Last Wednesday, February 13, 2013, was a special day for some religious people. It was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent which ends on Easter Sunday with celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. For many this is the most hallowed time of the year because it honors Christ’s victory over sin and death.
However, as one examines the customs of Lent and Easter it becomes clear that not all “Christians” believe alike. Some keep both, others reject Lent but celebrate Easter, and a few renounce both. Variances also exist even among those who keep both “holydays”. Western and Eastern churches differ in their practices, as do Catholics and Protestants. So clearly, no consistent conviction or practice exists between “Christians” on this matter.
In the balance of this article we will examine the history and doctrines of Lent and Easter. We will look at Western churches, and specifically the Roman Catholic Church. I want to know if their traditions come from the Bible. If they do, then we must follow what God says. If they do not, then my love for God and His Word precludes my involvement.
The word Easter never appears in the Bible. Early Christians never celebrated Lent and Easter. This is not to say we lack authority for remembering the Lord’s death and resurrection, because we should. In Matthew 26:26-29, just before His death, Jesus introduced the Lord’s Supper. Then Paul writes that its purpose is to remind Christians of the Lord’s death. This was and is a weekly observance done on Sunday.
Reading from the King James Version one may argue that Acts 12:4 mentions Easter. However, the Greek word translated Easter in this version is the same word they use to translate “Passover” twenty-eight times in the New Testament. The word is “pascha” and it is the same idea as the Hebrew “pesach”. The Hebrew word always referred to the Jewish Passover or the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. Even in the New Testament, “pascha” refers to the Jewish celebration or the lamb of sacrifice every time but once. This is exactly how Acts 12 uses the word as shown by the context.
Besides, there is no biblical evidence that early Christians ever kept Easter or the Pascha. However, by the middle of the second century some were celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection in a special once a year service. By the early part of the fourth century the practice was more wide-spread, but varied among the people. For example, regions and churches chose their own date and day to celebrate. In A.D. 325, at the first Council of Nicaea set the date as the first Sunday after the full moon following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox. So as time passed, people added various acts to the holiday and adjusted the celebration.
We cannot study and understand Easter without talking about Lent. It is a time for believers to prepare themselves for Easter. They do this by self-examination, and by fasting and praying. They also offer penitence for their sins by doing good deeds and making sacrifices to God so He will forgive them. Lent usually last for around forty days, not including Sundays. They do not count Sundays because they look at them as mini-Easter celebrations or feast days. As is true with Easter, Lent has changed with time. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) wrote about two or three days of preparation, not the forty we see today. We also know that these two or three days expanded to three weeks later, and then in A.D. 325 the Council of Nicaea talked about a forty day Lenten season.
Some of the special days of Lent include Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Each day has its purpose and reason for celebration. Ash Wednesday marks the official beginning of Lent by placing ashes on one’s forehead. They serve as a symbol of mourning and penitence to God for the ones wearing them. Have you ever had someone ask you, “What are you giving up for Lent”? The ashes show that you have given something up for God.
This is a little odd since Ash Wednesday follows Fat Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras or Carnival. Fat Tuesday is the last day one can indulge by eating and drinking what he will give up on Ash Wednesday. For many it has become a time for debauchery and indulgence. In other words, it is a time for sin. The idea is, live like you want to on Fat Tuesday because on Ash Wednesday you begin forty days of penitence.
Palm Sunday celebrates the day Christ rode into Jerusalem, one week before His resurrection. Maundy Thursday (Washing of the Feet) commemorates the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and set up the Lord’s Supper. Participants remember His humility and service to others, and so His example serves as a reminder for them to do the same. Good Friday is the day to remember our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. Holy Saturday bring attention to His time in the grave. Then, of course, Easter celebrates the risen Savior.
All of this may seem honorable and good, after all we are celebrating God’s Son and sacrifice, but none of this comes from God. We cannot please Him by replacing His authority with our own traditions. (Matt. 15:1-9) The reason I do not celebrate Easter or Lent is because they come from man’s wisdom and not God’s. (1 Cor. 1:19-21)