Or “Resurrection Sunday,” for those who are paranoid about what “Easter” might mean.
On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.
He died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew Pesákh/“Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.
But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.
Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)
Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s focus (and certainly that of the merchants), but it’s only because Christmas doesn’t stretch their beliefs too far. Everybody agrees Jesus was born. We only differ on details.
But Easter is about how Jesus was raised, and that’s a sticking point for a whole lot of pagans. They don’t buy it. They don’t even like it: When they die, they wanna go to heaven and stay there. Resurrection? Coming back? In a body? No no no.
We’ll even find Christians who agree with them: They’ll claim Jesus didn’t literally return from death, but exists in some super-spiritual ghostly form. Which returned to heaven, and that’s where we’ll go too. No resurrection; not necessary. Yes, it’s a heretic idea, but a popular one.
So to pagans, Easter’s a myth. It’s a nice story about how we Christians think Jesus came back from the dead, but it comes from ancient times, back when people believed anyone could come back from the dead if they knew the right magic spell. Really it’s just a metaphor for spring, new life, rebirth; just like eggs and baby chicks and bunnies. They’ll celebrate that. With chocolate, fancy hats, brunch, and maybe an egg hunt.
But to us Christians, Easter’s no myth. It’s history.
The resurrection stories.
If you’re the nitpicking type you’ll notice these stories aren’t entirely consistent. But y’know, inconsistencies mean the authors weren’t merely quoting one another. Each of them had a point of view, and were quoting their very own witness to the resurrection. So this way we definitely have four separate witnesses to the resurrection. Not just one guy, quoted four different times. If all the stories lined up precisely, inerrantists might be pleased… and the rest of the world would go, “Meh; they just copied one another.” We’d lose three valuable testimonies. Not a worthwhile trade-off.
Mark 16.1-8 KWL
- 1 After Sabbath passed, Mary the Magdalene, Jacob’s mother Mary, and Salomé bought fragrances,
- and were coming so they could anoint Jesus’s body.
- 2 They came to the tomb very early, at sunrise, on the first day of the week.
- 3 They were saying to one another, “Which of us will roll away the stone over the tomb door?”
- 4 Looking up, they saw the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
- 5 Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right, wearing white clothes.
- They were startled. 6 He told them, “Don’t be startled.
- You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who’d been crucified? He’s not here. Look at the place they put him.
- 7 But go tell Jesus’s students and Simon Peter that he’ll lead you to the Galilee.
- You’ll all see him there, just as he told you.”
- 8 Coming out, they fled from the tomb, suffering trauma and shock.
- They said nothing to no one, for they were afraid.
Matthew 28.1-10 KWL
- 1 After Sabbath, at sunrise on Sunday, Mary the Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb,
- 2 and look: A huge earthquake had happened, for the Lord’s angel came out of the sky.
- It rolled away the rock, and sat on it. 3 It looked like lightning, and its clothes were white as snow.
- 4 Afraid of it, the guards trembled, and became like dead men.
- 5 In reply, the angel told the women, “Don’t fear. I know you’re looking for the crucified Jesus.
- 6 Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen, like he said. Come see the place he was buried.
- 7 Then quickly go tell Jesus’s students he’s risen from the dead.
- Look, he’s going ahead of you to the Galilee. You’ll see him there. Look, I’ve told you.”
- 8 They quickly left the tomb in both fear and great joy, and ran to announce it to Jesus’s students.
- 9 And look: Jesus met them and said, “Hello.”
- They came to him, grabbed his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Jesus told them, “Don’t fear.
- Go tell my brothers, so they’ll go to the Galilee. They’ll see me there.”
Luke 24.1-12 KWL
- 1 On Sunday, at the morning twilight, the women came to the tomb,
- bringing the perfumes they’d prepared, and bringing others with them.
- 2 They found the rock rolled away from the tomb.
- 3 They entered, and couldn’t find the body of Master Jesus.
- 4 While they were figuring what to do next, look: Two men stood by them in shining clothes.
- 5 Greatly frightened, they bowed their faces to the ground.
- The men told them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?
- 6 He’s not here, but risen. Remember what he told you back in the Galilee?
- 7 He said, ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinful people and crucified—
- and rise again the third day.’” 8 The women remembered Jesus’s words.
- 9 The women went back from the tomb, and told all these things to the Eleven and everyone else.
- 10 The women who told the apostles these things were Mary the Magdalene, Johanna,
- James’s mother Mary, and others who were with them.
- 11 But to the apostles, their words appeared like nonsense: They didn’t trust them.
- 12 Simon Peter got up and ran to the tomb.
- Bending down, he saw nothing but the strips, and left,
- wondering to himself what had happened.
John 20.1-18 KWL
- 1 On Sunday, Mary the Magdalene came early, while still dark, to the tomb.
- She saw the rock was taken away from the tomb; 2 then ran.
- Mary came to Simon Peter, and the other student whom Jesus befriended, and told them,
- “They took the Master away from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him!”
- 3 So Peter and the other student left and went to the tomb, 4 running together.
- The other student outran Peter, and got to the tomb first.
- 5 Bending down, he looked in, saw the strips laying there, yet didn’t go in.
- 6 Simon Peter followed behind him, and went into the tomb.
- Peter saw the strips laying there,
- 7 with the facecloth (which had wrapped Jesus’s head) not laying with the strips,
- but in its own place, folded.
- 8 Then the other student—the one who arrived at the tomb first—came in and saw, and believed.
- 9 The students didn’t yet know the scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead.
- 10 Then the students went away again, to their people,
- 11 and Mary stood outside the tomb, mourning.
- As she mourned, she then bent down into the tomb, 12 and saw two angels in white,
- one sitting at the head, one at the feet, where Jesus’s body was placed.
- 13 They told her, “Ma’am, why do you mourn?”
- She told them this: “They took my Master away, and I don’t know where they put him.”
- 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing—and didn’t know it was Jesus.
- 15 Jesus told her, “Ma’am, why do you mourn? Whom are you looking for?”
- Figuring he was the groundskeeper, she told him, “Master, if you took him away,
- tell me where you put him, and I’ll take him away.”
- 16 Jesus told her, “Mary.”
- She turned and told him, “Rabbani!” (i.e. “teacher”).
- 17 Jesus told her, “Don’t clutch me. I’ve not gone up to my Father yet.
- Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and yours; to my God and yours.’”
- 18 Mary the Magdalene came and told the students she’d seen the Master,
- and he’d said these things to her.
Jesus and resurrection.
I explained in greater detail in my article about resurrection: People nowadays assume the ancients believed in resurrection. They actually didn’t. Other than the Pharisees, their religions taught ’em they’d die, then go to a super-awesome afterlife. Or get reincarnated.
But none of ’em believed in resurrection. ’Cause it doesn’t happen. When loved ones die, they don’t come back. They stay dead. They might get someone who appeared dead after an accident or illness, and they appeared to come back to life, and that was kinda miraculous. Happens in our culture too, when somebody dies and we perform
But something unique happened to Jesus of Nazareth. He warned his students it was coming, more than once:
Luke 18.31-34 KWL
- 31 Taking the Twelve, Jesus told them, “Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem.
- All the scriptures by the Prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.
- 32 For he’ll be turned in to the gentiles, ridiculed, abused, spit upon, 33 flogged, and they’ll kill him.
- The third day, he’ll rise again.”
- 34 They put none of these things together.
- These words were hidden from them. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying.
Most of the reason they failed to grasp Jesus’s words was because, like everybody else, they knew people don’t just come back from the dead. The Pharisees taught ’em resurrection took place at the End, when God judged the nations. It wasn’t gonna happen to their Master next weekend!
Subsequently, when everything happened just as Jesus said it would, the students were stunned. They couldn’t believe it. At first, they refused to believe it. Despite multiple warnings, they had no clue Jesus’d be killed, then raised from the dead. Their culture had conditioned them to believe otherwise. It threw everything they believed into utter chaos. Because dead people don’t just come back. They stay dead. Right?
Remember those resurrection stories? Notice how they contradict one another. Mark has three women, Matthew two, Luke more than four. Matthew says they saw the angel pull the stone off the tomb; Luke says it was already moved and two angels were hanging out there; John and the longer ending of Mark have angels, but Jesus himself appeared to Mary of Magdala. And later that day, Jesus appeared to the rest of his followers (or, in John, all but Thomas), and proved to them he really was alive.
Why do I bring up these inconsistencies? What do they prove?—that the apostles couldn’t keep their stories straight? Yes. But why couldn’t they keep their stories straight? Because they never expected Jesus to be alive. At all. Like I said, utter chaos.
When they finally did get their story straight, it sounded like this:
1 Corinthians 15.3-9 KWL
- 3 First I passed down to you what I received:
- Christ died for our sins—according to the scriptures.
- 4 He was buried, and raised on the third day—according to the scriptures.
- 5 He was seen by Simon Peter, then the Twelve.
- 6 Then more than 500 Christians saw him at once.
- Many of them remain to this day—and some have “fallen asleep.”
- 7 Then he was seen by James, then all the apostles.
- 8 Last of all, as if to a stillborn child, he was seen by me too— 9 for I’m the lowest of apostles.
- I’m not qualified to be called an apostle: I persecuted God’s church!
Contrary to their own belief system, contrary to popular culture, contrary to commonsense, Jesus is alive. They saw him themselves. Hundreds of people saw him. Jesus’s own family (namely his brother James), who had never followed him before, saw him alive, and not only followed him ever after; they became apostles and church leaders. It convinced the Twelve so thoroughly that, rather than go into hiding like they had when he was killed, they proclaimed Jesus boldly for the rest of their lives, and were willing to be martyred and exiled for proclaiming Jesus is alive.
Jesus’s resurrection is the event on which Christianity stands or falls. He’s alive, has conquered sin and death, and is our living, breathing king. The alternative is it’s all crap: Every miracle, prophecy, vision, experience, and remarkable act of faith, for the past 20 centuries, has been based on wishful thinking and dumb luck. Statistically impossible dumb luck, but still.
We Christians are going with the unreasonable—but pretty well-verified—explanation Jesus is alive. It’s what the early Christians testified to, and went to their deaths proclaiming. It’s what we celebrate on Easter.
Ah yes: The pagan parts.
Every Easter, articles pop up in newspapers and magazines “debunking” it. Not Jesus’s resurrection; they don’t want a bunch more angry letters from Christians. No; they jump on the idea of Easter as a former pagan holiday, which we Christians swiped and Christianized.
The rumor is there used to be an ancient Saxon goddess called Eostre. (Either she was named for the month Eostur, or the other way round.) We know next to nothing about her, because once the Saxons became Christian, they were rid of her. We don’t even know she’s the source of the bunnies and eggs and candy. There’s a meme traveling the internet which claims she’s actually Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of fertility. That’s bunk.
I’ve stated elsewhere: We Christians didn’t steal pagan holidays. We stole Jewish ones. Easter comes from Passover. Eggs came from Passover, where they represent new life, like resurrection. Decorating them was our idea: We originally dyed ’em red to remember Jesus’s blood. Then the Russians started decorating the heck out of ’em, and since it’s fun, it caught on. Egg games, found in every culture for every reason, got mixed up with Easter. (And our egg hunts are much nicer than the original versions—which used to involve hiding them in thornbushes or other hard-to-reach places.)
True, bunnies came from paganism—more accurately hares, part of the worship of Freya and spring fertility. The Germans mixed ’em together with Christian customs, ’cause like Santa Claus, it’s all in good fun. And because the Easter bunny isn’t a Christian invention, pagans can use them for marketing and
As for chocolate… well every holiday has chocolate. (Or should.)
How about Easter ham? Ah, that has much darker origins. The medieval Spanish ordered all the Jews and Muslims in their country to either become Christians, leave, or go to prison. And just to make sure those who stayed were really Christian, they started the offensive custom of eating ritually unclean meats on all Christian holidays. Namely pork. Your average gentile Christian wouldn’t care about pork, but a practicing Jew or Muslim absolutely would. The custom spread. Nowadays, Christians eat ham ’cause we like it; it’s not meant to be antisemitism, and we’ve no clue how the custom began. But that’s how.
Because of the myths about Easter’s pagan origins—and because it, like Christmas, isn’t in the bible—some Christians don’t celebrate Easter at all. They figure we remember Jesus’s death and resurrection all the time, so there’s not much point for an extra-special day for it. Christians are of course free to observe or disregard holidays however their consciences allow.
For twice-a-year Christians, Easter and Christmas are the only days they bother with church. They’ll visit “their church”—whichever one they’ve decided is theirs—mainly to show off their Easter clothes, or take the kids to the church’s egg hunt. Church attendance shoots way up. Pastors and the Holy Spirit take advantage of this fact, and use these mornings to evangelize, so you should see a lot of people repent and come to Jesus during Easter services. If not, your church leaders are totally blowing an opportunity.
American customs include Easter breakfasts, Easter parades, egg hunts, passion plays (in which Jesus gets crucified, sometimes graphically, then resurrected), sunrise services (groan), and various family-friendly functions. And of course on Easter Monday, there’s the half-price candy sales.
Oh, and if someone tells you “Christ is risen,” you gotta answer “Christ is risen indeed.” ’Cause if you don’t, Santa eats another one of his reindeer… oh wait, wrong holiday.