by Frederick G. Holweck
Transcribed by John Wagner and Michael T. Barrett
This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
While this article is taken from a volume written well before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still relevant from an historical perspective, allowing us to study the history of the preeminent Christian celebration, Easter.
The English term, according to the Venerable Bede (De temporum ratione I v) relates to Estre, a Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and spring, which deity, however, is otherwise unknown, even in the Edda (Simrock Mythol. 362); Anglo-Saxon, eâster, eâstron; Old High German, ôstra, ôstrara, ôstrarûn; German, Ostern.
April was called easter-monadh.
The plural eâstron is used, because the feast lasts seven days.
Like the French plural Pâques, it is a translation from the Latin Festa paschalia, the entire octave of Easter.
The Greek term for Easter, pascha, has nothing in common with the verb paschein, "to suffer," although by the later symbolic writers it was connected with it; it is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word pesach (transitus, passover).
The Greeks called Easter the pascha anastasimon; Good Friday the pascha staurosimon.
The respective terms used by the Latins are Pascha resurrectionis and Pascha crucifixionis.
In the Roman and Monastic Breviaries the feast bears the title Dominica resurrectionis; in the Mozarbic Breviary, In lætatione diei pasch resurrectionis; in the Ambrosian Breviary, In die sancto paschæ.
The Romance languages have adopted the Hebrew-Greek term: Latin, Pascha; Italian, Pasqua; Spanish, Pascua; French, Pâques.
Also some Celtic and Teutonic nations use it: Scottish, Pask; Dutch, Paschen; Danish, Paaske; Swedish, Pask; even in the German provinces of the Lower Rhine the people call the feast Paisken not Ostern.
The word is, principally in Spain and Italy, identified with the word "solemnity" and extended to other feasts, e.g. Spanish, Pascua florida, Palm Sunday; Pascua de Pentecostes, Pentecost; Pascua de la Natividad, Christmas; Pascua de Epifania, Epiphany.
In some parts of France also First Communion is called Pâques, whatever time of the year administered.
Easter is the principal feast of the ecclesiastical year.
Leo I (Sermo xlvii in Exodum) calls it the greatest feast (festum festorum), and says that Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter.
It is the centre of the greater part of the ecclesiastical year.
The order of Sundays from Septuagesima to the last Sunday after Pentecost, the feast of the Ascension,
Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and all other movable feasts, from that of the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden (Tuesday after Septuagesima) to the feast of the Sacred Heart (Friday after the octave of Corpus
Christi), depend upon the Easter date.
Commemorating the slaying of the true Lamb of God and the resurrection of Christ, the corner-stone upon which faith is built, it is also the oldest feast of the Christian Church, as old as Christianity, the connecting
link between the Old and New Testaments.
That the Apostolic Fathers do not mention it and that we first hear of it principally through the controversy of the Quartodecimans are purely accidental.
The connection between the Jewish Passover and the Christian feast of Easter is real and ideal.
Real, since Christ died on the first Jewish Easter Day; ideal, like the relation between type and reality, because Christ's death and Resurrection had its figures and types in the Old Law, particularly in the
paschal lamb, which was eaten towards evening of the 14th of Nisan.
In fact, the Jewish feast was taken over into the Christian Easter celebration; the liturgy (Exsultet) sings of the passing of Israel through the Red Sea, the paschal lamb, the column of fire, etc.
Apart, however, from the Jewish feast, the Christians would have celebrated the anniversary of the death and the resurrection of Christ.
But for such a feast it was necessary to know the exact calendar date of Christ's death.
To know this day was very simple for the Jews; it was the day after the 14th of the first month,
the 15th of Nisan of their calendar.
But in other countries of the vast Roman Empire there were other systems of chronology.
The Romans from 45 B.C. had used the reformed Julian calendar; there were also the Egyptian and the Syro-Macedonian calendar.
The foundation of the Jewish calendar was the lunar year of 354 days, whilst the other systems depended on the solar year.
In consequence the first days of the Jewish months and years did not coincide with any fixed days of the Roman solar year.
Every fourth year of the Jewish system had an intercalary month.
Since this month was inserted, not according to some scientific method or some definite rule, but arbitrarily, by command of the Sanhedrin, a distant Jewish date can never with certainty be transposed into the corresponding Julian or Gregorian date (Ideler Chronologie I 570 sq).
The connection between the Jewish and the Christian Pasch explains the movable character of this feast.
Easter has no fixed date, like Christmas, because the 15th of Nisan of the Semitic calendar was shifting from date to date on the Julian calendar.
Since Christ, the true Paschal Lamb, had been slain on the very day when the Jews, in celebration of their Passover, immolated the figurative lamb, the Jewish Christians in the Orient followed the Jewish method, and commemorated the death of Christ on the 15th of Nisan and His resurrection on the 17th of Nisan, no matter on what day of the week they fell.
For this observance they claimed the authority of Saint John and Saint Philip.
In the rest of the empire another consideration predominated.
Every Sunday of the year was a commemoration of the resurrection of Christ, which had occurred on a Sunday.
Because the Sunday after 14 Nisan was the historical day of the resurrection, at Rome this Sunday became the Christian feast of Easter.
Easter was celebrated in Rome and Alexandria on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, and the Roman Church claimed for this observance the authority of Saints Peter and Paul.
The spring equinox in Rome fell on 25 March; in Alexandria on 21 March.
At Antioch Easter was kept on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover.
In Gaul a number of bishops, wishing to escape the difficulties of the paschal computation, seem to have assigned Easter to a fixed date of the Roman calendar, celebrating the death of Christ on 25 March, His resurrection on 27 March (Marinus Dumiensis in PL LXXII 47-51), since already in the third century 25 March was considered the day of the crucifixion (Computus Pseudocyprianus ed. Lersch, Chronologie II 61).
This practice was of short duration.
Many calendars in the Middle Ages contain these same dates (25 March, 27 March) for purely historical, not liturgical, reasons (Grotenfend, Zeitrechnung II 46 60 72 106 110 etc.).
The Montanists in Asia Minor kept Easter on the Sunday after 6 April (Schmid Osterfestberechnung in
der abendlandischen Kirche).
The First Council of Nicaea (325) decreed that the Roman practice should be observed throughout the
But even at Rome the Easter term was changed repeatedly.
Those who continued to keep Easter with the Jews were called Quartodecimans (14 Nisan) and were excluded from the Church.
The computus paschalis, the method of determining the date of Easter and the dependent feasts, was of old considered so important that Durandus (Rit. div. off. 8 c.i.) declares a priest unworthy of the name who does not know the computus paschalis.
The movable character of Easter (22 March to 25 April) gives rise to inconveniences, especially in modern times.
For decades scientists and other people have worked in vain for a simplification of the computus, assigning Easter to the first Sunday in April or to the Sunday nearest the 7th of April.
Some even wish to put every Sunday to a certain date of the month, e.g. beginning with New Year's always on a Sunday, etc. [See L. Günther, Zeitschrift Weltall (1903); Sandhage and P. Dueren in Pastor bonus (Trier 1906); C. Tondini L'Italia e la questione del calendario (Florence 1905).]