VERY big deal. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian doctrine and experience. Without the resurrection, Jesus would just have been another rabbi and failed Messiah. A good case can be made that the belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus caused the rapid spread of Christianity, because the resurrection vindicated Jesus' teachings and personal claims. If Christ is not alive and risen today, Christianity is just another philosophy, and our worship is in vain. These and others are reasons why we celebrate the resurrection specifically for 50 days with such gusto. Remember that every Sunday is a feast of the resurrection, and a kind of "mini-Easter." However, we specifically celebrate the resurrection during the 50 days of Easter.

3. What Are Some of the Sundays and Weeks Within Eastertide Called?
The Easter Octave (Easter Sunday through the Second Sunday of Easter, 8 days total) is called Bright Week, and the custom is to wear new clothes. The name probably comes from the bright white clothes the newly baptized wore to Mass during the Easter Octave. The Second Sunday of Easter is known as Low Sunday, to distinguish it from the "high" feast of Easter. However, the name could come from the fact that attendance was usually low the Sunday following Easter. Finally, the days between Ascension and Pentecost (which includes one Sunday) are referred to as Expectation Week, because the Apostles prayed with expectant faith for the coming of the Holy Spirit during this week.

4. Is Friday Penance / Abstinence Still Obligatory During the Easter Season?
As far as we can tell, yes, Fridays within the Easter Season are still days of penance / abstinence in the Catholic Western Rite, unless a solemnity falls on a Friday. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches may have differing disciplines, so it is always wise to check the canon laws of each Church. While some sources have suggested that the Fridays of the Easter season are not days of penance and/or abstinence in the West, canon law and most sources make it clear that every Friday of the year (unless a solemnity falls on that Friday) is a day of penance. However, the Octave of Easter is an exception. According to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (14 February 1969), every day within the octave of Easter is considered a solemnity. Thus, the requirement of Friday abstinence is lifted during the Easter Octave. So while the Easter season is certainly a time of joyful Christian feasting, this is not to say there is no place for Friday penance. Penance is something we should do all the time, even in times of great rejoicing.

5. What is the Paschal Triduum?
The Paschal Triduum, often called the Easter Triduum or simply the Triduum, consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This includes the Great Easter Vigil, the high point of the Triduum. The word Triduum comes from the Latin word meaning "three days." It begins the evening of Maundy Thursday and ends at Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. Thus the Triduum consists of three full days which begin and end in the evening. The Triduum technically is not part of Lent (at least liturgically), but Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are still reckoned as part of the traditional forty day Lenten fast. The Triduum celebrates the heart of our faith and salvation: the death and resurrection of Christ, and is thus the high point of the liturgical year. For more information, visit our page, All About the Paschal Triduum.

6. Why Does the Church Celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday?

Easter and Church Year Books

Catechism of the Catholic Church
Holy Bible: New Jerusalem Bible
Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Cross and Livingstone, eds.)
New St. Joseph People's Prayer Book
The Study of Liturgy (Jones, ed.)
Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger)
More Christian & Church Year Books

General Links

On The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Catholic View
Jump Into the Mystery of Christ: Easter and an Ex-Girlfriend
Christian Holy Days and Paganism (Are Christmas and Easter Pagan?)
Easter Holidays, Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Table of Movable Major Catholic Seasons and Holidays

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This page written by . Last updated 4-21-2011.



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