April 24 is Easter Sunday — a rather late Easter Sunday. Since there are so many options for readings, this year we thought it might be helpful to offer the answers to some frequently asked questions about Easter.
Why is the date of Easter different every year — and why is it so late this year?
Easter falls at a different time in our calendar because it’s based on dating that takes the moon into account. Since the Council of Nicea in 325, the dating of Easter has been based on the Spring Equinox. Once that date (fixed for these purposes on March 21) is reached, the Church waits for the next full moon, then dates Easter on the following Sunday. Thus, Easter can fall as early as March 22 (if March 21 is a Saturday with a full moon) or as late as April 25. This year, it’s one day short of the latest possible date. In 2008, Easter fell on March 23, nearly the earliest date possible. That was the year Pope Benedict XVI visited America and said Mass on April 20, the same time of year as this Easter, but that Sunday was the Fifth Week of Easter.
What is the link to Passover?
That’s a good question, one that Pope Benedict treats at length in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 2. The theological answer is easy: Just as God passed over the homes of the Hebrews who sacrificed a lamb and marked their doors, those who are marked by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, will share in the resurrection of Easter.
What is difficult to understand is why John’s Gospel seems to differ from the others regarding the days in Holy Week. In John’s account, Christ is killed when the Passover lambs are being slain, the day of Passover. In the others, Jesus seems to be sharing a Seder Passover meal with the apostles on the night before he dies. There are several ways to resolve this, but the one Pope Benedict seems to prefer in his book is that John’s account is right. Writing as a theologian and not as the pope, he shares the idea that Jesus celebrated a new Passover meal, on his own timetable, with the apostles before he died on the actual Passover day of that year. He’s the Son of God. He can do that.
We see Mary side by side with Christ at Christmas. She’s front and center at Epiphany. We see her in the center of the apostles at Pentecost. She’s at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. Where is she on Easter?
Scripture does not record an Easter meeting with Mary. But Acts 1:14 and 1:22 do seem to suggest that she was among those who were witnesses to the Resurrection. However, from Christianity’s earliest days, the Fathers of the Church are confident that Jesus visited his beloved mother after the Resurrection. Says the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety: “Popular piety intuits a constancy in the relationship between Christ and his mother: in suffering and death and in the joy of the Resurrection” (149). It cites an ancient Catholic ritual of the meeting of the risen Christ with his mother. The Regina Coeli, which we say instead of the Angelus during the Easter season, also associates Mary with Easter.
Why do we celebrate with eggs and rabbits?
While we’re on the subject of the Vatican’s Directory of Popular Piety, we should point out that it answers this perennial question: “The Easter liturgy is permeated by a sense of newness: Nature has been renewed, since Easter coincides with spring in the Northern Hemisphere.” Therefore, says the directory, “among the pious exercises connected with Easter Sunday, mention must be made of the traditional blessing of eggs, the symbol of life, and the blessing of the family table.” Eggs are symbols of the Resurrection because living chicks emerge from them, leaving behind an empty tomb. And rabbits? Most explanations of the Easter Bunny will call them an ancient pagan fertility symbol, and there may be something to that. But you may experience what our children did coming back from church recently: They saw the first rabbit they have seen all year race across a lawn and wondered where it came from. Like the flowers, rabbits seem to come back to life in the spring. Who does that remind you of?
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College
and editor of the college’s new publication, The Gregorian.