1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Easter

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EASTER, the annual festival observed throughout Christendom in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The name Easter (Ger. Ostern), like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic mythology. According to Bede (De Temp. Rat. c. xv.) it is derived from Eostre, or Ostâra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This month, Bede says, was the same as the mensis paschalis, “when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.”

The name of the festival in other languages (as Fr. pâques; Ital. pasqua; Span. pascua; Dan. paaske; Dutch paasch; Welsh pasg) is derived from the Lat. pascha and the Gr. πάσχα. These in turn come from the Chaldee or Aramaean form פַסְהָא pascha’, of the Hebrew name of the Passover festival פֶסַח pesach, from פָסַח “he passed over,” in memory of the great deliverance, when the destroying angel “passed over the houses, of the children of Israel in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exod. xii. 27).

An erroneous derivation of the word pascha from the Greek πάσχειν, “to suffer,” thus connected with the sufferings or passion of the Lord, is given by some of the Fathers of the Church, as Irenaeus, Tertullian and others, who were ignorant of Hebrew. St Augustine (In Joann. Tract. 55) notices this false etymology, shows how similarity of sound had led to it, and gives the correct derivation.

There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians. “The whole of time is a festival unto Christians because of the excellency of the good things which have been given” is the comment of St Chrysostom on 1 Cor. v. 7, which has been erroneously supposed to refer to an apostolic observance of Easter. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl. v. 22) states, with perfect truth, that neither the Lord nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. He says: “The apostles had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety”; and he attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of an old usage, “just as many other customs have been established.”

This is doubtless the true statement of the case. The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed. Thus the Passover, with a new conception added to it of Christ as the true Paschal Lamb and the first fruits from the dead, continued to be observed, and became the Christian Easter.

Although the observance of Easter was at a very early period the practice of the Christian church, a serious difference as to the day for its observance soon arose between the Christians of Jewish and those of Gentile descent, which led to a long and bitter controversy. The point at issue was when the Paschal fast was to be reckoned as ending. With the Jewish Christians, whose leading thought was the death of Christ as the Paschal Lamb, the fast ended at the same time as that of the Jews, on the fourteenth day of the moon at evening, and the Easter festival immediately followed, without regard to the day of the week. The Gentile Christians, on the other hand, unfettered by Jewish traditions, identified the first day of the week with the Resurrection, and kept the preceding Friday as the commemoration of the crucifixion, irrespective of the day of the month. With the one the observance of the day of the month, with the other the observance of the day of the week, was the guiding principle.

Generally speaking, the Western churches kept Easter on the first day of the week, while the Eastern churches followed the Jewish rule, and kept Easter on the fourteenth day. St Polycarp, the disciple of St John the Evangelist and bishop of Smyrna, visited Rome in 159 to confer with Anicetus, the bishop of that see, on the subject; and urged the tradition, which he had received from the apostle, of observing the fourteenth day. Anicetus, however, declined to admit the Jewish custom in the churches under his jurisdiction, but readily communicated with Polycarp and those who followed it. About forty years later (197) the question was discussed in a very different spirit between Victor, bishop of Rome, and Polycrates, metropolitan of proconsular Asia. That province was the only portion of Christendom which still adhered to the Jewish usage, and Victor demanded that all should adopt the usage prevailing at Rome. This Polycrates firmly refused to agree to, and urged many weighty reasons to the contrary, whereupon Victor proceeded to excommunicate Polycrates and the Christians who continued the Eastern usage. He was, however, restrained from actually proceeding to enforce the decree of excommunication, owing to the remonstrance of Irenaeus and the bishops of Gaul. Peace was thus maintained, and the Asiatic churches retained their usage unmolested (Euseb. H.E. v. 23-25). We find the Jewish usage from time to time reasserting itself after this, but it never prevailed to any large extent.

A final settlement of the dispute was one among the other reasons which led Constantine to summon the council of Nicaea in 325. At that time the Syrians and Antiochenes were the solitary champions of the observance of the fourteenth day. The decision of the council was unanimous that Easter was to be kept on Sunday, and on the same Sunday throughout the world, and “that none should hereafter follow the blindness of the Jews” (Socrates, H.E. i. 9). The correct date of the Easter festival was to be calculated at Alexandria, the home of astronomical science, and the bishop of that see was to announce it yearly to the churches under his jurisdiction, and also to the occupant of the Roman see, by whom it was to be communicated to the Western churches. The few who afterwards separated themselves from the unity of the church, and continued to keep the fourteenth day, were named Quartodecimani, and the dispute itself is known as the Quarto-deciman controversy. Although measures had thus been taken to secure uniformity of observance, and to put an end to a controversy which had endangered Christian unity, a new difficulty had to be encountered owing to the absence of any authoritative rule by which the paschal moon was to be ascertained. The subject is a very difficult and complex one (see also Calendar). Briefly, it may be explained here that Easter day is the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. This, of course, varies in different longitudes, while a further difficulty occurred in the attempt to fix the correct time of Easter by means of cycles of years, when the changes of the sun and moon more or less exactly repeat themselves. At first an eight years’ cycle was adopted, but it was found to be faulty, then the Jewish cycle of 84 years was used, and remained in force at Rome till the year 457, when a more accurate calculation of a cycle of 532 years, invented by Victorius of Acquitaine, took its place. Ultimately a cycle of 19 years was accepted, and it is the use of this cycle which makes the Golden Number and Sunday Letter, explained in the preface to the Book of Common Prayer, necessary. Owing to this lack of decision as to the accurate finding of Easter, St Augustine tells us (Epist. 23) that in the year 387 the churches of Gaul kept Easter on the 21st of March, those of Italy on the 18th of April, and those of Egypt on the 25th of April; and it appears from a letter of Leo the Great (Epist. 64, ad Marcian.) that in 455 there was a difference of eight days between the Roman and the Alexandrine Easter. Gregory of Tours relates that in 577 “there was a doubt about Easter. In Gaul we with many other cities kept Easter on the fourteenth calends of May, others, as the Spaniards, on the twelfth calends of April.”

The ancient British and Celtic churches followed the cycle of 84 years which they had originally received from Rome, and their stubborn refusal to abandon it caused much bitter controversy in the 8th century between their representatives and St Augustine of Canterbury and the Latin missionaries. These latter unfairly attempted to fix the stigma of the Quartodeciman observance on the British and Celtic churches, and they are even now sometimes ignorantly spoken of as having followed the Asiatic practice as to Easter. This, however, is quite erroneous. The British and Celtic churches always kept Easter according to the Nicene decree on a Sunday. The difference between them and the Roman Church, at this period, was that they still followed the 84 years’ cycle in computing Easter, which had been abandoned at Rome for the more accurate cycle of 532 years. This difference of calculation led to Easter being observed on different Sundays, in certain years, in England, by the adherents of the two churches. Thus Bede records that in a certain year (which must have been 645, 647, 648 or 651) Queen Eanfleda, who had received her instruction from a Kentish priest of the Roman obedience, was fasting and keeping Palm Sunday, while her husband, Oswy, king of Northumbria, following the rule of the British church, was celebrating the Easter festival. This diversity of usage was ended, so far as the kingdom of Northumbria was concerned, by the council of Streaneshalch, or Whitby, in 654. To Archbishop Theodore is usually ascribed the credit of ending the difference in the rest of England in 669.

The Gregorian correction of the calendar in 1582 has once more led to different days being observed. So far as Western Christendom is concerned the corrected calendar is now universally accepted, and Easter is kept on the same day, but it was not until 1752 that the Gregorian reformation of the calendar was adopted in Great Britain and Ireland. Jealousy of everything emanating from Rome still keeps the Eastern churches from correcting the calendar according to the Gregorian reformation, and thus their Easter usually falls before, or after, that of the Western churches, and only very rarely, as was the case in 1865, do the two coincide.

Easter, as commemorating the central fact of the Christian religion, has always been regarded as the chief festival of the Christian year, and according to a regulation of Constantine it was to be the first day of the year. This reckoning of the year as beginning at Easter lingered in France till 1565, when, by an ordinance of Charles IX., the 1st of January finally took its place.

Four different periods may be mentioned as connected with the observance of Easter, viz. (1) the preparatory fast of the forty days of Lent; (2) the fifteen days, beginning with the Sunday before and ending with the Sunday after Easter, during which the ceremonies of Holy Week and the services of the Octave of Easter were observed; this period, called by the French the Quinzaine de Pâques, was specially observed in that country; (3) the Octave of Easter, during which the newly-baptized wore their white garments, which they laid aside on the Sunday after Easter, known as Dominica in albis depositis from this custom; another name for this Sunday was Pascha clausum, or the close of Easter, and from a clipping of the word “close” the English name of “Low” Sunday is believed to be derived; (4) Eastertide proper, or the paschal season beginning at Easter and lasting till Whit Sunday, during the whole of which time the festival character of the Easter season was maintained in the services of the church.

Many ecclesiastical ceremonies, growing up from early times, clustered round the celebration of the Easter festival. One of the most notable of these was the use of the paschal candle. This was a candle of very large dimensions, set in a candlestick big enough to hold it, which was usually placed on the north side, just below the first ascent to the high altar. It was kept alight during each service till Whitsuntide. The Paschal, as it was called at Durham cathedral, was one of the chief sights of that church before the Reformation. It was an elaborate construction of polished brass, and, contrary to the usual custom, seems to have been placed in the centre of the altar-step, long branches stretching out towards the four cardinal points, bearing smaller candles. The central stem of the candlestick was about 38 ft. high, and bore the paschal candle proper, and together they reached a combined height of about 70 ft., the candle being lighted from an opening above. Other paschal candles seem to have been of scarcely less size. At Lincoln, c. 1300, the candle was to weigh three stones of wax; at Salisbury in 1517 it was to be 36 ft. long; and at Westminster in 1558 it weighed no less than 3 cwt. of wax. After Whitsuntide what remained was made into smaller candles for the funerals of the poor. In the ancient churches at Rome the paschal candlesticks were fixtures, but elsewhere they were usually movable, and were brought into the church and set up on the Thursday before Easter. At Winchester the paschal candlestick was of silver, and was the gift of Canute. Others of more or less importance are recorded as having been at Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds, Hereford and York. The burning of the paschal candle still forms part of the Easter ceremonial of the Roman Catholic Church (see Lights, Ceremonial).

The liturgical colour for Easter was everywhere white, as the sign of joy, light and purity, and the churches and altars were adorned with the best ornaments that each possessed. Flowers and shrubs no doubt in early times were also used for this purpose, but what evidence there is goes against the medieval use of such decorations, which are so popular at the present day.

It is not the purpose of this article to enter on the wide subject of the popular observances, such as the giving and sending of Pasch or Easter eggs as presents. For such the reader may consult Brand’s Popular Antiquities, Hone’s Every-Day Book, and Chambers’s Book of Days.

Authorities.—Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church; Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England; Procter and Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer (London, 1901); Surtees Society, Rites of Durham, ed. J. T. Fowler (1903); De Morgan, Companion to the Almanac (1845); De Moleon, Voyages liturgiques (Paris, 1718).  (T. M. F.)