It’s Easter again, and we don’t need to work the Friday before and the Monday after. But what does Easter mean? Recently, I noticed that even my close friends might not be sure about it.
When it comes to religion, Germany and other Western countries proclaim themselves to be neutral. That they nevertheless observe Christian holidays such as Easter (or care so much about a cathedral like Notre-Dame in Paris) illustrates how much Christianity is, in the West, not only a religious, but a cultural, societal, indelible tradition.
Therefore, also non-Christians should have some idea about Christianity’s central elements. Easter (German: Ostern) belongs to them because it commemorates how the religion’s founder, Jesus Christ, finished his mission on Earth (for the time being).
Easter thus constitutes, even more so than Christmas, the most important festival of the Christian year.
The main period begins on Easter Sunday and ends on that of Pentecost, 50 days later. In addition, there is a preparatory period starting 40 days before Easter Sunday. Thus, this Sunday is not a festival in itself but the point of culmination in the middle of a three-month spiritual period. Its various parts can only be understood in relationship with one another.
Forty days before Easter Sunday – without counting the Sundays – is Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch). After the exuberant eating and drinking during the preceding Carnival, believers now enter Lent (Fastenzeit), 40 days of fasting and devotion. In the Bible, also Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days to focus just on God.
Ash Wednesday got its name from the ashes that are then, at least in the Catholic and some other churches, placed on church-goers’ foreheads to remind them of their mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (In this article, I’ll keep referring to the liturgical customs of the Catholic Church, for it has conserved more illustrative Easter traditions than other denominations.)
Ash Wednesday’s message is grim, but Lent actually leads up to the event that promises us the defeat of death by eternal life.
Yet before, prospects become even worse when on “Good Friday” (Karfreitag), Jesus is tortured and executed. The origins of the curious English name are unclear; the German name translates as “sorrowful” Friday.
What a contrast to the preceding Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag), when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and crowds hail him as King, Prophet, Messiah, paving his way with palm branches. On the other hand, it was precisely this enthusiastic reception that may have driven the Jewish elites and Roman rulers to act against that pretentious preacher from Nazareth.
In any case, Jesus stays in Jerusalem. The Jews are preparing for their important feast of Passover, but Jesus – a Jew himself – publicly disputes the Jewish “establishment.” As a consequence, the latter will do the utmost to silence him, and he sees it coming.
Therefore, on Maundy Thursday (Gründonnerstag), he calls his 12 disciples to the Last Supper, of which the most famous depiction is that by Leonardo da Vinci. By sharing bread and wine with them, Jesus bids farewell to the 12 due to his imminent death – yet at the same time, he signals that when they remember him in the future, he will always be in their midst. The bread that they eat will become his body; the wine that they drink will become his blood. Hence, in every mass throughout the year, the priest shares bread and wine with the congregation.
On Good Friday, Jesus then “gives” his body and blood in the literal sense.
In the public garden where he goes to pray after the Last Supper, his disciple Judas betrays him to soldiers sent to arrest him. The Jews’ religious leaders interrogate him and sentence him to death for his blasphemous claim of being the son of God.
After the Roman governor, Pilate, has confirmed the sentence, Jesus is mocked, scourged and, according to the custom of the time, nailed on a cross outside Jerusalem. He dies before nightfall and is entombed in a rock. As a sign of mourning, on Good Friday, the bells and organs of churches remain silent.
Shortly after, they resound all the more joyfully, since on the third day after his death – Good Friday counts as the first – Jesus is resurrected (by God, since due to his human body, he could not rise from the dead himself). This is Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag), or simply Easter, although Easter masses begin already the night before, that of Holy Saturday (Karsamstag).
After Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat, female followers of Jesus go to his tomb to anoint his body. However, the tomb is open and empty: Jesus is alive, and appears to the women and his disciples.
What is the meaning of those partly historical, partly symbolic occurrences? As Jesus says in the Bible: “Those who believe in me will live, even when they die,” so “those who live and believe in me will never die” (John 11:25-26) – even those who put Jesus to death. In the person of Jesus, God has joined the humans on Earth and suffered from their sins. Despite everything, he forgives them and admits them into his realm of eternal life.
And how does one “believe” in Jesus? By “loving one’s neighbor as oneself.” At the Last Supper, Jesus illustrates that attitude by washing his disciples’ feet. Equally, in the mass of the day, the priest, bishop or even the Pope washes the feet of 12 people – for it’s the servant, not the master, who acts in the spirit of God.
The week between Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday, during which Jesus concludes his human life, is called Holy Week (Karwoche). The following Easter Sunday (the Christian week begins on Sundays, not Mondays) inaugurates Easter Week, whose days were all originally free of work. Our Easter Monday (Ostermontag) is a remainder of that.
Easter Week is also the first week of Eastertide (Osterzeit), whose six Sundays each celebrate a different aspect of the resurrection. During that time, Jesus keeps appearing to his disciples, proving his resurrection to them. Forty days later, he ascends to God, his father, in heaven – hence our work-free Ascension Day (Christi Himmelfahrt).
Before the ascension, Jesus told his followers that he would one day return in order to bring them the ultimate Kingdom of God.
In the meantime, however, he does not disappear. Instead, the Holy Spirit (the third divine personality besides God and Jesus) descends from heaven and enables Jesus’s followers gathered in Jerusalem to miraculously speak in foreign languages. They thus become “apostles” (Greek) – persons “sent off” to spread Jesus’s message across the world.
This happens on the seventh Sunday, that is, 50 days after Easter – hence the name Pentecost (Pfingsten), from the Greek number pente = five. So Pentecost, or Whitsuntide, does not only serve as the date of Leipzig’s Wave Gothic Festival, but marks the very birth of the Christian Church, and concludes Eastertide (while our work-free Whit Monday (Pfingstmontag) is again the remainder of an originally week-long festival).
Two questions are left:
Why does the date of Easter – and of all connected festivals – change from year to year?
According to the Bible, Jesus was resurrected around the time of the Jewish Passover, which takes place on the night of the first full moon of spring (astronomical spring starting on 21 March). Therefore, Easter has been defined as the first Sunday after that moon.
They are ancient fertility symbols that were added to Easter, the celebration of life, through the Orthodox and Protestant Churches.
Original version published 21 April 2019