This article is about the Christian and cultural festival. For other uses, see Easter (disambiguation).
Easter,[nb 1] also called Pascha[nb 2] or Resurrection Sunday,[nb 3] is a festival and holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day of his burial after his crucifixion by Romans at Calvary c. 30 AD. It is the culmination of the Passion of Christ, preceded by Lent (or Great Lent), a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance.
The week before Easter is called Holy Week, and it contains the days of the Easter Triduum, including Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Maundy and Last Supper, as well as Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In western Christianity, Eastertide, the Easter Season, begins on Easter Sunday and lasts seven weeks, ending with the coming of the fiftieth day, Pentecost Sunday. In Orthodoxy, the season of Pascha begins on Pascha and ends with the coming of the fortieth day, the Feast of the Ascension.
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts which do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars which follow only the cycle of the sun; rather, its date is determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. It has come to be the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March, but calculations vary in East and West.
Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar. In many languages, the words for "Easter" and "Passover" are identical or very similar. Easter customs vary across the Christian world, and include sunrise services, exclaiming the Paschal greeting, clipping the church, and decorating Easter eggs, a symbol of the empty tomb. The Easter lily, a symbol of the resurrection, traditionally decorates the chancel area of churches on this day and for the rest of Eastertide. Additional customs that have become associated with Easter and are observed by both Christians and some non-Christians include egg hunting, the Easter Bunny, and Easter parades. There are also various traditional Easter foods that vary regionally.
Main article: Names of Easter
The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Ēastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre.[nb 4] The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English 'Month of Ēostre', translated in Bede's time as "Paschal month") was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month". However, it is possible that Bede was only speculating about the origin of the term since there is no firm evidence that such a goddess actually existed.
In Greek and Latin, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called Πάσχα, Pascha, a word derived from Aramaic פסחא, cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover, commemorating the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Already in the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to Christ, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual. In most of the non-English speaking world, the feast is known by names derived from Greek and Latin Pascha. Pascha is also a name by which Jesus himself is remembered in the Orthodox Church, especially in connection with his resurrection and with the season of its celebration.
One of the earliest known depictions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Rabbula Gospel illuminated manuscript, 6th century)
The New Testament states that the resurrection of Jesus, which Easter celebrates, is a foundation of the Christian faith. The resurrection established Jesus as the powerful Son of God and is cited as proof that God will judge the world in righteousness. For those who trust in Jesus' death and resurrection, "death is swallowed up in victory." Any person who chooses to follow Jesus receives "a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". Through faith in the working of God those who follow Jesus are spiritually resurrected with him so that they may walk in a new way of life and receive eternal salvation.
Easter is linked to the Passover and Exodus from Egypt recorded in the Old Testament through the Last Supper, sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus that preceded the resurrection. According to the New Testament, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the matzah and cup of wine as his body soon to be sacrificed and his blood soon to be shed. Paul states, "Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed"; this refers to the Passover requirement to have no yeast in the house and to the allegory of Jesus as the Paschal lamb.
One interpretation of the Gospel of John is that Jesus, as the Passover lamb, was crucified at roughly the same time as the Passover lambs were being slain in the temple, on the afternoon of Nisan 14. The scriptural instructions specify that the lamb is to be slain "between the two evenings", that is, at twilight. By the Roman period, however, the sacrifices were performed in the mid-afternoon. Josephus, Jewish War 6.10.1/423 ("They sacrifice from the ninth to the eleventh hour"). Philo, Special Laws 2.27/145 ("Many myriads of victims from noon till eventide are offered by the whole people").
This interpretation, however, is inconsistent with the chronology in the Synoptic Gospels. It assumes that text literally translated "the preparation of the passover" in John 19:14 refers to Nisan 14 (Preparation Day for the Passover) and not necessarily to Yom Shishi (Friday, Preparation Day for the Passover week Sabbath) and that the priests' desire to be ritually pure in order to "eat the passover" refers to eating the Passover lamb, not to the public offerings made during the days of Unleavened Bread.
In the early Church
The Last Supper celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. The early Christians too would have celebrated this meal to commemorate Jesus' death and subsequent resurrection.
The first Christians, Jewish and Gentile, were certainly aware of the Hebrew calendar.[nb 5] Jewish Christians, the first to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, timed the observance in relation to Passover.
Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Pascha (Easter) begins to appear in the mid-2nd century. Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referring to Easter is a mid-2nd-century Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis, which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one. Evidence for another kind of annual Christian festival, the commemoration of martyrs, begins to appear at about the same time as evidence for the celebration of Easter.
While martyrs' days (usually the individual dates of martyrdom) were celebrated on fixed dates in the local solar calendar, the date of Easter was fixed by means of the local Jewish lunisolar calendar. This is consistent with the celebration of Easter having entered Christianity during its earliest, Jewish period, but does not leave the question free of doubt.
The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of its custom, "just as many other customs have been established", stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. Although he describes the details of the Easter celebration as deriving from local custom, he insists the feast itself is universally observed.
A stained glass window depicting the Passover Lamb, a concept integral to the foundation of Easter
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (both of which follow the cycle of the sun and the seasons). Instead, the date for Easter is determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the Council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. (See also Computus and Reform of the date of Easter.) In particular, the Council did not decree that Easter must fall on Sunday. This was already the practice almost everywhere.
In Western Christianity, using the Gregorian calendar, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April inclusive, within about seven days after the astronomical full moon. The following day, Easter Monday, is a legal holiday in many countries with predominantly Christian traditions.
Eastern Christianity bases its calculations on the Julian Calendar. Because of the 13-day difference between the calendars between 1900 and 2099, 21 March corresponds, during the 21st century, to 3 April in the Gregorian Calendar. Easter therefore varies between 4 April and 8 May on the Gregorian calendar (the Julian calendar is no longer used as the civil calendar of the countries where Eastern Christian traditions predominate). Also, because the Julian "full moon" is always several days after the astronomical full moon, the eastern Easter is often later, relative to the visible moon's phases, than western Easter.
Among the Oriental Orthodox some churches have changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and the date for Easter as for other fixed and moveable feasts is the same as in the Western church.
Main article: Computus
In 725, Bede succinctly wrote, "The Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter." However, this does not precisely reflect the ecclesiastical rules. The full moon referred to (called the Paschal full moon) is not an astronomical full moon, but the 14th day of a calendar lunar month. Another difference is that the astronomical equinox is a natural astronomical phenomenon, which can fall on 19, 20 or 21 March, while the ecclesiastical date is fixed by convention on 21 March.
In applying the ecclesiastical rules, Christian churches use 21 March as the starting point in determining the date of Easter, from which they find the next full moon, etc. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches continue to use the Julian calendar. Their starting point in determining the date of Orthodox Easter is also 21 March but according to the Julian reckoning, which in the current century corresponds to 3 April in the Gregorian calendar.
In addition, the lunar tables of the Julian calendar are four days (sometimes five days) behind those of the Gregorian calendar. The 14th day of the lunar month according to the Gregorian system is figured as the ninth or tenth day according to the Julian. The result of this combination of solar and lunar discrepancies is divergence in the date of Easter in most years (see table).
Easter is determined on the basis of lunisolar cycles. The lunar year consists of 30-day and 29-day lunar months, generally alternating, with an embolismic month added periodically to bring the lunar cycle into line with the solar cycle. In each solar year (1 January to 31 December inclusive), the lunar month beginning with an ecclesiastical new moon falling in the 29-day period from 8 March to 5 April inclusive is designated as the paschal lunar month for that year.
Easter is the third Sunday in the paschal lunar month, or, in other words, the Sunday after the paschal lunar month's 14th day. The 14th of the paschal lunar month is designated by convention as the Paschal full moon, although the 14th of the lunar month may differ from the date of the astronomical full moon by up to two days. Since the ecclesiastical new moon falls on a date from 8 March to 5 April inclusive, the paschal full moon (the 14th of that lunar month) must fall on a date from 21 March to 18 April inclusive.
The Gregorian calculation of Easter was based on a method devised by the Calabrian doctor Aloysius Lilius (or Lilio) for adjusting the epacts of the moon, and has been adopted by almost all Western Christians and by Western countries which celebrate national holidays at Easter. For the British Empire and colonies, a determination of the date of Easter Sunday using Golden Numbers and Sunday letters was defined by the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 with its Annexe. This was designed to match exactly the Gregorian calculation.
Controversies over the date
Main article: Easter controversy
A five-part Russian Orthodox icon depicting the Easter story.
Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different computation for the date of Easter than the Western churches.
The precise date of Easter has at times been a matter of contention. By the later 2nd century, it was widely accepted that the celebration of the holiday was a practice of the disciples and an undisputed tradition. The Quartodeciman controversy, the first of several Easter controversies, arose concerning the date on which the holiday should be celebrated.
The term "Quartodeciman" refers to the practice of celebrating Easter on Nisan 14 of the Hebrew calendar, "the LORD's passover" (Leviticus 23:5). According to the church historian Eusebius, the Quartodeciman Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna, by tradition a disciple of John the Apostle) debated the question with Anicetus (bishop of Rome). The Roman province of Asia was Quartodeciman, while the Roman and Alexandrian churches continued the fast until the Sunday following (the Sunday of Unleavened Bread), wishing to associate Easter with Sunday. Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus persuaded the other, but they did not consider the matter schismatic either, parting in peace and leaving the question unsettled.
Controversy arose when Victor, bishop of Rome a generation after Anicetus, attempted to excommunicate Polycrates of Ephesus and all other bishops of Asia for their Quartodecimanism. According to Eusebius, a number of synods were convened to deal with the controversy, which he regarded as all ruling in support of Easter on Sunday. Polycrates (circa 190), however, wrote to Victor defending the antiquity of Asian Quartodecimanism. Victor's attempted excommunication was apparently rescinded, and the two sides reconciled upon the intervention of bishop Irenaeus and others, who reminded Victor of the tolerant precedent of Anicetus.
Quartodecimanism seems to have lingered into the 4th century, when Socrates of Constantinople recorded that some Quartodecimans were deprived of their churches by John Chrysostom and that some were harassed by Nestorius.
It is not known how long the Nisan 14 practice continued. But both those who followed the Nisan 14 custom, and those who set Easter to the following Sunday had in common the custom of consulting their Jewish neighbors to learn when the month of Nisan would fall, and setting their festival accordingly. By the later 3rd century, however, some Christians began to express dissatisfaction with the custom of relying on the Jewish community to determine the date of Easter. The chief complaint was that the Jewish communities sometimes erred in setting Passover to fall before the Northern Hemisphere spring equinox. The Sardica paschal table confirms these complaints, for it indicates that the Jews of some eastern Mediterranean city (possibly Antioch) fixed Nisan 14 on dates well before the spring equinox on multiple occasions.
Because of this dissatisfaction with reliance on the Jewish calendar, some Christians began to experiment with independent computations.[nb 6] Others, however, believed that the customary practice of consulting Jews should continue, even if the Jewish computations were in error.
First Council of Nicaea (325 AD)
Main article: First Council of Nicaea
This controversy between those who advocated independent computations, and those who wished to continue the custom of relying on the Jewish calendar, was formally resolved by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which endorsed changing to an independent computation by the Christian community in order to celebrate in common. This effectively required the abandonment of the old custom of consulting the Jewish community in those places where it was still used. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in the mid-4th century:
... the emperor ... convened a council of 318 bishops ... in the city of Nicea ... They passed certain ecclesiastical canons at the council besides, and at the same time decreed in regard to the Passover that there must be one unanimous concord on the celebration of God's holy and supremely excellent day. For it was variously observed by people ...
That the older custom (called "protopaschite" by historians) did not at once die out, but persisted for a time, is indicated by the existence of canons and sermons against it.
Dionysius Exiguus, and others following him, maintained that the 318 Bishops assembled at the Nicene Council had specified a particular method of determining the date of Easter; subsequent scholarship has refuted this tradition. In any case, in the years following the council, the computational system that was worked out by the church of Alexandria came to be normative. It took a while for the Alexandrian rules to be adopted throughout Christian Europe, however. The 8-year cycle originally employed was replaced by (or by the time of) Augustalis's treatise on the measurement of Easter, after which Rome used his 84-year lunisolar calendar cycle until 457. It then switched to an adaptation by Victorius of the Alexandrian rules.
Because this Victorian cycle differed from the Alexandrian cycle in the dates of some of the Paschal Full Moons, and because it tried to respect the Roman custom of fixing Easter to the Sunday in the week of the 16th to the 22nd of the lunar month (rather than the 15th to the 21st as at Alexandria), by providing alternative "Latin" and "Greek" dates in some years, occasional differences in the date of Easter as fixed by Alexandrian rules continued. The Alexandrian rules were adopted in the West following the tables of Dionysius Exiguus in 525. From this time, therefore, all discrepancies between Alexandria and Rome as to the correct date for Easter cease, as both churches were using identical tables.
Early Christians in Britain and Ireland also used an 84-year cycle. From the 5th century onward this cycle set its equinox to 25 March and fixed Easter to the Sunday falling in the 14th to the 20th of the lunar month inclusive. This 84-year cycle was replaced by the Alexandrian method in the course of the 7th and 8th centuries. Churches in western continental Europe used a late Roman method until the late 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne, when they finally adopted the Alexandrian method. Since 1582, when the Catholic Church adopted the Gregorian calendar while the Eastern Orthodox and most Oriental Orthodox Churches retained the Julian calendar, the date on which Easter is celebrated has again differed.
The Greek island of Syros, whose population is divided almost equally between Catholics and Orthodox, is one of the few places where the two Churches share a common date for Easter, with the Catholics accepting the Orthodox date—a practice helping considerably in maintaining good relations between the two communities.
Reform of the date
See also: Reform of the date of Easter
The congregation lighting their candles from the new flame, just as the priest has retrieved it from the altar—note that the picture is flash-illuminated; all electric lighting is off, and only the oil lamps in front of the Iconostasis remain lit. (St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Adelaide).
In the 20th century, some individuals and institutions have propounded a fixed date for Easter, the most prominent proposal being the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. Despite having some support, proposals to reform the date have not been implemented. An Orthodox congress of Eastern Orthodox bishops, which included representatives mostly from the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Serbia, met in Constantinople in 1923, where the bishops agreed to the Revised Julian calendar.
The original form of this calendar would have determined Easter using precise astronomical calculations based on the meridian of Jerusalem. However, all the Eastern Orthodox countries that subsequently adopted the Revised Julian calendar adopted only that part of the revised calendar that applied to festivals falling on fixed dates in the Julian calendar. The revised Easter computation that had been part of the original 1923 agreement was never permanently implemented in any Orthodox diocese.
In the United Kingdom, the Easter Act 1928 set out legislation to allow the date of Easter to be fixed as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April (or, in other words, the Sunday in the period from 9 to 15 April). However, the legislation has not been implemented, although it remains on the Statute book and could be implemented subject to approval by the various Christian churches.
At a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, the World Council of Churches (WCC) proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced the present divergent practices of calculating Easter with modern scientific knowledge taking into account actual astronomical instances of the spring equinox and full moon based on the meridian of Jerusalem, while also following the Council of Nicea position of Easter being on the Sunday following the full moon. The recommended World Council of Churches changes would have sidestepped the calendar issues and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was proposed for implementation starting in 2001, but it was not ultimately adopted by any member body.