Easter: Origins, Significance, and Symbols

Easter, Pascha, or Resurrection Sunday is a Christian festival and observance that commemorated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, on the third day of his burial. Easter is preceded by the season of Lent and is the culmination of the Passion of Jesus, Jesus’ final period on earth.

The week before Easter Sunday is known as Holy Week and it begins on Palm Sunday and includes the Easter Triduum, which commemorates Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, and Good Friday.

Easter is not celebrated on the same day every year. It is a moveable feast that is computed on the basis of the lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. Churches in Eastern and Western Christianity don’t celebrate Easter on the same date because they follow different calendars. Even though they compute the Easter date differently, Easter will always fall after the March Equinox.

Many people believe that the origin of the word ‘easter’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Eostre or Eastre, the goddess of spring and fertility. Other scholars believe that it is derived from the pagan season of ‘Ostara’ or ‘Eostre,’ which is the season of new birth.

In Latin and Greek Orthodox Churches, the Christian celebration of Easter was and still is, referred to as Pascha, a word derived from Aramaic which was originally used to denote the Jewish festival of Passover.

Easter is celebrated all across the world, therefore, it is more than just a Christian festival, it is also a cultural observance. Different cultures from all across the world have influenced Easter traditions greatly.

However, they do include midnight vigils, sunrise services, processions, a recreation of the Passion of Jesus, theatre, communal dancing, Easter parades, Easter foods, and decorating and breaking of the Easter eggs. Western Churches decorate the chancel area on Easter Sunday with Easter lilies, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth.

Origins of Easter

In many ways, the Christian holiday of Easter is connected to the Jewish festival of Passover, which commemorated their exodus from Egypt and their freedom. The day before Jesus Christ was arrested and crucified, Jesus and his disciples observed Passover. At Passover, Jesus told his disciples that the unleavened bread symbolized his body and the wine represents his blood, which he sacrificed for the atonement of mankind’s sins.

After the Passover meal, Jesus Christ was arrested by the Romans after Judas Iscariot betrayed him. He prayed three times at the Garden of Gethsemane before being taken into the custody of Roman governor Pontius Pilate for a trial. Many believe that the events on the day of Passover were crucial because they led to Jesus Christ being crucified and then subsequently resurrecting from his death, on Easter Sunday.

The first Christians timed the observance of the annual commemoration of Jesus’s resurrection in relation to Passover, as it was affirmed in the Gospels that both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place during the week of Passover. Evidence of a fully formed celebration of Easter started appearing in the literature of the mid-2nd century.

The Theological significance of Easter

Christians consider Easter a joyous holiday because it represents the fulfillment of the prophecies made in the Old Testament and the revelations of God’s salvific plan for all humankind. Not only does Easter commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus but it also celebrates the defeat of death and the hope of salvation.

According to Christian traditions, Easter is also significant because it reminds us that all of humanity’s sins were absolved by the death of Jesus Christ and because his subsequent Resurrection represents the anticipation amongst His believers for their own resurrection.

Easter is a significant religious festival because the resurrection of Jesus Christ established him as the Son of God and it is living proof that God will righteously judge the world. According to the First Epistle of Peter, on Easter, God gave his believers, “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Read more: Joyful Mystery of the Rosary

Easter: Origins, Significance, and Symbols
Easter: Origins, Significance, and Symbols

Symbols of Easter

Easter is considered an important Christian festival amongst Christians in over a hundred different countries. And each country adds its own traditions and customs to the festival, making the festival very vibrant and dynamic. This also means that many inanimate and animate objects are synonymous with Easter. Let us take a look at the significance and origins of some of these symbols-

1) Easter Eggs

Easter eggs might be the oldest universal symbol of Easter. According to The Easter Book by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., “the origin of the Easter egg is based on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. To our pre-Christian ancestors, it was a most startling event to see a new and live creature emerge from a seemingly dead object. The egg to them became a symbol of spring. Long ago in Persia, people used to present each other with eggs at the spring equinox, which for them also marked the beginning of a new year.

Traditionally, early Christians would present their eggs at the church to be blessed and sprinkled with water. As time went on, they started decorating the eggs with gold leaves and bright colors. Today, the Easter eggs still remain an integral part of the Easter celebrations. Easter egg hunt is a popular custom in many countries where parents hide decorated chocolate or candy eggs for their children to find.

2) Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny is a much-celebrated character in American Easter celebrations. On Easter Sunday, children all around America look for hidden Easter eggs, a special treat that the Easter Bunny has left behind. Easter ushers in the season of Spring and since rabbits are traditionally considered symbols of fertility, they started becoming more strongly associated with Easter. 

3) Easter Lamb

During the Jewish Passover, lambs are sacrificed to commemorate the passage of the “angel of death” from over their homes. Roasted lamb is also an important part of the Passover seder plate. Just like lambs, Jesus was sacrificed during Passover week. Jesus’s crucifixion is considered the ultimate sacrifice and he is often referred to as the “lamb of God.”

This makes the lamb one of the most popular and universal symbols of Easter. They not only symbolize Jesus’s sacrifice but also embody his purity and holiness. The ancient tradition of lamb being a part of the Passover meal also inspired the Christians to include meat during the main meal on Easter Sunday.

4) Easter Bread

Sweet bread is a mainstay of Easter celebrations because not only do they mark the conclusion of Lent, a period where people abstain from indulging in sweet things, but also because the resurrected Christ is known as “the bread of life,” in whole believers find their spiritual sustenance. While in Russia and Austria, the sweet bread often has a cross or an image of a lamb on them, however, in Italy, the bread is decorated with eggs to symbolize new life.

5) Easter Lily

Since time immemorial, lilies have been a symbol of grace, innocence, purity, and hope. They are also very prevalent in Christian art where they are used to symbolize the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the time of Easter, lilies grace homes and churches during springtime as a reminder of the lilies mentioned frequently throughout the Bible and as a symbol of new beginnings and new life.

Read more: The Sacred Paschal Triduum

Eastern Vs. Western Christianity

In the Christian Church, Paschal controversies refer to disputes concerning the correct day for observing Easter. One of the earliest controversies is concerned with asking the question of whether Easter should be celebrated on the actual day of the Jewish lunar month on which the Paschal lamb was slaughtered or whether it should always be celebrated on a Sunday.

The former practice was condemned in the Roman province of Asia by the end of the 2nd century because it meant that Easter will be celebrated when the Jewish people were observing Passover. Another controversy that arose was concerned with the different means of calculating the Paschal moon.

Usually, the Eastern Orthodox Church observes Easter on a Sunday after the Western Church has already observed Easter because the Eastern Churches adhere to the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. Eastern Orthodox traditions also prohibit Easter from being celebrated before or around the same time as Passover.

The Eastern and Western Orthodox Churches made several attempts throughout the 20th century to arrive at a fixed date for Easter. It was proposed that the Sunday followed by the second Saturday in April should be considered for a fixed date. However, nothing came to fruition even with many supporters of the proposal.

The liturgical observance between Eastern and Western Christianity differs as well. In Western Christianity, the traditional Easter liturgical observance begins on the night of Holy Saturday with the Easter Vigil which includes symbols of light, candles, and water, along with numerous readings from the Old and New Testaments.

Eastern Orthodox, Byzantine Rite Lutherans, and Eastern Catholics prepare for the start of Easter with the season of Lent and which ends on Lazarus Saturday. However, fasting does not end until Easter Sunday. In accordance with the Jewish tradition of praying in the evening, the Orthodox church begins its Easter service in the evening.

At midnight, the priest lights a candle at midnight while the church is in complete darkness to represent the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While the procession moves around the church three times to represent the three days Jesus Christ was buried in the tomb, the Altar servers light additional candles. This service continues into the early hours of Sunday morning with a feast to end the fasting. Later in the day, an additional service is held.

Read more: Joyful Mystery of the Rosary

How to calculate the Easter date?

Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Full Moon date which falls on or after March 21st. Easter always occurs on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. The Paschal Full Moon occurs after the vernal equinox, which is a common indicator of spring in the northern hemisphere.

Easter is calculated differently in Eastern and Western Christianity. While the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, the Western Churches follow the Gregorian calendar. This means that Easter Sunday lands on different dates in Western and Eastern Churches, however, sometimes the calendars coincide.

Read more: The Mysteries of the Rosary

Easter traditions from around the world

In many countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Greece, and the Netherlands, both Easter Sunday and Easter Monday are considered public holidays. Bermudians prefer celebrating Easter with kite flying. On Easter, they make their own kites and everybody goes to the beach to fly their beautiful creations.

It is a Norwegian tradition to read, watch, and listen to crime stores during the Easter holidays. Radio and tv stations produce murder mysteries, especially for the occasion of Easter.

On the Greek island of Corfu, Christians commemorate the resurrection of Christ by throwing pottery from their balconies. This tradition dates back to the 16th century when people would usher in the New Year by throwing away useless items out of their windows and scaring away evil spirits.

Easter Prayers

Saint Gregory’s Easter Prayer 

It is only right, with all the powers of our heart and mind, to praise You Father and Your Only-Begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Dear Father, by Your wondrous condescension of Loving-Kindness toward us, Your servants, You gave up Your Son. Dear Jesus You paid the debt of Adam for us to the Eternal Father by Your Blood poured forth in Loving-Kindness. You cleared away the darkness of sin by Your magnificent and radiant Resurrection. You broke the bonds of death and rose from the grave as a Conqueror. You reconciled Heaven and earth. Our life had no hope of Eternal Happiness before You redeemed us. Your Resurrection has washed away our sins, restored our innocence and brought us joy. How inestimable is the tenderness of Your Love!

Pope Benedict XVI 

Dear brothers and sisters, Easter does not work magic. Just as the Israelites found the desert awaiting them on the far side of the Red Sea, so the Church, after the resurrection, always finds history filled with joy and hope, grief and anguish. And yet, this history is changed, it is marked by a new and eternal covenant, it is truly open to the future. For this reason, saved by hope, let us continue our pilgrimage, bearing in our hearts the song that is ancient and yet ever new: “Let us sing to the Lord: glorious his triumph!”

Easter Table Prayer by Edward Hays, “Prayers for the Domestic Church: A Handbook for Worship in the Home”

Creator God and Lord of Life,
You who call forth from the darkness of death
all those who love You,
we rejoice, on this Easter Sunday,
in the resurrection from the dead
of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Visit our home and this table
with Your bright blessing of peace and life.
We pause in the midst of this prayer
to remember all the holy dead of our family
who live now in You and who await
the final and glorious resurrection of the dead.
Pause for silent reflection to remember those who have died.
May they and we,
because of our faith in You, our God,
taste in the victory of life over death.
May the Risen Christ, our Lord and Savior,
be our guest as we celebrate His resurrection
with this Easter Sunday dinner.
Bless those whose work to prepare this meal
has truly been a work of prayer,
and bless all of us who shall share it
with Easter love and joy.
May You, then, bless this table and this food,
and each of us
in Your holy name.
Amen.

An Easter Prayer by Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Good and gracious God,
Our most glorious Creator,
As we greet the signs in nature around us:
Of Spring once again regaling us in bloom,
In the songs of returning birds and fields soon to be planted,
We give you praise for an even greater sign of new life: the resurrection of your Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, that we especially celebrate at this time.
The sadness and despair of his death has given way to the bright promise of immortality.
For the Resurrection is our guarantee that justice will triumph over treason, Light will overcome darkness, and love will conquer death.
As we celebrate, we also dare to ask for your grace that we may live the promise given to us,
By imitating the life of Jesus in reaching out to the poor, the marginalized, the least among us,
As we strive to be neighbour to all those we meet,
We ask your special blessings each and every day on our President.
Working with him may we strive to make this great country of ours a beacon of hope
and justice in a world hungry for peace and so in need of your love.
We praise you in this Easter season. Change our lives, change our hearts to be
messengers of Easter joy and hope.
We make our prayer through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord forever.
Amen.

Summary

The most auspicious day for Christians, Easter, commemorated the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death, along with the hope of salvation. Easter is a significant day because on this day, by resurrecting, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in the Old Testament and showed us that eternal life will be granted to everybody who believes in him.

Easter is at the center of the Christian faith because by dying Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all of mankind. Instead of treating it as just a normal day, commemorate Easter each year with vigor and enthusiasm.

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About the Author: Naomi Hills

God has given me the gift to read the signs, interpret the dreams, decode the angel numbers since birth. Through rigorous practice and application, my gifts have been fine-tuned. Now, I use my gifts solely to help those distressed souls who have lost all hopes, those who have been left alone to fend for themselves, those whom the system doesn’t care anymore, those whom the mainstream science has ignored.

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