In the spirit of the Holy Week celebration this year, I am reposting in the Forumâfor the nth time now, I must admitâa personal essay I wrote way back in 2003 about the origins of Holy Week in Christendom. Hereâs wishing all Forum members and guests a restful meditative break from their usual workaday routines and, of course, a delightful Easter Sunday as well! (April 9, 2017)
THE CRUCIFIXION BY TINTORETOMatters of Faith
I was making notes for a possible non-English-language topic for this column, thinking that grammar wouldnât be right for Holy Wednesday, when my nine-year-old tapped my shoulder and asked: âDad, why is Holy Week from April 13 to 20 this year? Last year, it was from March 24 to 31.* Why not hold it on the same date like that of Christmas Day so it doesnât get confusing?â
Talk about deja vu
! I had wanted to ask my own father that same question when I was about the same age as my son now, but never got to ask. Now I am a father myselfâthree times over, in factâand yet could only give a stock answer to veil my continuing ignorance: âItâs because the days of the Holy Week are movable feasts, son. They base it on a religious calendarâyou know, that kind where there are names of one or two saints for every day of the year.â
âBut why, Dad? They could do the same to every other religious holiday, but they donât. And another question: Why is Easter Sunday called âEasterâ? This celebration came from the West, so wouldnât it make more sense to call it âWesterâ? And one last thing: Why is the bunny a symbol for Easter? It looks funny and doesnât seem right.â
Those questions stumped me even more, so I told him: âI really donât know the answers, son, but tonight Iâll get them for you. Go to sleep now and tomorrow weâll talk again.â
My little research to answer my sonâs questions, I must say, yielded more fascinating answers than I expected. To begin with, it turns out that the movable Holy Week schedules are not totally arbitrary at all. They are always exactly timed in relation to the natural, once-a-year occurrence called the vernal equinox. The equinoxesâthere are only two of themâare those times in the year when day is precisely as long as night. The vernal equinox comes in March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, while the autumnal equinox comes in September, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.
The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility. The Scandinavians called her Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern, but they honored her in much the same way. The importance of this festival to the early Europeans was not lost on the second-century Christians, who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They therefore made their own observance of Christâs Resurrection coincide exactly with the festival. Then they gradually made it a Christian celebration, even appropriating the name âÄoastreâ for it. Thus, contrary to what my son thought, the later use of the term âEasterâ for the high point of the Holy Week had absolutely nothing to do with global geography.
People in those early times, however, celebrated the spring festival on different days, mostly on Sundays but often also on Fridays and Saturdays. This became a thorny issue. To resolve it, the Roman Emperor Constantineâwho had by then become a supporter of the Christian faithâconvened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This council came up with the Easter Rule, decreeing that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The âfull moonâ of this rule, however, does not always occur on the same date as the full moon that we actually see; it is the full moon after the ecclesiastical âvernal equinox,â which always falls on March 21. By this reckoning, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This rule has withstood the test of time, remaining unchanged exactly 1,682 years later to this day.
As to the Easter Bunny, it may be natural for us to think that it is simply a modern-day contrivance to liven up Easter Sunday. It isnât. Its provenance is even older than that of Easter itself. The prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Äoastre. Along with the Easter Egg, itself a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, the Easter Bunny was, in fact, a powerful ancient symbol for activity after inaction, for life after death.
In the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics and the rest of the Christian faithful have similarly found such an enduring symbol. They have thus consecrated the Lenten Season in His Name as their holiest of days, ending it on Easter Sunday in a feast where church tradition and ancient belief find joyful convergence.
These are the things Iâll tell my nine-year-old when he wakes up today and reminds me of what I promised him. (April 15, 2003)From the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, April 15, 2003 Â© 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
--------*This year (2017), of course, we are celebrating Easter on Sunday, April 16âthe first Sunday after the full moon that follows the ecclesiastical âvernal equinox,â which in turn always falls on March 21. This really sounds complicated and rather arbitrary, but there it is.