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Many people never think about the date of Easter. This year (2016) most Christians in North America will celebrate Easter early, March 27th. Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter over a month later on May 1, 2016. The reason why goes back to the early centuries of the church.
So first, how is the date of Easter decided? Well, there is a formula. In the west Catholics and Protestants schedule Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the first day of Spring). That formula was decided in the early centuries AD as Christian leaders felt a need to distinguish themselves from their Jewish neighbors and co-religionists.
Scholars today disagree on”the parting of the ways,” that is, the period when the religions we know today at Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways. Some think the divide was complete in the first century AD, others the second, still others the fourth. The point is there is good evidence of close collaboration for centuries between Jews, Jewish Jesus followers and non-Jewish Jesus followers.
It is important to remember that at first all the followers of Jesus were Jews. They kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their male sons on the 8th day; in other words they lived Jewishly. But as the Jesus movement grew, it became primarily a non-Jewish phenomenon. There were stresses and strains and ultimately fissures and cracks. It became clear to practitioners of the two religions–if these movements can be classified by the modern term “religion”–that they had different destinies.
The Church Councils in Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381) set out to define creeds, practices, Christology, and the date of Easter among other things. The first generations of Christians related the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to the Jewish Passover, the season when these terrible, wonderful events occurred. The Passover is itself a feast that moves around on our calendar (this year, April 22-30, 2016), though it is stable in the Jewish calendar (Nissan 15-22). Eventually Church leaders decided to sever Easter from anything having to do with the Jewish Passover. By then, it seems, the parting of the ways is complete.
All religions or groups define themselves over against others. This is a natural and normal feature of all groups. Eventually these differences take on the form of a “checklist.” Christians are those who believe X, Y, Z and practice 1, 2, 3. Jews, on the other hand, do not believe X, Y, Z and have a different set of practices. These boundary markers were unclear at first; it was possible in the first century to be a Jesus follower and a Jew at the same time. Over time the differences become clear and stark; now a Jew who becomes a follower of Jesus is no longer a Jew but a Christian.
Last year I wrote a article for the E3 Foundation on Easter bunny and Jesus. Here is a link. Just in case you are interested.
I found some things I had not expected.
I’m still thinking about Easter. I know. Easter is already past; I should be on to something else now. But frankly, Easter is just one of those days that takes time to process. When you think of it, Easter is more than a day; it’s a season. Truth be told, every Sunday is “a little Easter” as we gather together to celebrate the risen Lord.
As I was thinking about Easter, I also had reason recently to refer students in my New Testament class at HBU to 2 Corinthians 5:17. This is an amazing passage about the new creation. As anyone knows who is familiar with Greek and biblical theology, Paul’s language here is a notoriously hard to translate. We struggled with that passage in The Voice.
Here is how we rendered it:
Therefore, if anyone is united with the Anointed, that person is a new creation. The old life is gone—and see—a new life has begun!
The language of new creation is not original with Paul. It goes back to the message of Isaiah who looked beyond his own day to a time when God will do something new and amazing in this good—but now disordered—world he had made. What he will do, according to Isaiah, will be so astounding the only language to describe it is the language of “new creation” (Isaiah 65:17-25). In John’s Apocalypse it is described this way (Revelation 21:1):
I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new. Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been had passed away, and the sea was gone, completely.
When we turn to the New Testament, we discover that the new creation has in fact already begun. It began on that first Easter when the dead body of Jesus—composed as we are of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements—is suddenly and miraculously transformed into a new kind of body, a resurrected body. In that moment a piece of the old order became new. In that moment a piece of the earth—because we like Adam are all made of dust—became eternal. Easter is “the Big Bang” of the New Creation.
No one was there to observe it, but no one can deny that in that moment everything changed. As the risen Jesus appeared to one after another, the beleaguered and defeated disciples become powerful witnesses to the greatest miracle in history. The church—which began small like a mustard seed—started to grow at an amazing pace and in a few decades stood to challenge the power of Rome. If Jesus is Lord, they thought, then Caesar certainly is not.
Today the empire and her leaders are long gone. Only fractured monuments to her greatness remain. But the Church Jesus established is not only present; it has filled the earth. To borrow a line from one of Jesus’ parables: the birds of the air are making their nests in it.
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that those who are united with Jesus through the ritual cleansing of baptism have entered into that new creation. Their old lives are put away. Their new lives have begun. But the Lord’s emissary does not claim that they are new creations in and of themselves. They are made new only in relation to the One who was crucified, buried, and raised to new life. They are made new in that very first Easter. In a sense they were there on the cross and in that tomb, already united with him. Paul’s point is personal, but it is more than individual. Every person who turns to Jesus is not only new creation, he or she enters into a community of individuals graced to be full participants in that new creation which began that first Easter.
Easter comes early this year: March 31, 2013. A long time ago it was decided to set the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or the first day of spring). The decision was a long and complicated one, but a key factor was this: since Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples on a Sunday, then Easter should be on a Sunday. Other proposals had it so Easter could fall on any day of the week. The church, in its wisdom, decided instead to have Easter fall every year on Sunday. In a real sense, every Sunday is a little Easter.
But Easter is such a profound holy day on the church’s calendar that our spiritual ancestors decided to preface it with a season of preparation marked by prayer, fasting, and spiritual reflection. So the season of Lent was created to make the transition from more ordinary time to the day of resurrection.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this year celebrated on February 13, 2013—and ends on Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter. On Ash Wednesday Christians gather to remember a sobering fact: we are dust and to dust we will return. This year I will stand in line—or as my British friends prefer to say, “I will queue up . . . “—and have someone make the sign of the cross on my forehead in ash and they will say: “You are dust and to dust shall you return.”
Ash Wednesday means different things to different people, I suppose, but at a very basic level the ritual we gather and perform is designed to remind us that we are not immortal, that these bodies we coddle, clothe, decorate, protect, nurture, feed, and insure will go the way of the earth. The first man (Hebrew, Adam) was made of the dust (Hebrew, Adamah). The Adam came from the Adamah. That is what we are. That is who we are. On my best day. On my worst day. I am dust, and on another day not of my choosing I will return to the dust.
Yet, there is another reality, the resurrection. Listen to what Paul wrote (Philippians 3:20-21, The Voice):
But we are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth awaiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Anointed, to come and transform these humble, earthly [read . . . dust] bodies into the form of His glorious body by the same power that brings all things under His control.
All of us dust-men and dust-women down here on earth really belong to another kingdom. Right now, we wait, hope, and long for the world to come. It is our true home. When the resurrected Jesus returns, resurrection will become our reality just as it is for Jesus. On that day we will exchange these mortal bodies for glorious ones.
Ash Wednesday and Easter are two sides of an important, very human, deeply spiritual reality.
We enter the season with this confession: “I am dust . . . “
We arrive at the pinnacle of our holy day with this confession: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.”