Monday, March 01, 2010

On the Origins of the Church's Feast of Feasts

By Dr. William Tighe

For all Christians today who observe a “liturgical year,” the high point of that year is the annual commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection at the end of Holy Week. Good Friday recalls to the faithful the Lord’s suffering and death, and in most Christian traditions is a day of ascetical practices, particularly fasting. Holy Saturday commemorates his entombment and descent to hell, and thus is also a day of asceticism. Easter Sunday, by contrast, is the joyous celebration of his resurrection, and of the resurrection of mankind in him.

Despite these discrete “episodes,” however, most Christian churches or denominational traditions have not completely lost track of the ancient sense that what we commemorate in the course of these three days is a process rather than separate events: the Lord’s “passing over” from life through death to new and eternal life, as both a realization and a promise to those who, by faith and baptism, have been incorporated into Christ. How and when the Church came to observe this annual “feast of feasts” has long been a matter of dispute, and in recent decades the areas of disagreement have grown greater—or at least a longstanding scholarly consensus has been strongly challenged.

“Easter” is, of course, an English word, and one lacking the multivalence of the more widespread term “Pascha.” This term, which has different forms in different languages, derives ultimately from the Hebrew Pesach, or “Passover,” and thus can mean both “Easter” specifically and more generally the “triduum” of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

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