Easter: Holy Day or holiday?

If, with half the world, you worship The Great Outdoors, then a normal Easter would mean that after his (or her) long winter sleep your god has come alive again.  This year has been far from normal, but Nature has nonetheless done her Easter business.  The grass is growing (just!), the plums are blossoming, and the daffodils light up our world.  The days are longer, the soil is warmer, and only the lockdown prevented the great British public from performing their annual Easter rituals: taking to the motorways, observing Lent by sitting in miles-long tailbacks and, once things begin to move, heading for the hills, the parks and the beaches; and coming back again.  It’s what Spring does to you,

Christians, too, note the dramatic return of life, and they do so, even this year, with satisfaction and gratitude.  God has fulfilled his promise: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, have not ceased (Gen. 8.22); and in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis the rainbow has been rediscovered, even by non-Christians, as a symbol of hope.  Believers cherish the fertility and beauty around them as much as any pagan, and they, too, hear ‘nature’ sing.  But they hear it sing, not of itself, as if The Great Outdoors had given birth to the Great Outdoors.  Instead, they hear the Great Outdoors sing the glory of the God who made ‘all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.’

But whatever a Bank Holiday is, Easter is a religious festival, and its timing has nothing to do with the sudden return of cherry-blossom or the warming of the northern oceans.  It commemorates an event of immensely greater significance: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and its timing, whether in the Northern spring or in the Southern autumn, is determined by the fact we know for a certainty that Jesus was crucified and rose again at the time of the vernal equinox.

In her early days, the church did not celebrate Easter.  Instead, Christians saw each Lord’s Day as a day to proclaim his death and to rejoice in his resurrection.  By the middle of the second century, however, the observance of Easter was becoming more and more widespread, as a kind of annual ‘super Sunday’ (a separate Good Friday first appears only in the 4th century). 


Setting the date

Yet it proved no easy matter to agree on a date for Easter.  The obvious starting-point was that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Jewish Passover and so, to begin with, Christians were content to have the date of Easter determined by the date of the Passover as set by the Jewish authorities.  But this left room for different practices.  Some Christians, such as the martyr Polycarp, wanted to celebrate the Festival on the day of the Passover, 14th Nissan on the Jewish calendar, the exact date of the Lord’s crucifixion.  The majority, however, wanted to celebrate it on the Sunday after Passover, thus placing the emphasis on the resurrection, not the cross.  Either way, it meant that the date of Easter was determined by the Jews, and it is hardly surprising that they began to boast that Christians couldn’t even keep their main festival without Jewish help.  Nor is it surprising that in 325 the Council of Nicea decreed that Christians should cease to follow the customs and calculations of the Jews; and at the same time the Council decreed that Easter should be celebrated on the same day throughout the church (and never on the same day as the Jews kept the Passover).

But, again, this proved no easy matter, even after it was decided that rather than fix the date of Easter by the date of the Passover the festival should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal solstice.  This still kept the link with the Passover (this particular full moon was, after all, the ‘Paschal Moon), but the relevant astronomical calculations were now made by Christians, not by Jews.  The problem now was that the astronomers of Rome could not agree with those of Alexandria as to the date of the solstice; and even if they had agreed, there were still the Quartodecimans, insisting on doing things their way, and continuing to observe Easter on 14th Nissan. In fact, the Quartodecimans (taking their name from the Latin for ‘fourteen’) would be around for several centuries yet.  The Celtic church agreed to fall in with the rest of Western Christendom only at the Synod of Whitby in 664 (a date which was once familiar to every twelve-year old Scottish schoolboy). Iona, however, held out till 716.

As things now stand, the date of Easter, determined by the Paschal or Super Moon, varies within a 19-day cycle between the end of March and the middle of April, and since it is based on precise astronomical calculations the Anglican Prayer Book can now include a Table of the dates of Easter down to the year 2299. 

It still remains, however, that the western and eastern churches have never come to an agreement on the date: the Eastern Orthodox community commonly celebrate Easter a week later than the West.  There are also those, and indeed a growing number, who for the sake of secular convenience and economic efficiency, want to move away from the idea of Easter as a movable feast and want it observed on the same fixed date every year.  This would complete the transition from Holy Day to holiday.


The abolition of Easter

Historic Presbyterianism was spared these tortuous calculations, the First Book of Discipline (1560) having abolished as human inventions all Holy Days not expressly sanctioned by Scripture.  This meant that, except at times when the Kirk was ruled by bishops, there was no observance of the Christian Year in Scotland from the Reformation till the anglicisation of worship under the influence of the Church Service Society in the late 19th century.  Phrases like Passion Week, Holy Week and Good Friday were banished from Presbyterian pulpits: so much so that, when one Free Church elder stumbled on the word ‘Easter’ while reading Acts 12.4 in the course of a Sunday morning Service, he couldn’t believe his eyes.  Feeling himself severely compromised, but thinking fast, he blurted out, ‘Friends, I bought this Bible in the Free Church Bookshop.’

The position of the Book of Discipline certainly deserves respect.  It was (and is) a historic constitutional document of Presbyterianism, and its underlying principle was endorsed by the Westminster Confession (21:1) when it laid down that God was not to be worshipped in any way not prescribed by Holy Scripture.  Besides, once we begin to introduce ceremonies of our own devising, it is all too easy to give free rein to our own liturgical creativity, which is why Easter quickly drew in its train a host of other fasts and festivals such as Lent, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ascension Day and Whitsunday; and that’s before we even begin to think of the many Saints Days and ‘Our Lady’ Days (and for some Anglican churches, the Day of King Charles the Martyr).  We have shown an amazing confidence in our own ability to know what God would like.  

Presbyterians could also point out that while there was no biblical command, ‘Remember Easter Day to keep it holy,’ there was a commandment to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,’ and this was their Easter, coming round not once a year, but once a week.  Sadly, as observance of Easter has grown, the Lord’s Day has long since ceased to be special, even to Christians.


Calvin and Easter

Yet the view expressed in the First Book of Discipline was not held unanimously by the Reformers.  In Calvin’s Geneva, for example, in addition to the monthly celebration of Communion, the Sacrament was also administered at Easter, Pentecost and Christmas; the Second Helvetic Confession, adopted by the Swiss churches in 1566, ‘very well approved’ the practice of celebrating the memory of the Lord’s Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost s well; and even in early 19th century Scotland, the Reverend John Kennedy of Killearnan, father of Dr Kennedy of Dingwall, regularly conducted a service in his parish-church on Christmas Day because it was an ‘idle day,’ when all the farm-workers had a holiday.

In deciding that it ‘very well approved’ of certain Holy Days the Second Helvetic Confession introduced an interesting distinction.  Festival days ordained for men or for departed saints had in them ‘many gross things, unprofitable, and not to be tolerated.’  On the other hand, commemorations of key events in the life of the Lord were perfectly appropriate.  Foremost  among such events were the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and we do have explicit warrant for commemorating these.   The Lord’s Supper is a remembering of the Lord’s death; the Lord’s Day a recurring reminder that the Lord is risen.  

There is something to be said, then, for the practice of having Communion on Good Friday; after all we know the Last Supper took place on the day of the Crucifixion.  However, we also know that it was the practice of the apostolic church to come together to break bread on the first day of the week.

Calvin’s practice of celebrating Communion on Easter Sunday covers both these bases, commemorating the Lord’s death on the one hand and celebrating his resurrection on the other. 

But what would make it a Super Sunday?  Not that we preach a different message, far less that on that day the cathedrals of east and west might put on display their glorious music, splendid architecture and artistic treasures; but that on that day every congregation in the world could sit at the Lord’s Table knowing that all churches everywhere were gathering to do the same thing.  With a Preparatory Service on Good Friday?

That would be super!