“Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people” (Acts 12:1-4).
The book of Acts was originally written in the Greek language by the Christian Gentile physician Luke. The Greek word that the King James Version translates as “Easter” is the word “Pascha” (Hebrew: Pesach) which actually means “Passover”—and this is how all modern translations show it. For example, the New King James Version states:
“So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover.”
Jewish and Pagan Roots
Passover is an annual Jewish religious celebration that dates from the time of Moses, when God delivered the Israelites from bondage and spared their first-borns when all other first-borns in Egypt died.
For centuries, the Jewish Passover foreshadowed the death of Jesus. It was during the Passover celebration that Jesus was crucified at Jerusalem, symbolizing that Jesus is God’s Passover lamb.
Early Christian holy days incorporated cultural practices that already existed, and this one was no exception. Easter was originally a pagan festival celebrating the return of spring and commemorating the goddess of springtime, Eastre. For Christians, it also celebrates new life by the fact that our Savior lives.
In many other countries today, the holiday is called “Pascha,” from the Hebrew word “Pesach” meaning Passover. Whether you call it Easter, Pascha, or Resurrection Day, it reminds us that Christ died for our sins so that anyone who believes in Him will live forever with God in Heaven.
There are many religious traditions associated with the celebration of Easter. Easter Sunday follows a period of forty days of penance and sacrifice known as Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. Holy Week is the final week of Lent, and Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week. Many churches distribute palm leaves on Palm Sunday in remembrance of the palm fronds spread before Christ as he entered the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover. Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Many Christians fast or eat no meat on Good Friday, which was the day that Jesus died. On Easter Sunday we celebrate His Resurrection. Some churches hold sunrise services outdoors or put on passion plays that dramatize the Easter story.
Nowhere are bunnies, chicks, or eggs mentioned in the Bible in connection with Christ’s resurrection. But the church in its early days adopted old pagan customs and gave a Christian meaning to them.
From earliest times, the egg was a symbol of rebirth in most cultures, and the custom of exchanging eggs in springtime was already centuries old when Christians first celebrated Easter. Eggs were wrapped in gold leaf if you were wealthy; or if you were a peasant, colored brightly by boiling them with the leaves or petals of certain flowers.
Although rabbits were early pagan symbols of fertility, it was German Lutherans who invented the Easter Bunny, a creature that hid eggs in the garden for children. Lambs link the death of Christ to that of the lamb sacrificed on the first Passover. The cross is the symbol of the crucifixion, as well as the official symbol of Christianity. White spring flowers such as lilies represent the purity of new life.
As with almost all holidays, Easter has become very commercialized. There are plastic eggs, chocolate bunnies, and candy galore. Just remember that the season is about much more than springtime, bunnies, baby chicks, eggs, and pastel colors.
Easter is the pivotal point of Christianity, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and celebrating the hope of eternal life.