Easter is the most significant festival for Christians, explains Stephen Bates in his Thursday April 17 2003 article in The Guardian
What is Easter?
Advertisers and shops may think that Easter is all about a marketing opportunity for chocolate and sweet pictures of bunnies and little lambs, but for Christians it represents the oldest and most profound festival in the yearly cycle of celebrations and services. In fact three of the church's main commemorations occur during the next few days: starting with Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday and culminating on Easter Sunday. Together they mark Jesus Christ's last supper and new commandment to his disciples, his arrest, trial and crucifixion and his resurrection from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. These commemorations are central to the Christian faith, its philosophy and belief in a story recorded in all four gospels.
Why is Maundy Thursday so called?
Maundy is a corruption of the Latin phrase Novum Mandatum - the New Commandment - given by Christ at the last supper to his disciples to love one another, in recognition of which he washed their feet (John, Chapter 13) as a demonstration of service to others, no matter how mundane or even humiliating. This particular feet washing ceremonial has been carried out by popes, bishops and other clergy and even monarchs over many centuries. Although British kings and queens performed the ceremony until the 1730s, when the protestant Hanoverians dropped it, it lives on in the second element of the day's commemorations, the giving of alms to the poor, in the shape of the annual Royal Maundy service - this year at Gloucester Cathedral - at which the Queen distributes special Maundy coins to worthy locals - the same number of men and women as her age. The coins, which are legal tender, are currently nominally worth about £5.50. The feet washing element of the service, revived in the Church of England over the last 20 years, now takes place in many churches and this year has been reinstituted by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at his cathedral - thought to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury to conduct the service himself since the Reformation. He, presumably, will not need the nosegay supplied to feet-washing prelates and monarchs in medieval times to protect them from the smell.
What is Good Friday?
Good Friday is the most sombre day in the Christian church calendar, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ - the most profound, symbolic, moment in the Christian story when adherents believe Jesus, the son of God, died, executed by the Romans outside Jerusalem, for the sins of the world. In Catholic churches, the passion story is re-enacted through the 14 stations of the Cross - the episodes of the crucifixion from Christ's appearance before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to his body's being placed in the tomb after his death. In many countries, including Britain, reenactments, with Christians carrying crosses, is sometimes carried out in the streets. In churches altars are stripped of their ornaments and the statuary may be covered.
Many churches in the Diocese of Fredericton rehearse the Passion with the Stations as well. Check out the Stations posted on this web site...
Why is Easter this Sunday?
Easter, unlike Christmas, is not celebrated on the same day each year but according to a complicated paschal calendar which places its date cyclically on a Sunday between 21st March (the earliest date at which it may be celebrated) and 25th April. The dating of Easter caused considerable controversy in the early church but was settled in the west at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when the Roman calendar prevailed over other calculations of the date. Easter Sunday sees the Christian church re-emerge from its earlier mourning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion - a profound metaphysical moment taken as proof of Christ's divinity. Easter takes place at a symbolic time of year - around the breaking of Spring, when Pagans also celebrated the return of warm weather and the start of crop growth - a revival and resurrection theme of its own. This week Jews also celebrate Passover - their revival, commemorating their liberation and escape from slavery in Egypt.
And why chocolate?
Traditionally Christians fasted for the 40 days of Lent before Easter in commemoration of Christ's sojourn in the wilderness before embarking on his earthly ministry - an event which is supposed to have occurred about three years before the events of Easter. Easter Sunday therefore represents not just a celebration of Christ's triumph over death but also a release from the restraint and denial of Lent.
Stephen Bates is religious affairs correspondent Copyright © 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited