Ask the Experts: Easter edition

(RNS) In our inaugural edition of Ask the Experts, we tackled questions about the history, theology and traditions of Christmas. This time, we're looking at Easter.

Easter word egg.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

(RNS) In our inaugural edition of Ask the Experts, we tackled questions about the history, theology and traditions of Christmas. This time, we’re looking at Easter.

Special thanks to our readers for sending in such great questions, and to the scholars for taking time from their busy holiday schedules to answer them.

Don’t forget to vote for your favorite question; the winner receives a guided tour at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York.

Some of the questions have been edited for clarity’s sake. If you’ve got more questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to find answers.

Tyler Whipkey asks: What was the ancient Christian view of resurrection?

Martin Connell, associate professor at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, answers:

Often surprising to Christians today, Easter did not originally celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, for Sunday was the weekly “day of the resurrection,” and Easter remembered and celebrated the passion and death of Jesus. Only when Good Friday emerged in the fourth century did the death of Jesus move to that day and the resurrection of Christ (become) Easter’s story.

Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, adds:

Historically, the view is that resurrection is something that happens to a body, or involves a new “resurrection body,” which has material substance. This was the view of early Jews, Jesus, Paul, and others.  The term “resurrection” never referred to dying and going to heaven, or something that happened at death which does not involve a body.  This bodily view of resurrection is also the normal or orthodox view of resurrection today as well — the official position of all Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Churches.

Mary Elizabeth Sperry, a Bible expert with the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds:

Christians have always struggled to understand what resurrection means. In fact, wondering about what comes after death long predates Christianity. Over time, various thinkers in the church have discussed resurrection and the afterlife in various ways, from an enhanced more perfect human life (free of sorrow, pain, the difficulties of old age, etc.) to sharing more intimately in divine life. Ultimately, the truth of resurrection is beyond our understanding (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The church has consistently taught a few truths about resurrection:

1)   The soul is immortal and cannot die. Thus, it need not be raised.

2)   All people will rise for the final judgment where the righteous will know eternal life.

3)   The body will be raised, but in glorified form.

What this looks like in reality… well, we shall someday see

Reuben Cedino asks: What’s the origin of the word “Easter”?

Connell answers: In most European (Romance) languages, the name for Easter is traced back to the Latin Pascha, which is derived from Jewish, Hebrew name for “Passover.” About the origins of “Easter” in English, German, and Dutch, however, there is disagreement, some scholars positing that the name comes from the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who’d been celebrated in April in antiquity and the Middle Ages, others positing that it meant the “month of opening,” and others still that Easter comes from “east,” the direction of the rising sun.

Sperry adds: Some etymologists believe that the English word “Easter” derived from the name of an Old English goddess, but there is some debate about this matter. In most countries, the word for Easter is derived from the root “Pascha” which is related to the Hebrew “Pesach” or “Passover.”

Jill Hileman asks: What, if anything, does Easter borrow from pre-Christian pagan practices? 

Sperry answers:  As the church spread throughout the world, it has taken the customs of the culture, purified them of superstition, and given them new Christian meanings. Two Easter customs that likely derive from pagan practices are the Easter egg and the Easter fire. The Easter fire seems to have derived from an ancient Celtic custom welcoming spring. In Catholicism, a new fire is blessed at the beginning of the great Easter Vigil and the paschal candle is prepared, representing the light of Christ. The egg is a common fertility symbol. The church reinterpreted it to symbolize the new life we have in Christ. In some places, the egg is understood to symbolize the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb. Like an egg, the tomb seemed to be closed and dead, but there was life inside.

Connell adds: Many Easter customs, symbols, and traditions have no or little foundation in the Bible or the early church and therefore were likely pagan customs of spring that were received and adapted to Christian theology.

Cedino also asks: Who determined the dates of the Holy Week?

Sperry answers: The dates of Holy Week are determined by the date of Easter. In the early centuries of the church, there was an extended debate as to whether Easter should be celebrated always on a Sunday or if the date should be celebrated in relation to Passover. (This debate is known as the Quartodeciman Controversy after the Latin word meaning 14. Passover begins on 14 Nisan.)

The Council of Nicea in 325 established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring (following the vernal equinox). Thus, the date of Easter varies from late March through late April, depending on phases of the moon.

In the early Church, Easter was celebrated as a single day (beginning with nightfall Saturday). Over time, the celebration of the feast expanded both forward and backward, adding the Triduum (the three days beginning the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding the evening of Easter Sunday), the Easter octave, Holy Week, the Easter season (through Pentecost) and then Lent to prepare. In the current calendar, preparation for and celebration of the Easter feast takes up a quarter of the calendar.

Finally, the days of the events surrounding Easter are well-attested in all four Gospels. Jesus was crucified the day before the sabbath and shared a meal with his disciples the night before, thus establishing Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The women found the empty tomb the morning after the sabbath – Sunday.

Connell adds:

Holy Week was originally an extension back from the date of Easter. Holy Week likely emerged in fourth-century Jerusalem, as Christians started to trace the geography of the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth in Palestine, and, especially, the last days before the his crucifixion.

John Donaghy asks: Why do Orthodox Christians often have different dates for Easter? 

Sperry explains:

Due to differences between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars (and resulting differences in the beginning of spring), Eastern and Western Christians often celebrate Easter on different days (as they will this year). There has been increasing discussion in recent years about the cooperating to identify a common date for Easter so that all Christians will ceelbrate this great feast at the same time.

And Professor Peter Bouteneff of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary explained in our Ask the Experts: Christmas edition:

Until the 16th century, the secular and religious West recognized just one calendar, the Julian. When it became clear that this calendar required an adjustment in order to be true to astronomy, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the “Gregorian” calendar that is now universally used in secular life. But even until the early 20th century, much of Europe (especially Eastern Europe) continued to operate on the Julian calendar in both religious and secular spheres. And until this day, the Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia, Mount Athos, and several other places continue to reckon its feasts according to the Julian calendar — at a separation of thirteen days from the Gregorian.


(Easter image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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