Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Our Easter: Christian origins of the Paschal Feast

Our Easter: Christian origins of the Paschal Feast

By Rev. John-Brian Paprock

For Capital Newspapers Supplement

Holy Week Worship 2009 Directory

Published Wednesday, April 8, 2009



In the spring of 33 AD in the city of Jerusalem, it is said, one of the most well-known and beloved events was witnessed by a handful of people – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through those few witnesses the foundation of Christianity was formed, and Easter had become the oldest and most celebrated of Christian festivals.


Easter is known in other countries by variations of the Greek – Pascha - which refers to Jewish Passover.  Things pertaining to Easter are still referred to as “Paschal” in English. This celebration became the most holy, most auspicious and honored day among Christ’s followers, long before Christmas was added to the calendar.  


Although the annual “date” of these events was debated for centuries, an agreement was reached at the first Ecumenical Council in 325 AD. There is still a reckoning difference between the Western (Roman/Protestant) and the Eastern (Orthodox) churches that leads to different dates for Easter most years.  Nevertheless, both Eastern and Western Christians honor the same holy days before and after Easter that follow the Gospel stories in real time every year, even as practices and rituals have evolved over time.


The 40-day fast of Lent comes to an end the weekend before Easter. It is likely that the fast began as pious extensions of Holy Week.  There was also an early church practice of adult baptism at Easter with 40 days of fasting was part of the preparation. Traditionally Christians have abstained from meat and dairy food during this time.


The week before Easter is called Holy Week.  It begins with Palm Sunday, celebrating the triumphant arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem. One enduring tradition is the blessing of palms and branches. Christians still carry blessed branches from church to their homes to welcome Jesus there as well.  The next day, Monday, begins several days of intense prayer and focused preparation, when no celebrations, like baptisms or weddings are allowed. 


On Thursday, as in the Gospel account, the “Last Supper” with the breaking of bread and the washing of feet is remembered and reenacted. Many clergy still honor these traditions, following the command of Jesus to “do this in remembrance of me.”


Vigil services Thursday night into Friday morning usually begin with the betrayal kiss of the apostle Judas in Gethsemane. There is a recounting of the trials and tribulations of Jesus through that night, including the ancient Roman manner of extreme punishment ending in crucifixion.


Good Friday, the Friday of Holy Week, is the very day of Jesus’ crucifixion and his death. It is remembered with all the piety and humility in prayers and songs of lament and repentance. A sacred funeral ritual is conducted. Candles are extinguished. Decorative elements in the church are covered.  The church, the tomb is quiet until the resurrection on “the Third Day” – Sunday. 


To the faithful, the understanding of the resurrection means the darkness of death has been defeated. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead becomes the ultimate of hope of life over death – the ultimate redemption of humankind.  Holy Pascha is the triumph of light over darkness.


Eucharistic celebrations have often begun in the middle of the night. First there is dark, then from a single paschal light everyone has lighted candles. (This is observed as a miraculous event every year in the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem.) Services usually continue through the night. In the West, Easter services include a blessing of the Paschal Candle.  In the East, lit candles are taken home. 


Christians celebrate with a feast that features all the foods that were fasted from, especially eggs and meat. In preparation for Easter, eggs are dyed colors or elaborately decorated, offered in baskets to be blessed.  (From the first centuries, eggs were observed as symbols of renewed life given by the Resurrection.) A Paschal lamb was prepared in honor of the festival foundation in the Jewish Passover. Baskets also often included other items to be blessed and shared: regional delicacies, candies, sweet breads, and cured meats. Secular modern elements and diverse cultural practices continue to be incorporated and combined into the festivities of this most celebrated of days. 


Easter is the most religious day of the year in America. Easter services are the most attended church services annually.  The fullness of Easter includes not just the celebrations afterwards, but also the sacrifices before. The Gospel accounts have been read aloud for generations and in all the corners of the world. The traditions and rituals of this most sacred Christian time are still upheld – from that handful of followers who were witnesses almost 2,000 years ago to the millions in this 21st Century who still cry aloud, “Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!”   

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