HISTORY OF EASTER
The most joyous of Christian festivals and one of the first celebrated by Christians commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is set on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The English word “Easter” corresponding to the German “Oster,” reveals the association of many Easter customs with those of the Teutonic tribes of central Europe. When Christianity reached these people, it incorporated many of their “heathen” (of the heath) rites into the great Christian feast day. Easter month, corresponding to our April was dedicated to Eostre, or Ostara, goddess of the spring. There was in common the time of spring and the triumph of life over death.
The practice of eating eggs on Easter Sunday and giving them as gifts to friends and children probably arose because, in the earlier days of the church, eggs were forbidden food during Lent (the 40 days before Easter) and were therefore always eaten on Easter Sunday. But the custom of coloring eggs goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who practiced this custom during their spring festival.
This year, the sunset on the evening of April 19 marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments, but he was much better in “The King and I”) to get his attention to release the Children of Israel from bondage. The final plague was the death of the first-born son visited upon the land by the angel of death. The Jews were to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb upon their doorposts so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites. The Israelite slaves took the “road out” of Egypt; the Greek word is Exodus
In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread (matzo), bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. The term Passover is often used interchangeably with the term Feast of Unleavened Bread at least in St. Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 22:1,) though the first century Pharisees marked the seven-day feast to begin on the day after Passover. Nevertheless, during the seven days celebration following Passover, only unleavened bread was eaten. In present-day celebration, all yeast is to be removed from a Jewish house during this time.
HISTORY OF APRIL 19
Many of my Facebook friends have asked me to write an article on the History of April 19th. Why? Of course, this date is slightly more likely to fall on a Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday (58 in 400 years each) than on Friday or Saturday (57), and slightly less likely to occur on a Monday or Wednesday (56). But what important things have occurred historically on this date in history? There are many, here are just three:
Reformation — 1529
On April 19, at the Second Diet of Speyer, the first use of the term Protestant occurred. What was the context? Back at the First Diet of Speyer, Germany in 1526, followers of Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland understood that the Roman Church would permit the toleration of Lutheran and Swiss Reformed versions of worship. This would essentially suspend the impact of the Edict of Worms, which back in 1521 had declared Luther to be an Imperial outlaw and banned the reading or possession of his writings. (He had already been religiously excommunicated by the Pope the previous year in 1520.)
HISTORY OF GOOD FRIDAY
For centuries pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrow” in Jerusalem, following the path Jesus took on Good Friday. Starting at the judgment seat of Pilate at the Antonia in the eastern part of the city immediately north of the Temple the path follows several “Stations of the Cross” to the ultimate location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial. Several years ago I walked this road, and though historically anachronistic — some of these roads did not exist during the time of Christ — nevertheless, it leaves one with a profound sense of historical gravitas.
Following Pilate‘s sentence, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution practiced by many of the ancient societies, including Persia, Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and Germanic tribes. The Phoenicians were probably the first to use a transverse cross beam rather than just an upright stake in the ground. From the Phoenicians, the Romans adopted this practice as the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens. (Incidentally, this is why Jesus could be executed by crucifixion, but the Apostle Paul, who was a Roman citizen, could not, and was instead beheaded.) During the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66 for example, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews, many of them from the aristocracy.
Beginning Thursday night and extending into Friday morning of Holy Week, the trial of Jesus which led to his crucifixion was, in reality, a series of about half a dozen trials, which were distributed across several locations in Jerusalem. Some of these locations are captured in the tradition of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, a series of sites that Christian pilgrims take through the streets of modern Jerusalem commemorating the last hours before Jesus arrival at Golgotha on Good Friday.
1. HOUSE OF ANNAS
Following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the Kidron Valley east of the city wall, he was brought before Annas who was the powerful ex-high priest and the real power behind the title of High Priest. By the Mosaic law, the high-priesthood was for life, but he had been deposed by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus. This predecessor to Pilate replaced Annas with a succession of four different high priests — though Jews might have still regarded Annas legally as the high priest. This was a hearing prior to formal arraignment before the son-in-law Caiaphas who was the current High Priest. Jesus was aware that this was to be no more than a lower court inquiry. He deflected Annas’ questions by answering that what was known about him he had spoken: “…openly to the world.”
Amid the bustle of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, Maundy Thursday is easy to overlook. Few calendars label it, and some churches don’t observe it at all, though it may be the oldest of the Holy Week observances. It’s worth asking why, and how, generations of Christians have revered this day.
The Middle English word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning “command.” The reference is Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:34:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.“
Jesus spoke those words at the Last Supper, which took place the Thursday before Easter.
The Greek word Συνέδριον, sunedrion, means literally “sitting together” and is usually translated “council.” It is referred to in the New Testament as “the Great Law-Court,” “the Court of Seventy-One,” and “the rulers and elders and scribes.” It was the supreme theocratic court of the Jews and reflected the local autonomy which first the Greek and later the Roman powers granted the Jewish nation during their successive sovereignty over the Land of Israel.
Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. during what is called the “Intertestamental Period,” meaning that period extending about 400 years after the close of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New Testament writings. We hear about it during the Hasmonean period, following the Maccabean Revolt, and there are references to it in the Mishnah section of the Talmud. There is no reference to this body in the original Old Testament. The council had about 70 members plus the ruling high priest. Three professional groups composed the council:
Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (whom we met in the Christmas story) and Malthake. After his father’s death in 4 B.C., he was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea in the Trans-Jordan area of Palestine which he ruled as a client state of the Roman Empire. Like his father, he was a lover of great and artistic architectural works and built the beautiful Tiberias (named after guess who) as the capital of his kingdom on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was renamed to Sea of Tiberias. Similar to his father, you could say he was an Italophile. Jesus appeared before him during his many trails on Good Friday, having been sent to him by Pilate. But after the audience, Antipas sent Jesus back to Pilate.
HISTORY OF TAX DAY
Tax Day is the anniversary of the celebration for the elation we feel when we receive a tax refund until we realize it was our own money in the first place and the government has been “borrowing” it from us for the better part of a year and paying us no interest. The holiday is celebrated with the mention of tax credits, exemptions, deductions, write-offs, and dependents… some of which may be the same.
Back during the time of Jesus, this season was referred to as “render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
For Tax Accountants, this is called the “busy season” as they put in nights and weekends to finish tax returns. If they’re corporate tax accountants, they do it again in October.
Here are some helpful terms as you prepare your tax forms:
- Extension: get out of jail free pass for not filing by the deadline, but only for a limited time.
- Coffee: what tax accountants convert into tax returns
- Starbucks: a place you cannot deduct as a workspace
- Dependent: not your dog
- Accrual: the kind of world it is out there
At this time, in the middle of April, two things are inevitable: death and taxes. The later though is the gift that keeps on giving.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian