Many people think that Christmas is the most important day on the Christian calendar, but from the earliest days of the church, Easter has been the central Christian celebration.
As Saint Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians (15:14): "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."
Without Easter, without the Resurrection story, there would be no Christian faith. Christ's Resurrection highlights His divine nature and represents the promise of new life, both during our time on earth and beyond.
The Gospels and other New Testament writings present the Resurrection as a foundation of Christian belief. 1 Peter (1.3-9) states: "By His great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
Jesus the "living hope" is the very heart of the Christian message.
The Resurrection is the story of Jesus's triumph over death, evil and the powers of this world.
All who believe this are "born again" in the spirit — spiritually resurrected so they may walk in a new way of life with Jesus.
They are Christians not because they believe in the cross, suffering and death of Jesus, but because they believe in the Resurrection, which means life, liberation and joy and above all the kind of all-embracing love revealed by Jesus.
The Resurrection was so important to the early church that new Christians were customarily baptized on Easter or the day before after 40-days of prayer, penance and fasting. Baptism, of course, is the primary rite of Christian initiation, the symbolic act of entry into a new life in the community of God.
There is evidence that Christians originally celebrated the resurrection of Christ every Sunday, with observances such as Scripture readings, psalms and the Eucharist. At some point in the first two centuries, however, it became customary to celebrate the resurrection specially on one day each year. Many of the religious observances of this celebration were taken from the Jewish Passover.
Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia held their festival on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover, but those in Alexandria and other regions held it on the first Sunday after the spring equinox, without regard to the Passover.
The Council of Nicea in 325 decreed that Easter should be celebrated by all on the same Sunday, the first following the paschal moon before the spring equinox. The policy was adopted throughout the empire with Rome adopting an 84-year lunar cycle for determining the date, whereas Alexandria used a 19-year cycle. Use of these different "paschal cycles" persists to this day and contributes to the disparity between the eastern and western dates of Easter.
The roots of Easter are linked to the Passover. One lingering reminder is that Jesus is sometimes referred to as the "Paschal lamb" in reference to lambs sacrificed in temples at Passover.
Jesus and his Apostles were Jews who observed the Passover, which commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
The Last Supper that Jesus shared with his Apostles the day before his crucifixion was a Passover meal. Sometimes called the Lord's Supper, the event is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians.
According to the writings, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He called them "friends" and counselled them to continue spreading His message of the boundless love of God.
During the meal, Jesus spoke of his betrayal and coming ordeal, using the bread and wine of the Passover meal to show that his body would be broken and his blood shed "for you." Luke's Gospel is the only one in which Jesus tells his disciples to repeat the ritual of bread and wine "in memory of me."
Early Christianity observed a ritual meal known as the "agape feast." These were community meals, with each participant bringing food, and with the meal eaten in a common room. They were held on Sundays, which became known as the Lord's Day, to recall the Resurrection, the appearance of Christ to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the appearance to Thomas and the Pentecost.
By the second century of Christianity, an annual observance centered on the Last Supper (Holy Thursday), the crucifixion and death of Christ (Good Friday) and His Resurrection (Easter Sunday) had developed, including remembering Jesus with a ritual of bread and wine (now known as the Eucharist or Communion).
One of the earliest primary references to Easter is a mid-second century Paschal (Easter) homily attributed to Melito of Sardis, which indicated the celebration was well-established one. By the late second century, the Paschal celebration was accepted as a practice of the disciples and an undisputed tradition.
Easter and the holy days related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars. In Western Christianity, using the Gregorian calendar, Easter falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Common elements found in most Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant religious Easter celebrations include baptisms, the Eucharist, feasting, and greetings of "Christ is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!"
Easter marks the end of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts forty days (not counting Sundays).
The week before Easter is known as Holy Week. It begins on Palm Sunday before Easter and includes Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as Silent Saturday).
Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively commemorate Jesus' entry in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the crucifixion.
A minority of Christians consider Easter celebrations as excessive, believing the occasion to be no more important than any other Lord's Day. Some mark Easter with Passover-like rituals.
But most churches, in both the Eastern and Western traditions, celebrate Easter exuberantly and joyously at services.
After the sombre occasion of Good Friday, many churches begin celebrating late in the evening of Holy Saturday at Easter vigils that include communion service.
Some churches like to hold these vigils very early on Easter Sunday morning, to reflect the gospel account of women coming to the tomb of Jesus at dawn to discover Him risen. These services, known as sunrise services, often occur in such outdoor settings as church yards, public parks, lake shores or riverbanks.
Easter services are customarily replete with uplifting prayers and sermons, glowing candles, floral displays (Easter lilies), glorious music (with organ and brass instruments if possible), special choral anthems, serving of the Eucharist and, of course, scriptural readings that include the Resurrection story.
Easter Sunday ushers in a season of hope and optimism called Eastertide that lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later. At Pentecost, Christ's disciples were empowered to boldly proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ after being inspired by "the rushing wind" of the Holy Spirit.