Easter Celebrations Through the Centuries

Did you know that during the second century, a pope from North Africa persuaded the Catholic bishops to move Easter celebrations to Sunday? Or did you know that the Easter festival used to last from sunset until dawn? For this week's "Faith Matters" conversation, host Michel Martin discusses how Easter rituals have changed over the centuries with Mary Elizabeth Sperry of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, your chance to talk back about what you've heard on the air or read on our blog. It's our Friday Backtalk segment. And that's coming up.

But first, to another of our Friday features, Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today is Good Friday, one of the most important Christian holy days. It commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. In Jerusalem today, Christians marched through the Old City retracing Jesus' last steps.

(Soundbite of singing)

MARTIN: This Sunday of course marks Easter, which is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, who is now called the Christ. We wanted to learn more about the rituals of Easter and how those have changed over the centuries, so we've called upon Mary Elizabeth Sperry. She's worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1994. She holds a master's in liturgical studies from the Catholic University of America, as well as a master's in political science. I don't know how those work together. But we're happy about that. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. MARY ELIZABETH SPERRY (Associate Director of Bible Utilization, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Nice to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you were telling us earlier that Easter actually used to be celebrated at night.

Ms. SPERRY: Yes. In the early centuries, up until about the fourth century, Easter was a night celebration. You would start after sunset on Saturday and finish before the dawn on Sunday. And there's really a reason for it. There was no weekend in the second and third and early fourth centuries. Until Christianity became the religion of the empire, you had to do it after your workday was done.

And we know that it was a nighttime celebration always because one of the early authors in the church Tertullian, who lived in Africa, used to write that this was a reason that non-Christians and Christians shouldn't marry, because what non-Christian husband would let his wife be out all night celebrating Easter?

MARTIN: What about Sunday? Was Easter always on Sunday?

Ms. SPERRY: That was actually a very important debate in the early years of the church, because some people always celebrated it in relationship to the Jewish Passover on the 14th of Nisan, which is the date in the Jewish calendar of Passover. Others had note, it always had to be celebrated on a Sunday and they would debate this back and forth for almost 200 years.

And, finally, Pope Victor from Carthage, North Africa - another African again -said, no, we're always going to celebrate it on Sunday. And it wasn't definitively established until 325. And even as late as 1960, there have been debates about, should we fix a date for Easter? Should we allow it to go back and forth? Even today not all Christians celebrate at the same time every year. This year we do.

MARTIN: Yeah, this year and last year, in fact. What would you call it?

Ms. SPERRY: The orthodox Christians and other Christians celebrate on the same day.

MARTIN: Same day. But that is unusual.

Ms. SPERRY: It is somewhat unusual and so there have been debates back and forth. We just fix it and all pick a date. But that's just gone nowhere, you know. Easter is now defined as the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. So the first full moon was Monday, April 18th. So Easter is the 24th. The latest it can possibly be is the 25th. So we're pushing the limit this year.

MARTIN: OK. Talk to me, if you would, about the spiritual and theological importance of the Holy Week and Easter. I mean, I think for people who are non-Christian, I think they might think that Christmas is kind of the big deal for Christians. But that's not the case. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

Ms. SPERRY: Nothing in Christianity is as important as the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, it's the death and resurrection of Jesus, which opens the possibility to us for eternal life. It is the night that gives mourners joy, restores lost innocence that breaks the gates of death and allows life to happen.

So, for Christians, nothing is as important as Easter. We go from this sadness of Good Friday to the hope of eternal joy. And so it's the most important feast of our year. And it was the first feast that Christians celebrated.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're having an Easter primer with Mary Elizabeth Sperry. She's with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She also has a master's in liturgical studies. And she's talking about the rituals of Easter and how it was first celebrated and how their celebrations have changed over the years.

All celebrations become metaphors for other themes and people find new meaning in them. I'm thinking people who have been suffering around the world, say, for example, who have suffered for political - have sort of found great meaning in Easter and the idea of hope and an ongoing hope.

Ms. SPERRY: The idea of redemptive suffering is a very important part of Easter. It's the sense that you join Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross and you hope to share in his victory. Theologically that's the meaning of Baptism, which is why Baptism has always been very closely tied to this weekend.

In his letters to the Romans, chapter six, saying - Paul talks about we die with Christ in Baptism so that we will live with him forever through resurrection. And so, there's a sense that if we enter into suffering of Christ, if we combine our suffering to his, we can share the same ultimate victory that he will.

And so, there's a sense that people who are suffering throughout the world, that by taking on a part of their suffering, by helping them, somehow we combine our suffering with Jesus, so as we can share in his victory.

MARTIN: Now, obviously Christianity is a worldwide religion and it's observed, you know, all over the world. In this country, you know, African-Americans have been very closely identified with a strong association with the story of Jesus because of their own experience and passing through slavery to freedom. And the so-called negro spirituals often capture that sense of, you know, hope in the midst of suffering.

And I just wanted to play a short, a little bit of one of the spirituals that I grew up with. It's called "Were You There?" And I want to play just a little bit of it here as sung by one of the 20th century's, you know, most beautiful voices, Marion Anderson. And this recording comes from 1947.

(Soundbite of song, "Were You There?")

Ms. MARION ANDERSON (Musician): (Singing) Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh.

MARTIN: First of all, did you sing this?

Ms. SPERRY: Oh, absolutely. Every Good Friday, you were guaranteed to sing it at the service where you would meditate on the words passion, because what you're being called to do is exactly what she says. Put yourself there. Were you there?

(Soundbite of song, "Were You There?")

Ms. ANDERSON: (Singing) Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Ms. SPERRY: Can you put yourself in that place? Can you imagine what you would feel? Can you wonder if you would be the person who ran away? Or the person who stayed at the foot of the cross and carried the body to the tomb and what would you feel? That's what the services these days are about. Put you there so you can just embrace that emotion and that feeling. To call yourself to be the person who stays.

MARTIN: And then, finally, Mary Elizabeth, I don't know if you can offer some insight into this, but the celebration of Easter, of course, centers on the faith, but also the bunnies, the jelly beans, the marshmallow peeps, you know. There are certain rituals that a lot of people are familiar with. Do you have any idea why - where do the Easter bunny and the Easter egg hunt came from and if you can add any insight into jelly beans and marshmallow peeps, that would also be welcome.

Ms. SPERRY: Well, Easter is a spring event and as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and then through even the farther regions, they didn't want to just make people abandon everything they had always known, so they incorporated their rituals.

Well, most non-Christian cultures have some sort of fertility rights in the spring. Eggs are an obvious symbol of fertility. So people would exchange eggs and have egg-based foods and things like that. Rabbits for fairly obvious reasons are symbols for fertility. They tend to breed in prodigious numbers. And so they become a symbol of Easter.

Jelly beans, marshmallow peeps, I don't think we can give those religious significance. But they are very sugary.

MARTIN: You can't help me with those.

Ms. SPERRY: They are very sugary. And so, the foods of Easter were all the things you weren't allowed to eat during lent.

MARTIN: I've been talking about the rituals of Easter with Mary Elizabeth Sperry of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Happy Easter to you. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SPERRY: Happy Easter.

MARTIN: Before we end our Faith Matters segment for today, I just want to play some tape because this Easter Sunday is also the anniversary of Marion Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. That was the one that was offered her after she was denied the stage at Washington's Constitution Hall because of her race. Still, you may know, she sang this song.

(Soundbite of song, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee")

Ms. ANDERSON: (Singing) My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, for thee we sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Once again, that was Marion Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: