a newsletter article
It had begun to be so nice and spring-y outside. Crocuses were blooming in the church courtyard gardens. Maple trees had blossoming buds and robins were hopping about.
Today as I type this, however, there’s snow again! A cheerful little ditty is in my brain, which starts, “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat.” Except the snow is an anomaly and Christmas isn’t coming. Easter is. But there’s no melodic round about the fatted ham (or rabbit?) for this season. Nevertheless, as Easter is coming, we may ask why this season is when it is, why we celebrate it now.
An obvious initial question is why the heck Easter jumps around so much. Christmas has the sense to stay put on December 25th. All Saints can confine itself to the first Sunday of November. So what gives, Easter? The short answer (which still isn’t very simple) is that Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
That can vary anywhere from March 22 to April 25. This year it’s April 5. In 2013, it was on Pastor Tim’s birthday (March 31), and will be again in 2024. It’s been on April 8 twice in my 11 years here. In 2007, it was March 23 and in 2011 April 24 (the second earliest and latest possible), and the next time we’ll hit such an early extreme isn’t until 2160!
That’s already as clear as the mud my dog tracks in during these days. So another obvious question is why on earth we’d want such a variable date. For this, we turn to our Jewish heritage. In Exodus 11, we find Moses preparing to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. After nine nasty plagues, Moses warned of the final plague: death to the firstborn, humans and livestock alike, anybody without a special lamb’s blood marker for the destroyer to pass-over their door. It was so terrible that Pharaoh told the people to skedaddle, to get out of there, to go now. They left in such a hurry they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise. This is the central salvation story of our Old Testament, and the people were instructed to commemorate the event with a festival of unleavened bread on the 14th day of the 1st month every year.
But that’s not January 14th, so we’re back to some peculiar dating. The calendar of the Bible (and most ancient societies) was lunar-based rather than our solar version. Time was set by the moon, rather than the earth’s journey around the sun. A new month began with the new moon. The 14th day would be the full moon. I don’t know whether they called this the first month of a new year because the Exodus meant the start of people’s new life or because it was spring, the start of the growing season, and the exodus paralleled that sense of new life. Either way fits.
One more notch of time-keeping: in Jewish practice, a new day begins at sunset. So the sabbath (Saturday) starts at sunset on our Friday. (Think of Genesis 1, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”)
Why it all matters for us is that Jesus was celebrating the festival of unleavened bread with his disciples, eating the Passover meal at the start of Friday (our Thursday evening), on the night in which he was betrayed, before he was crucified on Friday afternoon. On the third day (1. Friday, 2. Saturday, 3. Sunday) he rose again.
(Confused yet? For one notch more complexity, the Gospel of John tells the significance differently. Instead of eating the feast with his friends, John says Passover that year fell on Saturday, so Jesus died as the lamb of salvation to prepare for the festival.)
If you’d like a simpler statement: Easter is at this time of year because it makes sense. It is our festival of new life, which actually does fit with breeding rabbits and reproducing chickens and sprouting plants.
A larger point: the discrediting story is often repeated that Christians co-opted pagan holidays, that Christmas stole the date for the popular Festival of the Unconquered Sun, and Easter tried to take over spring fertility rites. We would, however, do better to see that our festivals from their very origins are connected to the rhythms of life on this planet, that God-given natural life provides an echo or a lens for what our faith asserts. Easter is a festival of new life. And seeing that in the world all around you validates and helps you better to believe Jesus is working it in your life, too.
Happy Almost Easter!