Easter is the greatest and earliest festival of the church, at which Christians celebrate the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over death.
The observance of Easter started as early as the apostolic age. Writing to the Corinthians, probably at or near the Passover season, Saint Paul declares, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7,8).
In the course of their celebration of Easter, the fathers gave it various designations. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) called it “the paschal feast.” To CYRIL OF JERUSALEM (c. 315-386) it was the “holy day of salvation.” GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (323-389) called it “the queen of days, the feast of feasts, and the solemnity of solemnities.” After the waves of persecution had subsided, and Christianity became the official religion of the empire, Easter was celebrated on a grand scale. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, described the participation of CONSTANTINE THE GREAT who “changed the holy night vigil into a brightness like that of day, by causing waxen tapers to be lighted throughout the city; besides which torches everywhere diffused their light, so as to impart to this mystic vigil a brilliant splendor beyond that of day.”
During the first three centuries, there was divergence among the churches about the date of celebrating Christ’s resurrection. In Asia Minor, Northern Syria, and Mesopotamia, the church used to commemorate the crucifixion on 14 Nisan and to celebrate the resurrection on 16 Nisan, irrespective of the day of the week on which these two dates fell. The churches of Egypt, Italy, Greece, Palestine, and Africa were particular about commemorating the crucifixion on Friday and celebrating the resurrection on the Sunday following 14 and 16 Nisan, respectively.
In Egypt, Patriarch DEMETRIUS I (189-231) devised the Epact method of calculating the exact day of Easter Sunday, so that it would always follow the Jewish Passover, in close adherence to the first Easter.
The controversy, nevertheless, continued. There was also a difference of opinion regarding the interpretation of the concept of the crucifixion. To the Asian churches, it was an occasion of rejoicing, on the grounds that it heralded man’s release from bondage, while the other churches, including Alexandria, observed Good Friday as a day of mourning and strict fasting. This state of affairs was tolerated by the church, as it was acknowledged that there was an apostolic authority for both attitudes, the former deriving from Saint John and Saint Philip, and the latter from the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The difference was settled in the Council of NICAEA (325), which decreed that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday that followed 14 Nisan, after the full moon of the vernal equinox. The church of Alexandria, the city that was famous for its expert astronomers, was entrusted with the task of computing the date of Easter and it became the province of the Alexandrian patriarch to proclaim the date of Easter to all the churches of Christendom, in a paschal letter issued on the occasion of the Epiphany.
The following are the main features of the Easter Sunday service:
- The celebration of the Liturgy starts late on Holy Saturday evening, and ends in the early hours of Sunday, in conformity with the New Testament (Mk. 16:2, 9; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1).
- As in the case of the feasts of the Nativity and the Epiphany, the Psalms appointed for the third and sixth hours are omitted, in view of the fact that their contents are not compatible with the joyful occasion of the feast.
- An impressive feature of this service is the enactment of the Resurrection. After the lection from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, the sanctuary door is closed. A priest or a deacon holds the icon of the Resurrection, and the rest of the clergy and deacons, carrying candles, crosses, gospels, and censers, sing the hymn of the Resurrection. Then the priests, together with two or three deacons, enter into the sanctuary, while the rest remain outside in the choir, and the sanctuary doors are then closed (representing the sealed grave from which Christ rose, as well as symbolizing the closure of Paradise as a result of the fall of Adam). All lights in the church are extinguished, and two deacons, standing outside the sanctuary, chant in Coptic “Christ is risen” three times, each time the chief priest responding from within: “He is risen indeed”; this is then repeated in Arabic. The two deacons exclaim, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be ye lifted up, o ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps. 24:7). This is said three times, without a response from within the sanctuary. After the third time, the chief priest asks, “Who is this King of glory?” to which the deacons answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:8-9). Then they knock on the sanctuary door violently, at which the door is pushed open, and the lights are put on.
- The clergy and deacons go in procession three times around the altar, carrying the icon of the Resurrection, banners, crosses, candles, and censers, and then, coming out, they go thrice around the church singing in Coptic and Arabic the Resurrection paralex. Finally, the procession enters the sanctuary again and goes around the altar once. Thus, it will be noted that the number of circuits made in the procession is seven, symbolical of the seven circuits made by Joshua, son of Nun, around the gates of the city of Jericho, which finally fell down. This also alludes to the collapse of the gates of Hades upon the death and the resurrection of Christ.