Ask anyone, “What’s the most important celebration of the year?” and the answer seems clear: Christmas. Presents, decorations, music, and Santa. It’d be hard to top that, right? Even from a religious perspective, God becoming man, dwindled to infancy (as the poet Hopkins put it), invites us to meet him in the intimacy of the manger scene.
Yet, from the depth of darkness, all the misery of human life throughout history, we hear a voice:
I was dead but now I live.
The child of Christmas came into the world only to die for us. And not only to die, but to take up his life again in a new and transformed way.
“I will not die, but live” (Psalm 118:7). Jesus says this not only for himself but for all those who receive his new life: we were dead in sin and have found life in Christ. The Resurrection introduced a new force into the world, turning everything upside down, or, more accurately, right side up. We are redeemed from the slavery instituted by Adam’s sin. Death, the consequence of sin and the ultimate cause of fear, has been destroyed:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
(1 Cor 15:54-55).
Easter is the only reason we can celebrate. Without Easter, we would all be fatalists: death would have the last word. We couldn’t celebrate Christmas or any other feast, knowing that in the end all will fade into darkness. Paul himself points out that “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Easter is the essential celebration that passes on its life to every other feast.
We could even say that the Church is Easter. The Church’s mission consists in spreading its spiritual force through the world like leaven. The Church does two things to share Christ’s victory. First, it gives testimony, in unbroken succession from the apostles, the ones who directly witnessed the Lord in his resurrected life: “And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:32). Secondly, it celebrates! “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival” (1 Cor 5:7). The Church exists to celebrate the Resurrection, especially at Mass, the principal way of transmitting the grace of Jesus’s new life.
We see this immediately in Acts of the Apostles. The first community met for the Eucharist, not only on the Jewish Sabbath day, Saturday, but on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day of the new creation. The Church celebrated Easter (originally called Pascha, Christ’s Passover) every single week. Easter is also the first great liturgical feast, remembered not simply during the Passover (as its days of the week changes), but every year on a Sunday: the Sunday following the first full moon after the start of spring. The Germanic word “Easter” points to this connection to “spring” in its original context, the resurrection of life in nature’s annual cycle, as well as to the East, the source of the rising sun, which begins to give more light during this season.
The celebration of Pascha, however, to use Easter’s Latin name, arose to draw Christians into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. It marked the day of initiation — Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion — for Christian converts. In fact, Lent arose originally as part of the preparation for Baptism at Easter, a practice extended to the whole Church to renew baptismal promises each year. The rites of initiation truly served as the Christian Passover: sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection by passing through the water and eating the flesh of the Passover lamb, Christ’s body given for us on the Cross. The oil signifies a share in the royal life of Christ, an anointing with his own Spirit to live a resurrected life.
When it comes to traditions related to Easter, after 40 days of fasting, food is the focus. The celebration may take second place for many people, because we don’t have as many compelling traditions (and the Easter Bunny just doesn’t cut it). One longstanding tradition that still survives focuses on eggs. Animal products couldn’t be eaten during Lent and the reintroduction of eggs at the Easter feast also served as a great symbol of the Resurrection. Western art portrays Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection in the Gospels, carrying ointment to anoint Jesus’ body, but in the East, she carries an egg. Traditions speak of her carrying a basket of eggs to the tomb, while another speaks of her proclaiming the Resurrection to the emperor using the egg as a symbol. In both accounts, the eggs miraculously turn red, leading to the practice of dying and decorating eggs, perfected by the Ukrainian pysanka tradition. Today we have Easter egg hunts, but in the Middle Ages they had egg dances. The game entailed safely knocking an egg out of a bowl and then trying to get it back in again. Pieter Aertsen’s depiction of the dance, painted in 1557, shows the many obstacles thrown in to make the game even more interesting.
Other symbols of Easter also involve items the women would have carried to the tomb: candles, ointment, and flowers. The procession into Church with the Pascal candle recalls the first procession on Easter morning, with the light moving throughout the Church to overcome the world’s darkness. The ointment meant for Jesus’ body now seals the neophytes with the Holy Spirit at their Baptism and Confirmation, giving them a share in Christ’s divine life, showing how all the members of the body share in the victory of Christ. The flowers placed at the grave for mourning, now turn into a symbol of life through their blossoms and scent. Although we cannot join the Triduum celebration directly this year, we can make our home a sanctuary with colored eggs, candles, and flowers.
Easter is the most important celebration of the year. We all need something to cheer us during this crisis. So, let’s celebrate the best we can!