Easter traditions

April 11th, 2017

Easter Celebrations Across the Globe

Millions of Christians will celebrate Easter across the globe with many different traditions, rituals, and types of worship services. Although secular Easter traditions sometimes get the most attention in our culture, there’s no more theologically meaningful day in the Christian year. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday, but on Easter we proclaim Christ’s victory over death and our participation in that victory with particular joy.

In Greece, Orthodox Christians will observe Easter, called Pascha, with “Holy Fire” transferred from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Greece via airplane. Worshipers proclaim Christ’s resurrection by saying, “Christos Anesti” (“Christ is risen!”), to which others respond, “Alithos Anesti” (“He is risen indeed!”). They then light their candles from the Holy Fire and walk through town surrounded by fireworks, bells, and joy-filled activity.

In the Philippines, Catholics across the country participate in a ritual named Salubong before beginning Easter Mass. Taking place before dawn, it reenacts the risen Christ’s meeting with his mother. Images of Mary and Jesus are brought together from two different sides of the street, meeting in front of the church as worshipers sing hymns, dance, and cheer.

In Zimbabwe, many United Methodists make their way to Easter sunrise services with processions through their villages. Small groups of people go throughout the community singing with rattles and tambourines, knocking on doors to include their fellow church members in the procession. Dramatic reenactments and healing sessions are also central to many Methodists’ Easter celebrations in Zimbabwe.

In the United States, many Catholics participate in the lengthy Easter vigil service that begins late on Saturday evening, symbolizing the light of Christ rising in glory out of the darkness. Protestants are more likely to have their primary worship services on Easter morning, with large numbers of Easter lilies and festive choral arrangements. Sometimes these larger indoor services are preceded by outdoor sunrise services.

Easter in the Early Church

Though Easter isn’t mentioned in the Bible, historical records show that Christians were celebrating Pascha (derived from the Hebrew word for “Passover”) as early as the second century. A well-known liturgical document from the third century describes how Christians fasted on the Friday and Saturday before Easter, finishing with an all-night vigil on Saturday night. During the vigil, new Christians were baptized, anointed with oil, and received their first Communion. This may have been the only time of year when baptisms occurred.

Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, preached a famous Easter sermon that gives clues about both the length of the vigil service and its meaning. He told those who had waited to join the vigil until the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and even the eleventh hour not to be afraid because of their delay, “for the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.” Saint John preached that both those who had joined in the fast and those who hadn’t should “rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!” Worshipers were told that no one should fear death because “our Savior . . . has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.”

The Easter vigil began in the dark of night and ended in the light of day, powerfully symbolizing how Christ’s death and resurrection moves us from darkness into light. There was also a practical reason for this time frame. Before Christianity became the religion of the empire, there was no weekend, so believers had to finish their celebrations before the workday began.

By the fourth century, Easter rituals had expanded to something similar to our modern Holy Week. The “Great Fifty Days,” the season of Easter joy lasting until Pentecost, emerged during this time. Saint Augustine wrote, “These days after the Lord’s resurrection form a period, not of labor, but of peace and joy. That is why there is no fasting and we pray standing, which is a sign of resurrection.”

From this time period up until the Middle Ages, the main aspects of the Easter vigil remained the same (and are very similar to how the Easter vigil is observed by Catholics and some Protestants today). “New fire” was kindled to light the Paschal candle, which would burn throughout the Easter season. A series of Scripture readings told God’s history of salvation, from the Creation and Exodus stories through the Gospels and Epistles. “New water” was blessed, and baptisms were celebrated. The service ended with all the community celebrating the Eucharist together.

Though Easter vigils aren’t widely held among United Methodists, the service is recommended in The United Methodist Book of Worship, 369–376. United Methodist worship consultant Marcia  McFee writes that the service “can be a rich time of re-lighting the fires of resurrection, proclaiming the Good News, remembering the waters of our baptism and communing at the Table, just as the newly baptized did when they officially became members of the Christian community.”

Stations of the Resurrection

How can our Easter traditions help us carry the joy and promise of resurrection through the entire season rather than just on Easter Sunday? The Reverend Kathy Barba Pierce, one of the pastors of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in High Point, North Carolina, wanted to offer something after Easter that “would keep people focused on the Resurrection.” After reading the book Stations of the Resurrection, by Raymond Chapman, she decided to bring a visual representation to the church like the one described in the book.

Much like visual Stations of the Cross can help Christians meditate on the meaning of Good Friday, the Stations of the Resurrection allow personal reflection on the meaning of Easter. At Wesley Memorial, 14 stations are set up around the sanctuary, with each containing a piece of artwork, a Scripture reading, and a prayer. They typically include 11 appearances of Christ, plus his “Ascension into Heaven,” “The Disciples Waiting in Prayer,” and “Pentecost.”

At Coker United Methodist Church in San Antonio, artist Billy L. Keen created an exhibit called “Resurrection Appearances” depicting Christ as he might appear today. For example, one painting showed a young boy holding up his hands, wounded like Christ’s. Keen was guided by Matthew 25:40 as he created the paintings, which says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (NIV).

Living Our Baptismal Vows

In Romans 6:4, Paul writes, “We were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.” This imagery of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism is why baptism figures so prominently in the Easter vigil. It also means that the Easter season is an ideal time to reflect on the meaning of our baptismal vows, regardless of what worship traditions our particular congregations have.

At our baptism, we (or the adults who cared for us) promised to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of [our] sin.” We also declared that we accepted “the freedom and power God gives [us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We promised to confess Christ as our Savior, to put our “whole trust in his grace, and . . . to serve him as [our] Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”

In this Easter season, how can we joyfully resist the injustice and evil that we see present in our world? How can we declare in places where death is common that Christ has conquered death and brought us all new life? How will we be Christ’s Easter people?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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