Many Christians, especially Protestants, see Easter as a one-Sunday celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. A big deal, if a second fiddle to Christmas. Early morning gatherings — sunrise services — are common, often held outdoors and followed by a communal breakfast and egg hunts for the kids. But, this bottle rocket version of the holiday sells Easter (and, by extension, the Passion of Christ narrative that precedes it) short.
There’s more to Easter than egg hunts, sunrise services, and chocolate bunnies. Here’s a quick refresher on what tradition suggests is the holiest of Christian seasons — and an explainer of where those eggs and bunnies come from in the first place:
What is Holy Week?
Holy Week (also called Passion Week) is the final period of the Lenten season, which precedes, but does not include, Easter Sunday. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, a celebration of the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark records crowds crying out “Hosanna” (“Save, please!” in Hebrew) and placing palm branches before Jesus as he entered the city.
Holy Week continues with the Easter Triduum (“three days” in Latin), which encompasses Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Also called the Paschal Triduum, this period remembers the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. While it appears to be four days, the Triduum is indeed three — it begins Thursday evening and concludes on Sunday evening.
Per the liturgical calendar, Lent ends the evening of Maundy Thursday. Holy Week, though, continues through Saturday and includes the Triduum, though not Easter Sunday.
For a refresher, read John 13.
Maundy Thursday is when Christians across denominations remember the Last Supper and the time Jesus spent with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “commandment,” a nod to the instruction Jesus gave his disciples that evening to “love one another” as he loved them.
On Maundy Thursday, some churches partake in the rite of foot washing, an act exemplified by Jesus during the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of his 12 disciples. He instructed them to continue the tradition, which was a symbol of Jesus’ humility and servanthood. After doing so, he said, “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
Maundy Thursday is also the day Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, during the Last Supper, a Passover celebration, when he gave the bread and wine to his disciples saying, “Take and eat; this is my body,” and “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Later that evening, Judas would betray Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which led to his arrest and prepared the way for his crucifixion on Good Friday.
For a refresher, read Matthew 27.
Good Friday is the most solemn day of the year for Christians — it commemorates the day Jesus was crucified. For Catholics, it’s the one day of the year Mass may not celebrated. Rather, it is a day of penance, abstinence and fasting.
Scholars debate where the term “Good Friday” comes from (hint: it’s not related to the word’s common English usage), but the most common view is that it’s either derived from the Middle English “good” (meaning “holy”) or that it came from the phrase “God’s Friday.”
Some churches use the Stations of the Cross — a series of 14 artistic representations of Jesus carrying his cross toward his crucifixion — as part of their services on Good Friday. The stations were initiated with pilgrims who would travel to Jerusalem and retrace Jesus’ journey to the cross at Calvary. The stations begin with Jesus being condemned to die and end with his body being laid in the tomb.
Not a lot is written, but read Matthew 27:62-65.
Holy Saturday was a day of waiting, as Jesus rested in the tomb. There’s debate among Christians about whether Jesus descended into hell on this day — Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some mainline Protestant churches believe so (it’s included in a line of the Apostle’s Creed), while other Protestants don’t believe this interpretation to be scriptural.
In the Bible, the main event recorded on Saturday is the securing of Jesus’ tomb by sealing it and placing a guard outside. This the Pharisees requested so Jesus’ disciples couldn’t steal his body and claim he’d risen from the dead.
The Easter Vigil begins the evening of Holy Saturday and is a time of meditation upon the suffering and death of Jesus. During the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is lit to symbolize Jesus’ resurrection as the light of the world. The practice of the sunrise service was derived from this tradition.
For a refresher, read Luke 24.
Also called Resurrection Sunday, this is the most holy of all days in the Christian calendar. It is a day to remember that Jesus rose from the dead, hence the Easter refrain: “He is risen.” Since Jesus’ resurrection is thought to confirm God’s victory over death for himself and all believers, the events of Easter are foundational to the Christian faith.
The Gospels record what happened on Resurrection Sunday as follows: first, a few of the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb to finish anointing his body. They find the stone rolled away and his body gone. Two angels tell them Jesus has risen and that they should go tell his disciples. When they do, Peter and John run to the tomb and find it empty, with Jesus’ linen clothes left there. Next, Jesus appears to his disciples: first to Mary Magdalene, then to two followers on a road (they don’t recognize him), and finally to the other disciples — all on what we call Easter Sunday.
In an article for Relevant, Thomas Turner argues that Christians need to stop thinking of Lent, culminating in the cross, and Easter, culminating in the resurrection, as two different stories. Instead, he writes, “Grouping these events we often view separately together makes a profound theological statement: if we want atonement, forgiveness and new life, we need to have both death and resurrection — the whole Passion narrative all at once.”
For a visual representation of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life as depicted in the Bible, check out Bible Gateway’s Holy Week Timeline.
Easter: It’s not just one day
Easter is the 50-day period of celebration and reflection upon the resurrection of Jesus. It follows the seasons of Triduum and Lent and ends before Pentecost Sunday. Though the Bible doesn’t command the celebration of Easter for 50 days, it also doesn’t record early Christians singling out one day each year to celebrate what we now call Easter.
The theologian Mark Roberts writes about growing up Protestant with a “one-day” Easter but realizing the richness afforded by a prolonged celebration. He says, “The implications of the resurrection lavishly overflow a one-day container. We devote 50 days to celebrating Easter because the God who raised Jesus from the dead deserves such extensive attention.”
The idea is that celebrating the entire season of Easter allows faith to be stretched, deepened and renewed — and in a sense, Roberts says, each Sunday was like Easter for early believers who constantly recalled the resurrection.
There’s much dispute over where the word “Easter” originates, though there are a few main contenders. One is that it comes from the name of a pagan goddess of spring, “Eostre.” Another is that is derives from the Anglo-Saxon “oster,” meaning “to rise.” Most languages (aside from German and English) instead derive the holiday’s name from the Latin “pascha,” which means “Passover.”
You won’t find Easter eggs (which today epitomize the commercialization of the holiday) in the Bible, but they had significance in early Christian celebrations. Because eggs weren’t eaten during the Lenten fast, they were preserved and given to children and servants as a gift on Easter Sunday. As such, eggs were also a staple of Easter meals.
In pagan traditions, eggs symbolized springtime and new life. When appropriated by early Christians, eggs came to represent the resurrection of Jesus — the shell signified the sealed tomb and the cracking of it recalled his emergence from it.
And the bunny?
The Easter Bunny likely originated from the German pagan tradition of “Oschter Haws” (yes, the animal has a name), an egg-laying hare that left colored eggs in the nests children made for it. Also, like eggs, rabbits have long been symbols of fertility and life. Unlike eggs, the bunny has no ties to the Christian celebration of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection.
Images via Shutterstock.