What Easter Celebrates

When we see bright-colored eggs and chocolate bunnies in pastel-colored displays, we know Easter is near. Unless you understand the calendar timing of Easter Sunday, you have to check online for when Easter falls each year.

Easter is not a major marketing holiday but stores do their best to feature egg-coloring dyes, baskets with plastic green grass, chocolate bunnies, and marshmallow chicks. Sunday dinner is usually ham with scalloped or au gratin potatoes. Some include traditional hot-cross buns.

What do we celebrate with all of this? Is there a difference between Easter and Resurrection Sunday? What about other traditional days people observe at this season; Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday?

How are these related? There is some confusion about what is celebrated and lots of disagreement about how Christians should celebrate Easter.

Some background on Easter

Easter is a major celebration for Christian churches. It is one of those Sundays when many people who do not normally go to church attend a service, especially a sunrise service.

Our church holds a sunrise service at the beach each year. It is a beautiful and well-attended celebration. I am partial to sunrise services because it connects well with the story of Jesus’ resurrection in all four of the gospels.

Back to the question—Is there a difference between Easter and Resurrection Sunday? There is, but some background on other more traditional observances of the church might be helpful.

Ash Wednesday & Lent

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season that runs for forty days before Easter Sunday. It commemorates Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for forty days and His temptation by the devil at the end of the fast. Matthew 4:1-11

It is observed as a time to give up some pleasure or part of daily routine as a sacrifice. The early church did not observe this, but it developed and became a church observance in 325 BC. It is observed mostly by Roman Catholic churches and many traditional Protestant churches.

Paschal Triduum

Palm Sunday, combined with the last days before Easter Sunday is called Holy Week or Passion Week. The Paschal Triduum includes three important days. Which ones depends on who you ask or what you accept as the three most important days.

The title is drawn from Pascha, Greek for the Hebrew Pesach or Passover. The Passover or Seder Supper is based on the first Passover in Exodus 12, which was fulfilled by the Lord’s atoning death on the cross.

Traditionally, the Triduum is Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Others regard the Triduum as Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It commemorates Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as crowds of people cried out, “Hosanna (Oh Save!) to the Son of David!” (Matt 21:1-11). It is the beginning of Holy Week that concludes with Easter Sunday.

Although the early church didn’t observe Palm Sunday, the church in Jerusalem began to as a special day in the late third or early fourth century. When Jesus entered Jerusalem that day, it was a fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy (Zech 9:9; Matt 21:4-5).

Sadly, some in the crowd who waved palm branches and shouted out “Hosanna!” to hail whom they believed to be the Messiah later yelled out, “Crucify Him!” (Matt 27:15-26). It illustrates how quickly emotions and opinions can change people’s minds, regardless of the truth.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday commemorates the last night Jesus spent with His closest followers, as told in John 13 and 17. It begins with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, which included His betrayer Judas (John 13:1-17), on the night He ate the Passover feast with them (Luke 22:14-23).

The word Maundy is taken from the Latin word for command, in acknowledgment of the Lord’s new commandment to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35). This commandment needs to be remembered and practiced far more often than once a year.

Good Friday

I remember participating in Good Friday services as one of a group of pastors in the community where we shared a message on one of the last seven sayings of Jesus on the cross. It was a glorious reminder of how we are one Body—one Church unified by Jesus and His work of redemption on the cross.

My first time in the Philippines was on Good Friday, when the entire country virtually came to a standstill to observe this solemn day with processions and prayers. As believers, we need to reflect on the atoning death of Jesus—the Lamb of God (John 1:29)—not just for His sacrifice but also for its purpose and how it impacts us.

When Jesus was lifted on the cross on Golgotha (John 19:17-18), He fulfilled the Passover once and for all (Heb 9:12, 26; 10:10, 12). This is why it is Good Friday! It may have originally been God’s Friday but morphed into Good—like God’s spell (story) became Gospel.

The very purpose of Jesus dying on the cross was to provide a way for all humanity to be reconciled with God the Father. God came to earth Himself as the Son of God to offer Himself for all people.

All of Jesus’ earthly ministry and presence focused on this day, followed by His resurrection—we cannot separate His death and resurrection from our understanding of God’s work of redemption. And so, it is Good Friday, but remember—as an old hymn declares—Sunday is coming!

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the official end of the Lenten season. It is also called Black Saturday in the Philippines and other places. It is a reminder of Jesus’ burial in the tomb. But thankfully, that is not the end of the story.

Easter—Resurrection Sunday

Although most of us know this day of celebration as Easter, I prefer the use of Resurrection Sunday because it expresses what is most important. It is uncertain how it became known as Easter, but an ancient connection to its origin is to the Saxon goddess of spring, Eastre.

The important thing is to distinguish the difference between how the world around us observes Easter and why believers celebrate it. Without the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no hope of eternal life and there is no true redemption (1 Cor 15:13-17).

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the third day after His death was the primary focus of the gospel message of the first church, as seen throughout the book of Acts. It is central to Christian theology. The hope of salvation and eternal life hangs on the physical resurrection of Jesus.

It is what the Lord pointed the disciples to before and immediately after His death and resurrection (Matt 16:21; Luke 24:44-47). The resurrection came on the first day of the week (Sunday) and was the first true Christian holiday observed by the early church and the reason they began to meet on the first day of the week rather than on the last day.

Easter or Resurrection Sunday?

What are you celebrating at Easter? It is easy to react to the idea of a pagan origin to Easter, but the resurrection of Christ is biblical and important. It really doesn’t matter what you call the day (Rom 14:5-9). What is important is why we celebrate it.

A traditional greeting for Resurrection Sunday is for one person to say, “He is risen!” and for others to reply, “He is risen indeed!” That is the essence of our hope in Jesus.

A simple way to get a true perspective on Holy Week, or Passion Week if you prefer, is to read the account of it all in the Bible. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the power of the story—God’s story of redemption through His Son Jesus—trying to sort out the what and why.

Not that understanding is not important, it is, but understanding often comes as we immerse ourselves in the story itself. When you read, allow yourself to soak in all that is written, even read it aloud, so you can see it with your mind’s eye. Reading more dynamic versions of the Bible may help and you can also listen to audio versions of the Bible.

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