should we participate in the Easter celebrations? What is the history of Easter and where does the celebration of the day come from?
The name “Easter” never appears in the Greek New Testament. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Eostre, the name of the goddess of spring. By the 8and century, this name had come to be applied to the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection. Over time, the connection with the goddess was lost, the only remaining meaning being associated with the resurrection of Christ. Asking where and when practices originated is only partially valid, as most of our practices in daily life have antecedents in the ancient world, often among non-believers. Over the centuries, the meanings change. Even the hour of 60 minutes came from the pagans of ancient Babylonia, and such calculations of time play a part in our worship today as we sense the passage of time.
Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. Unquestionably, the resurrection was of enormous importance to the apostolic church, as it figures prominently in the gospel messages of the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts. However, no question is raised as to when it occurred, except to note factually that the resurrection occurred on the first day of the week. There is no suggestion that the resurrection sanctified a new day. In the Bible, there is only one holy day of the week, the Sabbath, formed as part of the creative process by God himself, and never suspended. For this reason, we only observe the Sabbath as sacred or holy time.
It should be noted that the apostolic church never paid attention to either the date of Christ’s birth or the date of his resurrection, except to note that the latter occurred on a Sunday. None of these days were kept by the early Christians and if our pattern is that of the apostolic church, we will be guided by the New Testament records. Indeed, in the third and fourth centuries, a huge debate arose among the Christian churches as to when Easter should be celebrated. For the Roman Catholic branch, this was largely settled at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) with a rather contrived formula still followed to this day, which cannot be a commemoration of the actual resurrection. In current practice, Easter always falls on a Sunday, and the chosen Sunday spans a four-week period from March 22 to April 25.
The Eastern branch of Christianity has chosen a different system, so that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christmas and Easter fall on different dates than in the Western Catholic and Protestant tradition. The fact is that the early Christians paid no attention to the commemoration of the day of Christ’s resurrection. If they were serious, they would observe the 17th day of the Jewish month, Nisan, which begins with the first new moon following the spring solstice. Passover among the Jews begins on 14 Nisan. It would not be possible to commemorate the actual day of the month and still have it on Sunday, so the choice was made to have it on Sunday, adjusting the day of the month for convenience.
Given this information, although the resurrection of Jesus is a historical event of great significance, we have no biblical precedent for making it a special day of celebration. This happened in subsequent centuries of Christian history. For this reason, Seventh-day Adventists have never given Easter the attention that other churches give. Our interest is to return to the practices and faith of the early Christian church.
However, we live in a society saturated with Easter celebrations. To a large extent this is driven, like at Christmas, by an opportunity to sell goods to people to mark the day. Clothes, in particular, are associated with Easter, as are toys with Christmas. In an effort to convey the idea that Adventists believe in the resurrection, some of our members have introduced Easter observances. They are afraid that we will be misunderstood, and for them it is important that we are seen as orthodox and acceptable to the society around us. They conform to the customs around us, sometimes without thinking. In fact, this practice conveys another misunderstanding – the idea that we give special importance to Sunday because it was the day of resurrection. A few of our churches have introduced Sunday morning services for Easter, which for many Adventists is creating problems. We recognize that we do not treat Sunday as sacred time, but the public may not grasp the subtle difference.
It is important that we encourage the leaders of our congregations to consider all the factors involved when deciding what to do with Easter. Several things are involved and must be considered before making decisions. Often, choices on matters like this are made with a modicum of foresight. It is always appropriate to allow the scriptures to be our guide and to think carefully about the direction our actions will lead to the church.
Although there is no clear biblical reason for observing Easter as a religious holiday, in some parts of the world the public is so geared towards the observance of Easter that it is a time of year when it is opens to special studies in the Bible. An opportunity opens up to reach the public with the fuller message of Christ, often with a good response. In such circumstances, Easter and the events surrounding it can lend themselves to evangelistic action without, however, attributing any particular religious significance to the day itself. Wherever there is an opportunity to advance the message of Christ without compromising biblical truth, Christ’s counsel “wise as serpents, harmless as doves” is appropriate.
George W. Reid is retired and is the former director of the Biblical Research Institute based at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.