This video from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly shows theologians, scholars and church officials discussing the many ways Easter is observed in the United States. The Christian holiday of Easter celebrates the divine nature of Jesus Christ and commemorates the Christian belief in his death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Protestant denominations have established unique Easter practices, such as faith-healing ceremonies, early-morning prayer services and candlelight vigils. While Easter services may differ, all Christians observe the Easter holiday as the most important event in the Christian liturgical year.
Christianity Glossary (Document)
Easter is a Christian holiday that commemorates the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea and as an adult traveled throughout the region, performing miracles and spreading the gospel or good news, his message of salvation. He acquired a large following during his lifetime, the closest of whom were called disciples. Roman leaders became increasingly uncomfortable with the large numbers of people who followed Jesus. He was ultimately arrested and sentenced to crucifixion under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilot. Jesus died on a cross and was buried in a tomb in Jerusalem. Christians believe that three days later, on the first Easter, he rose from the dead.
Today, Western Christians follow the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon, after the vernal equinox. Eastern Christians, following the Julian calendar, usually celebrate Easter one week later. Ash Wednesday introduces Lent, 40 days of fasting, penance, prayer and ceremonial observances that precede the Easter season. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, honors Jesus’ historic entrance into Jerusalem. Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, memorializes the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Holy Saturday occurs the day before Easter and is often celebrated with an Easter Vigil from sunset to sunrise. This ritual includes the celebration of baptisms and dramatic candle-lighting ceremonies.
The season of Lent is somber until the celebration of Easter Sunday, which is festive and joyful. Different Christian churches and denominations celebrate this day in diverse ways, including triumphant church services and special music and celebrations. Some secular traditions are geared toward children, such as the wearing of new Easter outfits and Easter egg hunts. Christianity adopted the ancient symbolism of the egg to represent rebirth after Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection.
Christianity has been heavily influenced by pre-Christian practices. The first Easter Sunday, for example, took place within the Jewish Passover season, which is a lunar celebration like Easter. The Last Supper, when Jesus prepared the disciples for his death, was itself a traditional Jewish meal, part of the Passover celebration.
Pagan rituals have also had a powerful impact on the Easter celebration. In the early Middle Ages, pagan Anglo-Saxons of Northern Europe worshipped the goddess Eostre, who was associated with a hare, and celebrated with a springtime festival that included the veneration of eggs as symbols of rebirth and fertility. In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory I sent missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxon tribes to Christianity, instructing them to incorporate their ancient pagan traditions into Christian ceremonies. As a result, the holiest of Christian holidays was named Easter and became associated in spring with an Easter bunny and eggs.
KIM LAWTON: During Holy Week, churches around the world echo the familiar refrain that proclaims a central tenet of Christianity: Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried, but three days later he rose from the dead. Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians alike say celebration of the Resurrection is the most important event on the church calendar.
MS. FREDERICA MATHEWES-GREEN (Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church): This is the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, over death. It's what sets us free. In comparison, Christmas is not that important. We like Christmas. Everybody does. But the whole point of our salvation is embodied on Pascha.
WALT WANGERIN, JR. (author, "Paul: A Novel"): This is the very center of what we believe, of who we are, of what our identity is, of why we continue to return to the Lord in joy. Without Easter, there is no church.
LAWTON: More often than not, Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians celebrate the Resurrection on different days. But a growing number of American church leaders say this should change.
FATHER RON ROBERSON (National Conference of Catholic Bishops): The credibility of the Christian message really gets compromised when people on the outside see that we can't even agree on when to celebrate the central mystery of our faith.
LAWTON: Conflicts over the celebration of the Resurrection stretch back to the beginning days of Christianity. Early church leaders wanted all Christians to celebrate the Resurrection on the same day, after the Jewish Passover. To that end, a council of bishops in the fourth century decreed that Easter would fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox. But as the Roman Empire divided between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, the church world also split. When Westerners adopted the new Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, the East kept the Julian calendar. Since the two calendars have differing dates for the equinox and full moon, in most years Easter falls on different Sundays.
LAWTON: During Holy Week, churches mark their beliefs with special services. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, these services are especially numerous and lengthy. One unique observance is the service of holy unction on Wednesday night.
MS. MATHEWES-GREEN: At the conclusion of this service, the members of the church line up and come forward for anointing, for healing. In the Orthodox Church, we still have a lively belief that Jesus heals, that we need healing of our souls and our bodies.
LAWTON: On Holy or Good Friday, Christians remember the Crucifixion. According to many theologians, of all the traditions Roman Catholics tend to give special emphasis on the suffering and death of Jesus. Through the Stations of the Cross, or in dramatic productions, Catholics often reenact the journey to the Crucifixion.
Some Protestants gather Friday evening in a solemn worship service that remembers the Crucifixion through the taking of Communion.
Catholics and many Protestants traditionally strip their altars bare. Statues and crosses are covered in purple or black cloths, the shrouds of death.
In Eastern Orthodox churches, a shroud showing Christ's body is actually carried in a funeral procession around the church and then laid in a tomb adorned with flowers.
MR. WANGERIN: What should be experienced on that day by these very specific traditions is the sense that the Lord died. There is, and there ought to be, a sense of mourning at this point, the mourning that the disciples felt when Jesus gave up the ghost and breathed his last.
LAWTON: Eastern Orthodox and growing numbers of Catholics and Protestants begin celebrating the triumph of the Resurrection Saturday night, before midnight.
FATHER ROBERSON: It is the celebration of darkness and light. The church starts in the darkness, and there is that light of a single candle, which then is spread out all through the congregation. It is a real celebration of the hope and the meaning that the Resurrection of Christ brings to our lives.
LAWTON: In many Orthodox traditions, the service spills out into the street, processing outside the church.
MS. MATHEWES-GREEN: We sing over and over "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life." We'll say it over and over, shouting it out, rejoicing at what Christ has freed us from, and what he's freed us to.
LAWTON: Some Protestants also gather in darkness, in a pre-dawn Easter sunrise service. Others gather later Sunday morning, with joyous pageantry and celebration.
MR. WANGERIN: Easter should be for us a genuine joy, not just in our minds, but also in our physical experience -- that for awhile, death was all that existed, but coming with Easter is the remarkable, surprising grace that death is overcome. Christians say to one another, "He is risen," and the answer is, "He is risen indeed."
LAWTON: And despite differing traditions and rituals and even days of celebration, church leaders say that is the ultimate -- and unifying -- Easter message.
FATHER ROBERSON: We celebrate a single reality of Jesus coming into the world, the son of God becoming incarnate and entering into our lives. And we celebrate the central reality of his death for our sins -- that he suffered and died for us, and on the third day, he rose from the dead.
Academic standards correlations on Teachers' Domain use the Achievement Standards Network (ASN) database of state and national standards, provided to NSDL projects courtesy of JES & Co.
We assign reference terms to each statement within a standards document and to each media resource, and correlations are based upon matches of these terms for a given grade band. If a particular standards document of interest to you is not displayed yet, it most likely has not yet been processed by ASN or by Teachers' Domain. We will be adding social studies and arts correlations over the coming year, and also will be increasing the specificity of alignment.