Easter: Origins

Holy Week comes to a close with the greatest and oldest of Christian holidays: Easter, or Pascha, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

The Easter we celebrate today encompasses a confluence of traditions and rituals that merged during the holiday’s transformation across 2000 years and even more miles from ancient Jerusalem, through Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and Central and Western Europe.

The name Easter itself  may be one of the many relics of ancient European paganism. Eostre, or Eastre, was a Germanic goddess. If the name bears a resemblance to the English word for the cardinal direction East, it’s no coincidence. East comes from same the Proto-Indo-European root as ‘dawn’. East is the direction where we see the rebirth of the sun each day, and Eostre was the goddess of the dawn.

The Venerable Bede wrote about Eostre back in the early 8th century, though by that time, he says, worship of the goddess had died out:

In olden time the English people…calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence after the manner of the Hebrews and the Greeks, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Sol-monath; March Hreth-monath; April, Eostur-monath…

Eostur-monath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. — Bede, Caput XV: De mensibus Anglorum

There are divergent theories on Eostre. Many relate her to the pagan goddesses Astarte, Isis and Ishtar. Some historians however have cast doubts on the breadth of Bede’s claims about Eostre. and question her very existence.

Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)
Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

The suspected pagan origin of the name in no way diminishes the reverence of the holiday for English-speaking Christians. Easter refers to the dawn and the direction of the rising sun, as well as to the ancient goddess, and as such it’s an applicable name for a holiday celebrating resurrection.

Other pagan pastoral traditions have become incorporated as secular, cultural rituals rather than religious ones. For instance, Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are ancient symbols of rebirth and fertility, common themes among Spring festivals.

Good Friday

April 22, 2011
April 2, 2010
April 10, 2009

The Crucifixion, by Tintoretto
The Crucifixion, by Tintoretto

Good Friday is the day of remembrance of the execution of Jesus Christ.

Also called “Great” and “Holy” Friday, the term “good” is recognized as a reference to the importance and solemnity of the day’s events, though no one knows for sure though where the name Good Friday originated. Perhaps the German “gute” in Gute Frietag. But Germans today call it the more apropos Karfreitag or “Sorrowful Friday.”

Here is a (very) brief timeline of events of the original Holy Week:

  • Palm Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem.
  • Maundy (Holy) Thursday, evening: after sunset, Jesus and the Disciples conduct a ceremonial Passover meal. After dinner, Jesus is arrested.
  • Good Friday: After being brought before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again, Jesus is sentenced to be executed by crucifixion. Jesus is crucified at noon and dies at approximately 3pm, allowing his body to be removed before the sun sets on Sabbath.
  • Easter Sunday: Jesus reappears, resurrected from the dead.

What is immediately apparent from the timeline above is that what the legal system in Christ’s day lacked in it’s ability to dole out justice (It could without remorse execute not merely an innocent, but a savior at that) it more than made up for in expeditiousness.

Today such a trial would take months merely to get to court. Indictments, motions, appeals would take years. And the span between sentencing and execution could take decades. But within 18 hours after the Last Supper, Jesus endured three state criminal proceedings, was tortured, sentenced to death, and nailed to the cross, all by approximately noon the following day.

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Today, jewelers sell almost as many crosses as diamonds.

“…what an irony that is. That we wear an item of capital punishment around our necks or in our ears or printed on our lapel. It’s become a thing of beauty, a thing of luxury in some cases, a fashion accessory. When really it’s an old rugged piece of wood that they would kill people with. — Pastor Carey Green, Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters

Crucifixion is believed to have begun with the ancient Persians and was adopted by Alexander the Great. The Romans began using crucifixion around the 6th century B.C. It was usually intended for criminals of low or no social standing of whom they desired to make an example. Roman citizens (not slaves) were generally exempt from crucifixion, the exception being treason.

Immediately following the crush of the Spartacus-led slave uprisings in the first-century A.D., the Romans crucified over 6,000 of Spartacus’s followers along the 200 kilometer Appian Way from Brindisi to Rome.

Jesus’s crucifixion is by far the most famous of all crucifixions, and indeed the one by which the very concept has been defined in the public mind, even in the earliest days of Christianity. After Jesus, the Romans used crucifixion as a means to execute many of his early followers, a number of whom actually preferred this painful method of execution as a way to emulate their Savior.

All that changed in 312 A.D. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine envisioned the sign of the cross before his historic victory over his more powerful rival Maxentius. As undisputed Emperor, Constantine abolished crucifixion in 337 out of reverence for Christ.

“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” — the final words of Jesus Christ, Luke 23:46

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The last four days of the Holy Week are also known as Holy Triduum, the holy Three Days. No, they didn’t mess up their counting. The roughly 72-hour period begins the evening of Holy (Maundy) Thursday and ends with evening prayers on Easter Sunday.

The Last Seven Sentences of Jesus

Maundy Thursday

April 21, 2011; April 1, 2010; April 9, 2009


Holy Week — Now that’s a name. It makes sense. It’s holy. It’s a week.

But some of the names of the individual days of the week…

Good Friday remembers the day Christ was crucified and killed. So whoever was in charge of naming either had a morbid sense of irony or put an extra ‘o’ in God, and the name stuck.

Easter, the cornerstone the Christian calendar, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is named, of all things, for a pagan Goddess.

Holy Saturday? Okay, well that one makes sense.

But what on earth is Maundy Thursday?

The word Maundy occurs but once in the English language. It refers to today, the Thursday before Easter Sunday. Maundy Thursday is observed as the anniversary of the Last Supper, the meal widely believed to be the Jewish holiday Passover. At the Last Supper, outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Jesus introduced the ceremony of the Eucharist:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  — Matthew 26:26-27

He also washed the feet of his disciples.  Matthew doesn’t describe the feet-washing. but John, who recalls the meal not as Passover, but as an event preceding it, records the ceremony as so:

…so [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…

…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” — John 13:4-15

That tradition lives on in Great Britain today, performed by none other than the Queen. No, she doesn’t wash her subjects’ feet anymore. James II, the last Catholic King of Britain, was the last monarch to do so, back in the late 17th century. These days the Queen carries on a Maundy Thursday tradition dating back to Edward I.

On Maundy Thursday, the British monarch distributes specially minted coins (Maundy coins) to as many subjects of each gender as the monarch is old. In other words, this year (2010) Queen Elizabeth, who is 84, distributes coins to 84 men and 84 women.

Maundy coins
Maundy coins

Roman Catholic Churches on the other hand still carry on the 2000 year-old feet cleansing tradition introduced at the Last Supper. During the the Pedilavium on Maundy or Holy Thursday, the priest washes the feet of 12 selected people.

The meaning of the ceremony goes back to the name Maundy. Maundy is from the same Latin root as the English word mandate, meaning “command”. The name maundy stems from the 11th commandment.

11th commandment? I thought there were only ten?

The 11th commandment is the one Jesus bestowed on his disciples at the Last Supper, just before his arrest:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” — John 13:34

It was to be a long night. As Jesus predicted, he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, arrested, and brought to trial. Also as Jesus predicted, Peter—who during the meal had offered to lay down his life for Jesus—denied even knowing him.

All before the rooster crowed.

The events of what happened the following day are recounted during Good Friday.

Succinct overview of Holy Week: Philadelphia Bulletin

Memorial of Christ’s Death

April 17, 2011

If you observe one holiday this year…

…you’re probably a Jehovah’s Witness.

While trying to explore a new holiday every day — over 100 so far this year and counting — I’ve found there’s one major religious group that gets left out: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed to observe one holiday all year, and that’s today, the Memorial of Christ’s Death. It’s normally observed at the same time as Passover in the ancient Jewish calendar.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was born sometime around October, but they don’t celebrate his birth, noting that Jesus gave no indication to his followers to do so. For that matter, they don’t celebrate any birthdays, including their own; birthdays, anniversaries, and other annual holidays are seen as glorification of the individual and as stemming from pre-Christian pagan religions.

Nor do Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate Easter with bunny rabbits and colored eggs, both of which are ancient pagan symbols of spring and fertility.

The reason they do memorialize Jesus’s death comes from Luke 22:19. Jesus breaks bread with His disciples at the Last Supper, and commands them,

“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The differences between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christians cannot be summed up in one post. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t follow the notion of the Holy Trinity. Jesus is considered the one Son of the Supreme Being Jehovah, but a separate entity; that Jesus was resurrected after his execution, enthroned by Jehovah and “given all authority in heaven and on earth.”

They reject the symbol of the cross, both for its pagan origin and because they believe Christ was executed on a single vertical beam.

And they don’t believe in Hell. When an unbeliever dies, they simply cease to exist, which in part explains the de-emphasis of funerals and why Witnesses, unlike every other religious and cultural group, don’t see the need for memorials other than that of Jesus.

So if you’re wondering about that guy at work who seems nice but who takes off at the first sign of every office party or birthday, it may not be because he’s a snob. It may simply be against his religious practices.

Or because your office parties are boring.

Either way, here’s a straight-forward article on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website. And a summary of Jehovah’s Witnesses Beliefs and Practices.