Easter is the greatest of Christian holidays. But what does the word Easter mean? Where and when was it first celebrated?

The origin of the word Easter is uncertain, but the Venerable Bede claimed that the Christian resurrection festival displaced ancient pagan celebrations involving the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess “Eostre.” That, he said, occasioned the term. Others believe the word derives from an old German term meaning sunrise.

Whatever its meaning, it is the oldest celebration of Christianity. The earliest written reference to Easter comes from the mid-second century. A controversy arose about the dating of Easter, causing Polycarp to visit Rome’s bishop Anicetus. The two were unable to settle the controversy, and it became a hotly debated issue threatening to split the church. Believers in Asia celebrated one day, Christians in Europe another. Books, tracts, sermons, and harangues were devoted to the topic. Synods and councils were called. Tempers flared. Clergy excommunicated one another. Irenaeus wrote, “The apostles ordered that we should judge no one in respect to a feast day or a holy day. Whence then these wars? Whence these schisms?”

The issue came to a vote at the famous Council of Nicaea in 325. Easter, declared the council, should be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21, the vernal equinox. Easter then is a “movable feast” that may occur as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. The matter wasn’t entirely settled, but believers seemed to realize that it wasn’t the date, but the significance, that gave Easter its magnificence.

A custom arose among early worshipers to keep watch the Saturday night preceding Easter morning, and many believed that Christ would return at the breaking of this day. New converts kept watch and prayed throughout the night, then were baptized at sunrise. Another custom, still widely practiced, finds the pastor addressing the congregation with the glorious words: He is risen! The assembled worshipers shout in return: He is risen indeed! For 2,000 years the foundation of Christianity has rested securely on this simple yet unfathomable truth.

The angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. He isn’t here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. (Matthew 28:5,6a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.21.

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