The Date of Easter
Easter is a “movable feast.” Its timing is linked to the cycles of the moon and so its date varies from year to year. The Council of Nicea in 325 determined that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. As interpreted in the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches, this ruling implies that Easter Sunday can occur between March 22 and April 25. The timing of Easter is not linked to the Jewish day of Passover. The Eastern (Orthodox) churches use a different calendar for ceremonial calculations and so celebrate Easter at a different time. In 2016, we celebrate Easter Sunday on 27th March, while the Eastern churches will celebrate it on 1st May.
The Story of Easter
In the last week of Lent, we remember the tumultuous events that culminated in the death of Jesus: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), and the arrest, trial and execution (Good Friday). The climax of the story occurs the following Sunday, Easter Sunday, the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The story of Easter – Last Supper, arrest, trial, execution, resurrection – can be found in the gospels: Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 13-20. The gospel accounts are not identical, but differ slightly. One explanation for this is that the different gospel writers and the Christian communities to which they belonged decided that different details were more meaningful or important for their situation.
Each year of the three year lectionary cycle follows the story through the eyes of a different gospel. This year, we read from the Gospel of Luke.
This was the day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He was hailed by the crowds as the one who had come to release Israel from the Roman imperial yoke and bring in the reign of God on earth, the long-awaited Messiah. The crowds threw palm branches before Jesus as he entered the city as a form of royal welcome (so the name Palm Sunday). The welcome given to Jesus troubled the authorities, and they decided to arrest Jesus.
For centuries most Christians blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. This led to terrible persecution of Jewish people. It is wrong, however, to put the blame on the whole Jewish nation for 2000 years. If you read the gospel story carefully, you will see that what led to the death of Jesus was the stand he took against “the system,” that is, the patterns of intolerance, exploitation, exclusion, self-interest and violence that operated in the society around him. At the time, these patterns were part of Roman imperial rule. Similar patterns exist today in our society. Without a doubt, had Jesus been born today, he would have been destroyed as surely as he was in the ancient society.
The week following Palm Sunday is called Holy Week. The original Holy Week included the Jewish festival of Passover (see the story in the gospels). Since the Jewish and Christian traditions use different calendars, these days Passover might not fall in Holy Week.
Sometimes you will hear this Sunday called “Passion Sunday.” This usage reflects a Roman Catholic tradition which has become more popular in Protestant churches in recent times. As our culture became more secular, fewer and fewer people attended worship on Good Friday, so fewer and fewer people heard the full story of the last week of Jesus in Jerusalem – in particular the story of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. On Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, the lectionary readings and worship have a mood of celebration with little hint of the desolation of the cross that lay between. In order to give a more faithful account of the story, some read the story of the death of Jesus (this year, Luke 22:14-23:56) on the Sunday before Easter Sunday. The name “Passion” comes from the Greek word “to suffer.”
This service commemorates the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples. The words of Jesus at this meal form the basis for our communion liturgy and we will sit around a table at the front of the church for worship. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus was arrested after this meal, and tried in the night by the Jewish court and the Roman officials. The death sentence was ordered and carried out by the Romans.
The word Maundy echoes the Latin word for commandment, mandatum, and may have been derived from this word. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another (John 13:34). This happened just after Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, symbolically acting out the new commandment. The Maundy Thursday service often includes a ritual of foot washing. In our service, we substitute hand-washing.
Some people call this Thursday by another name, such as Holy Thursday.
The day when we remember the death of Christ by crucifixion.
The services on this day celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Some Christians celebrate with a dawn service in an open air setting because of the story that women met Jesus at the start of the day at the empty tomb.
Some churches hold an Easter vigil from sunset on Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, to sunrise on Sunday. In part, this is based on a tradition that regards the day as beginning at sunset (rather than dawn, or midnight), so the vigil is the first service of Easter to celebrate the resurrection.
The Gospel of Luke includes a story about an encounter with the risen Christ that is not found in any other gospel. This meeting takes place on the road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-43). This delightful story is often read on the evening of Easter Sunday. Since we don’t have an evening service at Scots, you might like to read it for yourself on Easter Sunday as a meditation before turning in for the night. What does the story say to you?
The gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus close with the disciples in different places. In Luke, the end of the gospel (Luke 24:44-53, the reading for Ascension Day, May 5) has the disciples in Jerusalem, worshipping daily in the Temple. This sets the scene for the next stage of Luke’s two volume work, the Book of Acts.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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