Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever. – George Herbert
If you open your Bible to the Gospel according to St. John and turn to chapter ten verses twenty-two and twenty-three you will read the following:
And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.
The feast of the dedication, which had drawn our Lord to the temple in Jerusalem, is an annual Jewish festival also known as the festival of lights or, more commonly, Hanukkah. Hanukkah is an eight day celebration that takes place roughly around the time that we celebrate Christmas. It begins on Kislev the 25th in the Hebrew calendar and since that calendar is a lunar calendar there is no corresponding fixed date in our calendar which is a solar calendar. It can begin in late November – sometimes, although very rarely, as early as American Thanksgiving – and as late as Christmas, most often falling in early to mid-December.
What is most interesting about our Lord’s observance of this feast is that it is not a feast commanded in the Torah. In the covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai following His deliverance of them from their bondage in Egypt He instituted several holy days and festivals to be observed including the weekly Sabbath on the seventh day of the week (Exodus 20:8-12), Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16, 23:26-32), Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles ( Leviticus 23:33-36), and, of course, the Passover, the annual commemoration of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Hanukkah is not one of these feasts, nor does the Old Testament record it being commanded or established by God at any later point. In the Bibles that most evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants read, the record of the events which Hanukkah commemorates cannot be found for the festival commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean revolt. These events are recorded in First and Second Maccabees, books which were part of every Christian Bible for the first millennium and a half of Christian history, but which have been expunged from the Bibles of evangelicals and fundamentalists, determined to out-Protestant the Protestant Reformers who themselves kept these books in their Bibles, albeit removing them from the Old Testament and assigning them a secondary, less authoritative, place.
I mention all of this because Holy Week is fast approaching and once again I find myself plagued and pestered by a nuisance of an acquaintance with questions about why we have replaced the holy days God has commanded, i.e., in the Old Testament, with “man-made” and “pagan” holidays like Easter. It is not because I think this man deserves an answer that I am writing this. He most certainly does not. The individual in question is a boorish lout who glories in his own ignorance like a sow wallowing in its mire, a legalist and a Judaizer who calls himself a “Spirit-filled Christian” but by this really means nothing more than a religious nut. I am writing this for the sake of those who might be led astray by him or others who think like him.
The holiday which we call Easter in the English-speaking world, and which Germans call das Ostern, is called Pâques in French, Pascua in Spanish, Pasqua in Italian, and Páscoa in Portuguese. All of these are derived from Pascha, the Latin name for the holiday, itself a transliteration of the Greek name, which is the earliest, Greek having been the language spoken by the Christian church in its infancy. While English may be the most widely spoken of these languages today, in the vast majority of languages spoken by Christians, both now and throughout history, Easter is known by some variation of the original Greek Pascha.
This, in itself, is sufficient to do away with the claim that Easter is “pagan” for that claim rests almost entirely on the English/German name of the holiday. It is claimed that the name is derived from that of a pagan goddess once worshipped by the Germanic speaking peoples who was honoured in the month that corresponds to our April, the month in which Easter usually falls. Whatever truth there may be to this – the etymology has not been established beyond dispute – the holiday that is celebrated under this name by English and German speaking Christians, is the holiday that other Christians call Pascha. Even in English we use an adjective derived from the holiday’s original name when we speak of things pertaining to Easter – “paschal candle”, “paschal bread”, etc. There is nothing pagan about the name Pascha which is a Hellenized spelling of Pesach, the Hebrew name of the Old Testament holiday that in English is known as the Passover.
Although in most languages and parts of the world, the Christian holiday shares the same name as the Jewish holiday that occurs each year at approximately the same time, it is not the same holiday. It commemorates different events than those which the Jewish holiday commemorates although, since the events the Christian holiday commemorates occurred during the Passover season, and the events the Jewish holiday commemorates have been understood by Christians since the days of the Apostles to prefigure or typify the events the Christian holiday commemorates, Christian lectionaries traditionally assign the Exodus to the Old Testament readings in the season leading up to Easter.
In the case of both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Pascha/Easter the holiday commemorates an act of salvation or deliverance through which God established a Covenant. The Jewish Passover commemorates the deliverance of a particular people, the Hebrews or Israelites, from slavery in Egypt. As part of the Covenant that God established with the Israelites after leading them out of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai He commanded that the Passover be observed every year. It was only this one particular people that a) God delivered in the events commemorated by the Passover, b) that God made this Covenant with at Mt. Sinai, and c) that were commanded to keep the Passover. It was never intended to be a universal holiday, celebrated by everywhere in the world, and indeed, one of God’s very first instructions in establishing it was to forbid foreigners from partaking in it. (Ex. 12:43-45). To be allowed to partake of the Passover, a foreigner had to be formally adopted into the Israelite nation by undergoing circumcision (Ex. 12:48).
The Christian Pascha/Easter, by contrast, commemorates the salvation of the entire world from bondage to sin, death, Satan and hell that God accomplished through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Through these events God established a New Covenant, made not with a particular nation but one in which the entire world was invited to participate through faith. The invitation to partake of this covenant of grace is called the Gospel – the Good News about God’s gift of His Son and the salvation He accomplished through His death and resurrection. The Gospel was to be preached to the people with whom the Old Covenant had been made first but then to the other nations as well because the invitation to partake of the covenant of grace was to be extended to everybody.
The New Testament makes it quite clear how Christians are to view the Exodus and the Old Covenant with all of its sacrifices and ceremonies. The deliverance of the Jews from bondage in Egypt prefigures Christ’s salvation of the world from sin. Jesus Christ Himself is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). The blood of the lamb, on the lintel and side-posts of the Hebrew houses, which caused the Angel of Death to pass over them is, like all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, a type, a picture, of the blood of the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) Whose death is the one final sacrifice that effectually takes away the sins of the world (Heb. 10:1-14).
Those, like my obnoxious acquaintance, who mock the majority of Christians for celebrating a holiday that commemorates the greater salvation of which the Old Testament Exodus was a mere type, point to the fact that the Old Testament holidays were commanded by God Himself whereas Easter was instituted by the church and is therefore “man made.” By this language they are obviously trying to evoke Matthew 15 and Mark 7 in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because “laying aside the commandments of God, ye hold the tradition of men.” We shall now see why this reasoning is erroneous and why those who take this position are closer in spirit to the Pharisees than those they mock.
In the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter was sent to preach the Gospel to the household of a Gentile centurion named Cornelius. They believed, received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized. From this time forward, the Gospel was preached to Gentiles as well as Jews. Soon thereafter, St. Paul and Barnabas made a large number of Gentile converts in several cities in Asia Minor and when they returned to the church in Antioch to report on the results of their evangelistic mission a controversy arose, with some insisting that the Gentile converts had to become Jews in order to become Christians – that they would have to be circumcised and keep all the laws of the Old Testament. An appeal was made to the Apostles in Jerusalem to settle this issue, and the first general council of the Christian church was called there, recorded in Acts 15. St. James presided, St. Peter testified to the vision he had received from God commanding him to take the Gospel to Cornelius (the vision involved a sheet coming down from heaven filled with non-kosher animals, him being ordered to eat, refusing, and then being told “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common”) and the council ruled that a letter would be sent to the Gentile converts giving their judgement:
For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. (Acts. 15:28-29)
St. Paul wrote an entire book of the New Testament, the epistle to the Galatian church, against Judaizers who claimed that Christians, after being justified by grace, needed to follow the Old Testament Law. Christian liberty is also a major theme of his largest epistle, that to the Roman Church, which argues that men are justified before God by grace received through faith, rather than by the works of the law. This Christian liberty is a recurring theme throughout his other epistles as well (see Col. 2:16-17 and Eph. 2:12-16, for example). The law from which St. Paul wrote that Christians are free is not some body of man-made regulations – note that the same epistle to the Romans which stresses Christian liberty requires Christians to obey the civil authorities (chapter 13) - but the body of ordinances handed down to Israel by God Himself at Mt. Sinai.
This liberty does not mean that the Christian has permission to freely go out and sin, to do that which is wrong in itself (Rom. 6:1-2, 11-15). Some acts are right in themselves and others wrong in themselves, universally, and with regards to matters such as these God will hold all men accountable at the Final Judgement whether they have received His Law or not (Rom 2.12-16). Only a very small portion of the commandments in the Old Testament Law are of this type, however. The vast majority of the Law’s commandments pertained to matters of what food to eat, what clothing to wear, what holy days to remember, what sacrifices to make, how to build and furnish the tabernacle, and how to maintain ceremonial purity. It is stated repeatedly throughout the Torah that a principal reason for these detailed instructions was that these things were to keep the Israelites distinct and separate from the other tribes of Canaan and the surrounding lands, because God did not want them to become polluted by their wicked ways, to worship their idols, sacrifice their children, and the like. The law was not successful in this, nor was it ever intended to be, but rather to illustrate by its failure the superiority of the new covenant of grace that would replace it, which covenant would not erect a barrier between God’s people and the nations of the world, but would be universal and open to all.
Of all the New Testament verses on Christian liberty the ones most directly relevant to the subject at hand are the following, written by St. Paul to the church at Colosse:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ (Col. 2:16-17)
There are two aspects to this Christian liberty. First, the Christian church was not required to keep the holy days ordained in the Old Testament. Second, it was free to establish its own feasts and holy days. Those soi-dissent “spirit-filled Christians” who sneer at the church for doing just that are completely out of touch with the spirit of the New Testament.
By the end of the Book of Acts, Christians had already started to assemble together and break bread on “the first day of the week”, i.e., Sunday, (Acts 20:7) The reason Christians honoured the first day of the week in this way is because it was the day on which Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For the same reason, the earliest Christian holy day, dating back to the first century, is Pascha/Easter, the Christian Passover which annually looks back to the events to which the Jewish Passover looked forward.
Pascha/Easter is the culmination of a week (1) in which the events from the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), through the Last Supper on the night of His betrayal (Maundy Thursday) and the Crucifixion itself (Good Friday) to the Harrowing of Hell (Holy Saturday) are remembered, itself marking the anniversary of the Resurrection. (2) The bulk of the narrative of each of the New Testament Gospels is comprised of the events of this week. They are the events which are at the heart of the Christian evangel:
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, is all about the Gospel. In the annual re-enactment of these events the church brings the Gospel to life to people in a far more powerful way than any sermon ever could.
Indeed, I suspect that this is what those who sneer at Easter as a “man-made” holiday and would seek to shackle Christians with chains forged on Mt. Sinai really object to the most in Easter. Having given their hearts to the Law, they have left no room for the Gospel.
(1) Note the interesting reverse parallelism with the Jewish Passover – which begins a week of celebration.
(2) There was much discussion and debate in the early church over when to celebrate Easter. The biggest disagreement was over whether it ought to coincide with the beginning of the Jewish Passover or with the day of the Resurrection. The latter viewpoint, obviously, won out, leaving the question of what day should be remembered as the day of the Resurrection (should it be held on the same day of the week as the Resurrection, i.e., Sunday every year, or the same day of the month, which would mean it moves throughout the week). The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) set it for the Sunday after the first full moon on/after the spring equinox. Contrary to much of the anti-ecclesiastical conspiracy mongering on the part of so-called “spirit-filled” religious nuts, this had nothing to do with paganism infiltrating the church but was an approximation based upon Scriptural evidence as when the Resurrection occurred. The Resurrection took place on the Sunday after the Passover began. The Passover begins on the evening of the fourteenth of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. This, like the Ides of a Roman month, always fell on the full moon (the months of the Hebrew calendar are lunar months, beginning on the new moon). Nisan, as its original, pre-Babylonian captivity, name of Aviv indicates, was the first month in spring.