Hans J. Hillerbrand wrote that Easter is the “principal festival of the Christian church, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his Crucifixion.” According to Hillerbrand, we can trace the Christian observance of this day to the second century, although one could argue that the origins of Easter are found in the Old Testament.
Easter Dates and Meaning
Many commentators assert that Christian leaders have merely appropriated the dates of pagan festivals and overlaid them with sacred purpose. Hillebrand thinks otherwise: “Given the determination with which Christians combated all forms of paganism […], this appears a rather dubious presumption” (Ibid.).
He says that many people now believe the word “Easter” is derived from an Old High German word for “dawn:” eoastarum. Easter represents dawn light breaking through the darkness of our sin. But the roots of this word still evoke a pagan association with fertility. The word “Easter” is not found in the Bible.
The timing of Easter also differs between churches. Christians in parts of what is now Turkey set the date of the crucifixion in line with Jewish Passover, and that date aligned with the first full moon of spring. “The Resurrection […] was observed two days later, on 16 Nisan, regardless of the day of the week.”
Western churches, however, consider Sunday to be the first day of the week because this was when Jesus rose from the dead. They always celebrate the resurrection specifically on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring, any time between March 22 and April 25.
Eastern Orthodox churches are different again: their Julian calendar is 13 days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, Hillebrand explains, so Easter could be later in countries such as Belarus, Greece, and Bulgaria.
“Liturgically, Easter comes after the Great Vigil, which was originally observed sometime between sunset on Easter Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. […] By the fourth century, the Easter vigil was well established in various liturgical expressions.”
In those early days among certain congregations, Christ’s return was expected to take place imminently, on an Easter Sunday (or 16 Nisan), so the joy believers experienced emanated from their Messiah’s victory over the grave and also excitement about the coming dawn.
Even though North American Protestants no longer expect Christ’s return to coincide with Easter, they look forward to sunrise on Sunday. They consider the dawn light to be particularly symbolic of light breaking through the darkness.
In this case, the definition of eoastarum as “dawn” would fit perfectly. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, begin a vigil late into the night so they can celebrate a midnight mass on Easter Sunday (Ibid.).
Biblical Events Embedded in Easter
Easter commemorates a series of events, the culmination of which is Christ’s resurrection. Many western churches focus on the Friday and the Sunday — the cross and the empty tomb — but one might also take time to remember Palm Sunday when Jesus fulfilled prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).
On Maunday Thursday, some churches encourage remembrance of the Last Supper during which Jesus ate with and taught his disciples one final time before Calvary.
Good Friday is the day when believers remember Christ’s suffering and death while Holy Saturday is a day of reflection; believers might hold a prayer vigil, recalling the grief of Jesus’ followers and perhaps the pain of having to wait so long to visit his tomb.
Cally Logan explains that Saturday was the traditional Jewish Sabbath. After Christ’s body was taken down from the cross, “the women from Galilee followed and saw the tomb where his body was placed. Then they went home and prepared spices and ointments to anoint his body. But by the time they were finished the Sabbath had begun, so they rested as required by the law.”
As Logan points out, this was according to God’s perfect timing. The women would return to find the stone rolled away; the tomb was empty.
Easter Embedded in the Old Testament
Matt Emerson demonstrates that the Old Testament was preparing us for Easter all along. There are echoes of Easter, foreshadowing throughout Scripture. We see reference to Holy Saturday, the oft-forgotten in-between day of this most holy weekend in the Christian calendar.
Holy Saturday recalls how Joseph’s suffering was used by God for good; how, at the Red Sea crossing, “Jesus goes before his people through the waters of death, leading them out of bondage and into new life.” Emerson mentions how a scapegoat is employed in Leviticus.
The Lord instructed Aaron to “cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (Leviticus 16:8-10).
Emerson refers to numerous passages of Scripture and assorted events in which Jesus went before all faithful followers of God to make payment for their sin once and for all. “Jesus enters into the chaotic waters of the void of death and thereby changes it, breaking open its gates and bringing light and life to those who waited for him.”
The Passover is regarded by Western Protestant churches as the Old Testament template for Easter. “The reason [Jesus] came to Jerusalem that final time wasn’t just to celebrate Passover, but to become our Passover.”
Justin Dillehay draws a portrait of Christ as the Passover lamb, the sacrifice required by all people (including God’s chosen nation, Israel) in order to pay the penalty for sin.
With that final plague — the death of every firstborn child in each family — and the Old Testament Passover, “God devised a way in which he could be both just and merciful at the same time. We might call it salvation through substitution. […] God spares Israel’s sons, not because they are better than Egypt’s sons, but because a spotless lamb dies in their place and its blood covers their door.”
At the cross, Jesus’ sacrifice is known as substitutionary atonement. He took our place, the place we had rightfully earned as enemies of the King by our treason.
No animal — as Dillehay explains — could ever truly pay the cost we incurred. That was a problem solved on Good Friday, which is why this day is regarded as “good” even though Christ’s death was horrific.
Typology and Easter
As though in response to Emerson’s comments about the foreshadowing of Holy Saturday, Dillehay proclaims that “Jesus is greater than the Old Testament type. This time God didn’t ask us to provide the lamb — he provided the Lamb himself.”
Not an animal: only the sinless, spotless Son of God was good enough. Because Jesus’ blood was sufficient to pay for our sins, “God can say to us, ‘When I see his blood, I will pass over you.’”
The origins of Easter predate our modern, post-resurrection understanding because God knew about the cross and the resurrection from the very beginning.
For further reading:
Is Easter Pagan in Origin and Roots?
Is the Goddess Eostre Connected to Easter?
Should Christians Celebrate Easter?
What Is Holy Week?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Svetlana-Cherruty
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.