This year, we are commemorating the day of Christ’s death on the same day that we commemorate his birth. A little weird, but wonderful – and not accidental. First, a little history… then Mystery…
Origin of “Easter”
English speakers use the word “Easter” in reference to the Most Holy Day in Christianity. Most other languages, however, use words rooted in the Hebrew word for Passover, “pesach”, as the ancient Christians used the Greek word, “pascha” for the Holy Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Solemnity of Our Lord’s Resurrection. We are celebrating the Paschal Mystery, after all! This is Christ’s “passing over”; he is the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us – and risen to glory. The friends and familial loved ones of Jesus celebrated his Resurrection on every Sunday and, as the number of disciples of Jesus grew (and grows) this tradition continues. Within the first two centuries, however, Christians began wanting to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection with especially great festivity and joy once each year. So, the question became, On what date should we celebrate the Pascha?
The key, ancient Christian scholars and leaders believed, was in determining the original date on which Jesus died. Although you might think this would be easy because of the biblical accounts… well, it wasn’t. Finding equivalents in the different solar calendars that Christians used for the days of Nisan in the ancient Jewish lunar calendar, was, let’s just say challenging. (For more on the history, see footnotes.) Anyway, in the course of these calculations, ancient Christians also sought to determine dates for celebrating Christ’s birth and conception, and other holy days, always keeping the Pascha as the base, the heart.
Incarnation and Sacrifice
Eastern Christian calculations came up with a date for when Jesus died upon the cross, a date equivalent to April 6, while Western calculations determined that Jesus died on the date equivalent to March 25. In choosing times to commemorate other Mysteries of Christ’s life, including Christmas, ancient Christians, both East and West, seemed to want to give a roundness, or fullness, to his life, and, so, chose the day of his conception in his virgin mother’s womb to coincide with the day of his death and burial in a tomb. Beautiful.
Truth and Beauty
We humans have a tendency to get caught up in technical details, calculations, charts, even dates themselves. Scholarly debates still abound on the history of date choosing and calculated dates still differ. But, Jesus did not die upon a cross for the glory of our digital ruminations. He died so that his blood, shed in divine love and mercy, could wash us clean of our sins – and that is something that we are not going to grasp with the math portion of our brains. Jesus came, Jesus comes, to reach the unique and transcendent connections of our minds, to speak to our hearts.
The “calendar date” is not what’s important. What’s important, what’s of earthshaking and ego-shattering importance, is that Christ Jesus is God Incarnate, that he was (is) truly human and truly divine, and that he died for love of us – and rose from the dead so that death will never be the end for any human being. This is why the name of Jesus is above all other names, this is why true Christians willingly sacrifice out of love for God and neighbor, this is why we are a people of hope and joy.
Yet, the dates in the Liturgical Calendar are not without rich significance. The Church lays out the Holy Days for our hearts and minds, so that, throughout the months and seasons, we may enter into the Mysteries of Christ and live intimately with him all year. There is truth in the content of the Holy Days and beauty in the context of their timing. Saint Augustine expresses this reality exquisitely:
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since.
Beautiful timing is befalling us this year and it is something highly worth reflecting upon …. In the Year of Our Lord 2016, we are called to commemorate both when Christ died and when Christ was conceived on the very same day!
Yes, the Annunciation coincides with Good Friday this year, as ancient Christians in the West believed that it should. Mark it and marvel. The thought gives me a beautiful sense of awe. And that sense deepens when I look upon my local church’s statues of both the Blessed Mother and Jesus on the Cross covered over for Passiontide, wrapped in veils, hidden from our eyes… Mary conceived Jesus as she was overshadowed, covered over, by the Power of the Most High… and, when her son, the Son of God, died on the cross, darkness covered the sky and his body was enshrouded and sealed in a tomb… waiting for revelation to the world…
I gaze upon the veiled statue and I can almost see Mary’s belly pulse and ripple beneath the purple cloth …
And as I gaze upon the veiled crucifix, I can almost see Christ, wrapped in his burial shroud, the cloth starting to move as his chest suddenly rises with the returned breath of life…
Awaiting the revelation of what is hidden from our sight, we mourn, we hope, we celebrate…
© 2016 Christina Chase
Photo credit: Dan Chase, inside St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Suncook, NH
 the calendar used by Jews in the first century was lunar, with an extra month thrown in once in a while by the will of the Sanhedrin to keep it in line with the natural seasons. Christians used solar calendars, but there were many different calendars, with different months and dates. See: Catholic Encyclopedia: Easter
 Saint Augustine. See: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.iv.i.vi.vi.html
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.