Who Started Easter?
Christians have commemorated Christ’s resurrection since this historical and miraculous event occurred. However, the celebration of Easter began in the 2nd century, roughly 1,800 years ago. By reading through the New Testament, we can see how crucial the resurrection is to our Christian faith. Peter writes in 1 Peter 1, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”
As we can see from these verses, Christ’s resurrection is extremely important because it grants us a living hope and assurance of our justification. So, we know that the resurrection is important and that we should regularly remember the resurrection of Christ, but how did we arrive at our annual celebration of Easter and with whom did it start?
To understand Easter, we must begin in the Old Testament with the celebration of Passover. In Leviticus 23, Moses describes for the people of Israel what they must do to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, beginning with Pesach or Passover. At dusk on the fourteenth day in the month of Abib (March/April), Israel was to gather a sacred assembly to offer the Passover sacrifice (an unblemished year-old male goat or sheep) to the Lord only in the place where his name dwells. They were also to cook and eat the animal only in the place where the Lord’s name dwells. Then they were to return to their homes the next morning. On the fifteenth day of Abib, Israel was to eat only unleavened bread for seven days. On the seventh day, they were to gather another sacred assembly to the Lord and do no work. All of this was done to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and to worship God for redeeming his people.
Fast forward a couple of years (actually, more than a couple of years; more like thousands) to the Last Supper. The meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night that he would be handed over to the Sanhedrin was the Passover meal. Jesus, the Deliverer and Redeemer, was gathered with his disciples, partaking of a meal that pointed to deliverance and redemption, all while preparing to serve as the perfect Passover lamb. Soon Jesus would be broken for us, and his blood would be shed as a covering for us, just as the blood of the lamb covered Israel during the first Passover in Egypt and spared them from death.
We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus Christ was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered, died, and was buried. This is often what we remember on Good Friday. But, the gospel does not end on Good Friday, or Silent Saturday, because on the third day he rose again.
What we celebrate and remember during Easter is the deliverance and redemption that we experience through Jesus Christ. If this sounds vaguely reminiscent of Passover, that’s because it is. Passover not only pointed back to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and slavery, but it also typified a greater redemption and deliverance from greater bondage - sin. It is because of this parallel that the Greek and Latin words for Easter (Pascha), and even French (Pâques) and Spanish (Pascua) are derived from transliterations of the Hebrew “Pesach” or Passover.
But why do we celebrate what we celebrate when we celebrate it? This too has its roots in the Passover/Easter correlation.
By the 2nd century Christians were widely celebrating Easter, though the date of celebration was not fixed or uniform. Some Christians were celebrating Easter during Passover week. This means Easter would have fallen on the sixteenth of Abib (now called Nisan), regardless of where it fell during the week. Other Christians were celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the fourteenth day of Abib (Nisan). While trying to fix a date for Easter controversy broke out.
Because Christians were trying to reach an agreement as to when Easter should be celebrated, much debate and discussion was had between those who advocated for the Quartodeciman view (favoring the fourteenth day of Abib/Nisan) and those who advocated for the Sunday celebration of Easter. Eventually, the Quartodecimans fell into the minority position. When the Council of Nicaea met in 325 A.D., they declared that Easter should be observed on Sunday. After some time, the date of Easter would be computed by celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of the spring equinox. This means that Easter can fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th.
However, even with the Council of Nicaea’s decision, controversy still broke out. This time the concern was over the use of calendars. Because the West uses the Gregorian calendar and the East uses the Julian calendar, these Sunday’s could still fall at different times during the month, which means that there was still no uniform date for Easter.
While the Eastern and Orthodox churches usually celebrate Easter eight days after Protestants and Catholics, and while there have been recent discussions between churches to finally arrive at a uniform date of observance for Easter, I want to make this point: It is not when we celebrate Easter, but what we celebrate at Easter that matters.
Some churches will be more liturgical, having Easter as more of a season that encompasses Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter services. Other churches may have a special service only for Easter. And other churches may think that the resurrection should be celebrated every week, and therefore every Sunday is like Easter Sunday. May I be bold enough to say that these things, while they are good, are not important enough to divide us. We are all seeking to celebrate the same thing that unites us - the death and resurrection of Christ for us. We all, as Christians, have been united with Christ in his death and his resurrection, regardless of how we choose to celebrate the Easter event.
As we draw close to Easter, may we spend time thinking about the cost of our salvation. May we spend time praising God for what he did on our behalf through the Son. However you celebrate, in whatever way you see fit, remember that Christ was broken for you, his blood covers you, and he was raised for you, all according to the Scriptures.