1902 Encyclopedia > Easter


EASTER, the annual festival observed throughout Christendom in commemoration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The word Faster—Anglo-Saxon, Eastre, Foster ; German, Ostern—like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic mythology. According to Bede (Be Temp. Fat, c. xv.) it is derived from Fostre, or Ostdra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the fourth month, answering to our April—thence called Fostur-monath—was dedicated. This month, Bede informs us, was the same as the " Mensis Paschalis," when " the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.'"

The name by which Easter is known among the Romance I nations—French pdques; Italian, pasqua ; Spanish, pascua—is derived through the Latin jiascha, and the Greek _n-ao-va, from the Chaldee or Aramasan form, KnpS pascha', of the Hebrew name of the Passover festival, nP|, pesach, from DS, " he passed over," in memory of the great deliverance when the destroying angel " passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians," Exod. xii. 27. An erroneous deriva-tion of pascha is given by some of the early fathers of the church, e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, &c, to whom Hebrew was an unknown tongue, from the Greek irao-^ety, " to suffer, " as being the period of our Lord's sufferings. St Augustine (in Joanii. Tract. 55) notices this false etymology, and shows how similarity of sound had led to the error, and gives the true derivation.

There is no trace of the celebration of Easter as a Christian festival in the New Testament or in the writings of the apostolic fathers. The sanctity of special times or places was an idea quite alien from the early Christian mind, too profoundly absorbed in the events themselves to think of their external accidents. " The whole of time is a festival unto Christians because of the excellency of the good things which have been given," writes Chrysostom, commenting on the passage 1 Cor. v. 7, which has been erroneously supposed to refer to an apostolic observance of Easter. Origen also in the same spirit (Contr. Celsum, viii. 22) urges that the Christian who dwells on the truths of Christ as our Pass-over and the gift of the Holy Ghost, is every day keeping an Easter and Pentecostal feast. The ecclesiastical his-torian Socrates (Hist. Eccl., v. 22) states with perfect truth that neither Christ nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. " The apostles," he writes, " had no thought of appointing festival days, but of pro-moting a life of blamelessness and piety; " and he attributes the introduction of the festival of Easter into the church to the perpetuation of an old usage, "just as many other cus-toms have been established." This is doubtless the true statement of the case. The first Christians, being derived from, or intimately connected with, the Jewish Church, naturally continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events of which these had been the shadows. The Passover, ennobled by the thought of Christ the true Paschal Lamb, the first-fruits from the dead, continued to be celebrated, and became the Christian Easter. Thus the human instinct which every-where craves for the commemoration of marked epochs in the personal, social, ecclesiastical, or national life, found its legitimate gratification in the public celebration of the events which are the foundation of the Christian faith.

But though the observance of the Paschal festival at a very early period became the rule in the Christian church, a difference as to the time of its observance speedily sprang up between Christians of Jewish and Gentile descent, which led to a long-continued and bitter controversy, and an un-happy severance of Christian union. No rule as to the date of the Easter festivals having been laid down by authority, Christians were left to follow their own in-stincts. These were naturally different in the Jewish and Gentile churches. The point at issue really was the date of the termination of the Paschal fast. With the Jewish Christians, whose leading thought would be the death of Christ as the true Paschal Lamb, this fast would end at the same time as that of the Jews, on the 14th day of the moon, at evening, and the Easter festival would immedi-ately follow, entirely irrespective of the day of the week. With the Gentile Christians, on the other hand, unfettered by Jewish traditions, the first day of the week would be identified with the Besurrection festival, and the preceding Friday would be kept as the commemoration of the Cruci-fixion, irrespective of the day of the month, the fast continu-ing with increasing strictness till the midnight of Saturday. With the one, therefore, the observance of the day of the month, with the other the observance of the day of the week, was the ruling principle. The chief point was the " keeping " or " not keeping" the 14th day of the moon corresponding to that of the month Nisan. Those who, adopting the Jewish rule, did so keep the 14th day were called TeTpaSeKOLTiTai, TerpaSn-cu, Quartodecimani, and were stigmatized as heretics. In the absence of any authorita-tive decision as to the day to be observed and the proper mode of calculating it, other discrepancies arose, which led to controversies and dissensions which, in the words of Epiphanius (Panar., Haer. lxx.), distracted the church, and became a source of mockery and ridicule to the unbelievers. " Some, " he writes, " began the festival before the week, some after the week, some at the beginning, some at the middle, some at the end, thus creating a wonderful and laborious confusion."

This diversity of usage was gradually brought to an end by the verdict of the Church of Rome. The Roman Chris-tians adopted the ordinary Gentile usage, which, within certain limits, placed the observance of the Crucifixion on a Friday, and that of the Resurrection on the following Sunday. A decretal of Pope Pius I., c. 147—the genuine-ness of which, however, is by no means established—pro-nounces that " the Pasch should be celebrated on the Lord's Day by all." His successor Anicetus was equally firm upon the point. Polycarp, the venerable and sainted bishop of Smyrna, who, according to Irenasus (apud Euseb., H. E., v. 24), visited Rome in 159 with this object, failed to induce Anicetus to conform to the Quartodeciman usage, which Polycarp had inherited from his master, the Apostle John. Anicetus declined to permit the Jewish custom in the churches under his jurisdiction, but made no scruple of communicating with those who adopted it, and allowed Poly-carp to celebrate the Eucharist at Rome. Between thirty and forty years after this visit (197) the same question was controverted in a very different spirit between Victor, bishop of Bome, and Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, the aged metropolitan of proconsular Asia. This province wras the only portion of Christendom that still maintained the Quartodeciman usage, which had been dropt even by the churches of Palestine and Alexandria. Victor's despotic demand that the Asiatic churches should adopt the Roman system having been met by Polycrates with a courteous but firm refusal, Victor proceeded to ex-communicate him and all who held with him. So sweep-ing a measure shocked the Christian world. Irenams remonstrated with the bishop of Rome, and ultimately the Asiatic churches were allowed to retain their usage unmolested. (Euseb., H. E., v. 23-25.) We still find the Quartodeciman usage springing up from time to time in various places, but it never took permanent root, and at the time of the Council of Nicaea (325) the Syrians and the Antiochenes were the solitary champions of the Jewish rule. The settlement of this controversy was one among the causes which led the emperor Constantine to summon that council. The consent of the assembled prelates was unanimous. All agreed that Easter should be kept on one and the same day throughout the world, and that none should hereafter follow the blindness of the Jews (Socr., II. E., i. 9). Nothing, however, was said as to the deter-mination of the day. This was practically left to be calculated at Alexandria, the home of astronomical science, and the bishop of that see was to announce it annually to the churches under his jurisdiction and to the bishop of Rome, by whom it was to be communicated to the Western churches.

But although measures had thus been apparently taken to secure uniformity of observance, some centuries elapsed before all discrepancy ceased. A more intricate question remained to be solved, viz., how the full moon on which Easter depended was to be predicted. The Nicene decrees had effectually crushed the feeble remnants of the Quartodeciinan usage. It was established as a rule that Easter must be kept on a Sunday, but there was no general agreement as to the cycle by which the festival was to be calculated,—some churches adopting one rule,some another. We learn from St Ambrose (Epist. 23) that in 387 the churches of Gaul kept Easter on March 21, while the churches of Italy postponed it to April 18, and those of Egypt a week later stik, to April 25 ; and it appears from an epistle of Leo the Great (Epist. 64 ad Marcian.) that in 455 there was eight days' difference between the Roman and Alexandrine Easter. Similar discrepancies are mentioned by Gregory of Tours in the year 577, nor did they disappear from the Galilean Church till the 8th century, although by a canon of the fourth Council of Orleans (541) it had been ordained that the Easter festival should be kept at the same time by all, according to the tables of Victorius. The ancient British Church observed the 84 years' cycle which they had originally received from Rome, and their stubborn refusal to give it up caused much bitter controversy between the fathers of Iona and the Latin missionaries. These latter unfairly attempted to fix the stigma of the Quartodeciinan heresy on their opponents, and they are sometimes even now spokeu of as adopting the Asiatic mode of calculation, and false inferences are thence drawn as to the Eastern origin of the British Church. This, however, is quite erroneous. The early British and Irish Church always oommemorated the Crucifixion on a Friday and the Resurrection on a Sunday. The only difference between them and the Romish Church was in the cycle adopted for the computation of the festival,—the British Church really adhering to the cycle originally adopted by the Bomish Church itself, which had been superseded by the more accurate calculations of Victorius of Aquitaine (457), and of Dionysius Exiguus (525). This led to a double Easter being observed by the adherents of the two churches. Thus, as we learn from Bede (Eccl. Hist., iii. 25), in 651 Queen Eanfleda, adopting the Roman rule, was fasting and keeping Palm Sunday while her husband Oswy, king of Northumbria, was celebrating the Easter festival. This diversity of usage was put an end to in the kingdom of Northurnbria in the council of Streaneshalch, or Whitby (654); and the Roman rule was finally established in England by Arch-bishop Theodore in 669. This rule may be thus briefly stated. Easter day is the first Sunday after the 14th day (not the full moon) of the calendar moon which happens on or next after March 21. This calendar moon, however, is not the moon of the heavens, nor the mean moon of the astronomers, but an imaginary moon created for ecclesias-tical convenience in advance of the real moon (see Prof. De Morgan's article in Companion to the Almanac, 1845). After nine centuries a fresh discrepancy in the observance of Easter between the Roman and the English Church was caused by the refusal in England to adopt the Gregorian reformation of the calendar, 1582, apparently for no other reason than that the alteration had originated at Rome. This difference was happily put an end to in 1752, when the "New Style" was adopted in the United Kingdom. The churches of Russia and Greece, and the Oriental churches generally, still observe the unreformed calendar, their Easter falling sometimes before sometimes after that of the Western church; very rarely, as in 1865, the two coincide.

The rules on which the calculation of Easter is based are given in the article CALENDAR (vol. iv. p. 675}. Easter day, as commemorating the central fact of our religion, has always been regarded as the chief festival of the Christian year, and has been from the earliest times observed with a stately and elaborate ceremonial. It is not, however, the purpose of this article to enter on the ritual observances of Easter, nor on the many curious and interesting popular customs—of which the sending of Pasch eggs, or Easter eggs, is one of the most wide-spread—with which it is connected in all Christian nations. Foi these last the reader may consult Brand's Popidar Antiquities, Hone's Every Day Book; and Chambers's Book of Days. (E. V.)

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