Easter Sunday is a day of joy and the foundation on which all of Christianity rests. It is also the key stumbling block for non-believers today whose numbers are increasing. Few realize that Christ's return from the dead has always been both a source of joy and a challenge for even his most faithful. That, in fact, is the part of the point of his return.
The gospels tell us that Christ died on the cross on a Friday. His body was taken down from the cross by his followers, and placed in a tomb in a cave. A boulder was placed in front of the tomb entrance, and the Romans posted guards to prevent any Jews from stealing the body, knowing that Christ had predicted he would return.
Three days later, the tomb is visited by some of the women who followed Jesus. The gospels differ a bit on which women came to visit - at least one Mary and probably two others. They find that the rock has been rolled back, and Jesus is no longer inside. An angel announces that Jesus has risen, and is now among them. They should tell their comrades what has happened. The women run back to tell the apostles. In some accounts, Jesus appears to Mary on the road before he appears to the men later.
Christ's return from the dead is the turning point of this new faith. Had Jesus died on the cross and not returned, he might have been remembered as a sage philosopher, or a new prophet, joining the ranks of Elijah and Isaiah. But with his resurrection, he confirms that he is indeed the Son of God, an integral part of the universe itself. He has been allowed to break the rules of existence by coming back from the dead. Indeed, his rising has been interpreted as signaling that the importance of death itself has now changed. The faithful need not fear death, for it is just a transition, not an end. Embrace Christ's way, and eternity - the presence of God - can be with you in this life, and after death.
If this sounds perplexing now, it was hard to fathom back then, too. When the women told the men what had happened, they dismissed the reports. Impossible, no one rises from the dead. To make matters worse, Christ doesn't look like himself as he appears to his followers. They don't recognize him immediately. It appears to take some discernment, some spiritual awareness to see that is really he. But when that recognition dawns among the disciples, they realize they are not in the presence of a transparent ghost, but a real flesh and blood man. Christ insists that they touch him and eat with him. He is absolutely real.
This perplexing resurrection is a clue to much of what will happen later in the history of Christianity. Christ declares once and for all that death is not the end, nor is it to be feared for the faithful. If you fall, God will catch you. Life does not end with death. This belief has emboldened countless Christians to stand up against tyrants, emperors, dictators and oppressors of all kinds. Many saints and holy people have lost their lives standing up for peace, love and justice, certain that Christ would be with them in their trials and after they died.
But the importance of the afterlife should not be overstated. Throughout his ministry, Christ told his followers that what matters most is what we do in this life. We are to live boldly and with joy. So on Easter Sunday, Christians rejoice. We have all been given a second chance, an opportunity to make things right, to live open joyous lives, knowing that whatever troubles come our way, Christ will be with us and show us the way to God.
Easter was probably the very first Christian feast celebrated in the early years after Christ's death. Rejoicing on Easter Sunday started long before Christmas was observed. Since Christ's resurrection occurred in Judea, it was recorded within the Jewish calendar, and it coincided with the Passover feast when a lamb was eaten. (In many languages derived from Latin, the word for Easter derives from the word for Passover, so in French it is Paques.)
Unfortunately, since the Jewish calendar is based on the moon, and the Roman calendar (and ours, too) is based on the sun, for many years it was hard for Christians to agree on the exact day of Easter from year to year. Indeed, it was partly to solve this problem that in the 1500s, Nicolai Copernicus started his studies of whether the Earth revolved around the sun (and not the other way around), in case that theory could create a more reliable calendar. Today Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. The date changes from year to year, making it the original moveable feast.
What everyone could agree on was that with the joy of Easter Sunday, Lenten sacrifices and deprivations should end. Churches like ours put back all of the decorations that were taken down earlier. Candles are lit; people walk in processions singing hallelujahs. In the Middle Ages, believers would bring the foods forbidden during Lent to church on Easter Sunday. Among them were eggs, which would be painted red for joy. It is believed that this is the origin of today's ubiquitous Easter eggs. The Easter bunny probably derives from springtime pagan fertility symbols.
The joy of Easter is meant to last all year long, each day, each hour. For Christians, each Sunday is resurrection day. This is why we celebrate our Sabbath on a Sunday, not Saturday as Jews do. Christ came back on a Sunday, and so we are to celebrate that glorious new beginning each week. Ultimately, his return is an invitation to a new kind of life for everyone, where the brute facts of existence are seen as provisional - an appearance that can be seen through to grasp a more accurate and fulfilling reality. Just as Christ's followers ultimately came to see that the man beside them was actually the Christ, who had conquered death to embrace life for all.