Easter - The Takeaway
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
These are the first words of Easter worship each year: a call and response. They are known as the Paschal Greeting or Easter Acclamation, taken from the account of Easter morning in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
My kids memorized this verse during preschool. I remember their small, joyful voices from their car seats in the back of my sedan: “He is not here, he is risen!” They understood, in their childlike and trusting way, that this mystery is at the heart of everything.
Listen to the mystery of Easter morning from the gospel of John. It is God’s word for us today.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20.1-18)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We’ve listened to the story of Easter morning, the resurrection of Jesus, from the Scriptures. And now we turn to church history.
How was Easter celebrated in the early church? It was closely linked to the Jewish holiday Passover. At first, it was even celebrated on the same day as Passover, the 14th of Nisan, which can fall on any day of the week. Some Christians wanted to celebrate Easter on Sunday, the day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead. So the celebration was shifted to the nearest Sunday to Passover. In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea, formally established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
The word for Easter in most languages shows this early history—the same word is used for both Passover and Easter. In English, however, our word for Easter comes from the word for the goddess of spring, Eostre, who was celebrated at the beginning of spring—the month of April used to bear her name. Bede, a British monk from the 7th and 8th centuries, was the first to call the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection “Easter” in English. The naming makes sense—as Jesus’ resurrection is usually in April (the month of Eostre) and celebrates new life.
Back to our question, how was Easter celebrated in the early church? The earliest record we have of the celebration of Easter is a 2nd century sermon from Melito of Sardis.
In the fourth century, Easter was celebrated late on Saturday night into Sunday morning, in a service known as the Easter Vigil. The whole Biblical story was reviewed, new believers were baptized, and the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. Even today, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians continue this ancient tradition of celebrating Easter late on Holy Saturday. Protestants, on the other hand, began to celebrate Jesus’ rising with sunrise services. After all, the women discovered the empty tomb at sunrise. Something for the night owls and the early birds alike.
Throughout history, Easter has been celebrated beyond worship—with festivities at home, including feasts and fun for the children. The tradition of decorating Easter eggs began in the 13th century. Christians abstained from eating eggs during Holy Week—yet the chickens continued to lay them! As the eggs piled up, Christians realized that they were a fitting symbol for the season. The chick tapping its way out of the shell is similar to Jesus emerging from the tomb—hence the egg is a symbol of new life. From the abundant supply as well as the fitting meaning, the tradition of decorating Easter eggs was born. Orthodox Christians tend to color theirs red, to remember the blood that Jesus shed for us.
We tend to think of Easter as one day a year. The truth is that Easter is a fifty-day season. It lasts longer than Lent, from Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost, the birthday of the church.
Now we’ve listened to the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of John. And we’ve explored how Christians throughout church history have celebrated Easter, which brings us to the present. How are you going to celebrate Easter this year?
Worship is at the top of my list. This year, you can worship virtually on Easter Sunday at 9 and 10 am. And you can worship in-person at 6:30 am in the Pecan Grove, and at 9 am and 11 am in the soccer field. (Registration is required.)
Another way to celebrate Easter is with an Easter feast or meal. Many families serve special Easter dishes—often lamb, to remember that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Our family usually serves barbeque (both brisket and pulled pork) and invites friends over for an outdoor party.
Last but not least, a final way to celebrate Easter is with Easter baskets and egg hunts. Both rabbits and eggs are ancient symbols of new life. And chocolate is a great way to celebrate just about anything, if you ask me.
May you joyfully celebrate Easter this year—through worship, feasting, and playing. Most of all, may you hold onto the treasure of this day—the truth that we began with: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
Let us pray. This prayer is for Easter Sunday and is from the PC(USA)’s Book of Common Worship.
Glory to you, O God:
On this day you won victory over death,
Raising Jesus from the grave
And giving us eternal life.
Glory to you, O Christ:
For us and for our salvation you overcame death
And opened the gate to everlasting life.
Glory to you, O Holy Spirit:
You lead us into truth.
Glory to you, O Blessed Trinity,
Now and forever, Amen.