by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 1981, A.S. XV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Easter, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, the central them of Christian life, is the centerpiece of Christianity. Like Christmas, it lasts entire season, spanning over three months in duration. In the Middle Ages, it was the dominant event of the year.
The occasion for which Jesus entered Jerusalem was Passover, and it was the Passover feast that was celebrated at the Last Supper. Thus, the close connection between Passover and Easter, and the early Christian church made almost no distinction. As the Hebrew calendar is lunar, based on the phases of the moon, the date of Passover wanders with respect to the solar calendar. This is the reason why Easter wanders around the calendar.
The method of determining when Easter occurred in a given year was a source of much controversy that lasted until 800. The now accepted method was set down by The Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325. The date was defined as the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the first day of spring, March 21, or if the full moon is on Sunday, the Sunday after. A contemporary account of this controversy can be read in Bede’s “A History of the English Church and People,” particularly his description of the Synod of Whitby of 664 which settled the issue for England.
The Easter season begins with Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Lent, 50 days before Easter. It is followed by Collop Monday, the last day on which meat could be eaten. Collops is the name for small pieces of meat. The next day is Shrove Tuesday, from the past tense of the verb shrive, which means “to confess one’s sin or to impose penance.” Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day, as pancakes were made on this day to use up eggs and fats, as their use was forbidden during Lent. Another name for Shrove Tuesday is Fat Tuesday, which in French is Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras festivities are the climax of carnival, which used to begin on Twelfth Night. The word carnival derives form Medieval Latin and meant “farewell to flesh or meat.”
The following day is Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent. The ceremony for this day was first established by Pope Gregory I at the end of the sixth century and acquired its present name in 1099 from Pop Urban II. It consists of making a cross on the forehead with ashes and was at first reserved for public sinners. These were people whose sins required them to undergo public penance. By the 11th century, it included the entire congregation.
The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lengten which meant “spring.” Other names for Lent are Faslenzeit (fasting time, Germany), Ramaden (fasting, Malta), and Quadragesima Season, which is the ecclesiastical term. Lent is a time of fasting and preparation lasting 40 days, not including Sundays. Originally, the fast was from Good Friday to Easter, the 40 hours that Jesus was in the tomb. It was later extended to all of Holy Week and, in 337, Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, commented that “the whole world” fasted for 40 days. Two weeks before Easter is Passion Sunday which introduces Passiontide. On this day all statues, pictures and crucifixes in the church are covered. Passion is the term for the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.
The following Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week and celebrated Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages this was usually marked by processions, using palms twisted into the form of crosses. These palms were saved and used to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday ceremonies.
Thursday is Maundy Thursday, named from the Latin word mandatum or commandment. This was to celebrate the new commandment Jesus gave his disciples on the night of the Last Supper:
A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
The institution of the Eucharist also was commemorated on this day until it was given the separate feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” and signifies the body and blood of Christ. Another tradition on this day was the washing of feet of the poor by kings, princes, popes, bishops and abbots in memory of Jesus doing the same for his disciples. This day is also known as Shere or Clare Thursday which refers to the words for being purged of sin (schere) or returning (char) since this is the day which ended the penance of the public sinners that had started on Ash Wednesday.
The next day is Good Friday, which some hold to be a corruption of God’s Friday. The altar is draped in black and all signs of mourning are observed. The length of service on this caused it to be known in Anglo-Saxon times as Long Friday.
Lent ends with the Easter vigil which starts on Saturday night. In the early church, new converts were baptized on this night. Easter fires or the Paschal Candle also were lit this night, struck from flint as opposed to old embers to symbolize the beginning of the new light of Jesus Christ. The statues, pictures, and crucifixes that had been covered since Passion Sunday were unveiled. The vigil ends on Sunday morning with the cry “Christ is Risen!” to which is replied “He is risen indeed!”
There are several explanations of the origin of the word Easter. One theory, by Bede, has it named after an Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, Eostres, but recent scholars cannot locate any reference to this goddess in northern mythology. Another theory form the same time derives the name from Eosturmonth, the name of one of the spring months. Another has it form the Norse word eostur, eastus, or ostara which means “the season of the growing sun.” Other countries usually use worlds derive from the Latin word pascha, which comes from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesakh, from pasakh--to pass over.
The source of the tradition of the Easter rabbit is unknown. The earliest mentions of Easter eggs and the Easter bunny is a late 16th century book from Germany. There is an entry, however, in the expense accounts of Edward I of England in 1290 for the purchase of 450 eggs to be colored or covered with gold leaf. Henry VIII once received a Paschal egg in a silver filigree case from the Vatican.
The next important ceremony of Easter occurs 40 days later, on a Thursday, and is Ascension Day, marking the last earthly appearance of Christ to his disciples after his Resurrection. St. Augustine recorded its establishment by the fourth century. The paschal candle, which is lit for services from Easter until this time, is lit for the last time and extinguished after the reading of the Gospels.
The Easter season ends not with Ascension Day, but with Pentecost or Whitsuntide, which occurs ten days later. The name Whitsuntide dates from about the Norman Conquest and derives form White Sunday, so called for the white garments of the new converts going to church to be baptized at this feast in the early British church. Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church, as it was on this day that the disciples received the Holy Ghost. Its origin was the Jewish feast of thanksgiving, commemorating, among other things, the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Thus ends the Easter season, a hundred days of celebrating the most important events of the Christian church. As the church dominated Europe, so Easter dominated Medieval life. Out of Easter came the beginnings of modern drama, music, and art. Its inspiration continues today.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Trans. Leo Sherely-Price. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962.
Gibson, George M. The Story of the Christian Year. New York: Abingdon, 1940.
Hartman, Rachel. The Joys of Easter. New York: Meredith Press, 1967.>
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962.
Vipont, Elfrida. Some Christian Festivals. New York: Roy Publishers, 1963.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.