Easter - From Ashes to Fire

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From ashes to fire—Lent to Pentecost

By Diane Huie Balay

Easter is the centerpiece of the Christian year. It celebrates Jesus the Christ’s (Savior’s) resurrection on the third day following his death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. This is the foundational event of the Christian faith, celebrated each spring near the dates of the Jewish Passover, to which it is related.

Easter is more than a feast day. It is a season lasting until Pentecost and is anticipated by a season of preparation known as Lent. During these seasons, special religious services are held that relate to the following story:

According to the Christian Bible or tradition, Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They arrived on the Sunday before Passover. As Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a white donkey, he was greeted by a great throng who cut palm branches, spread them on the road before him and cried out, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” During the week, Jesus taught the crowds at the Temple. On Thursday, he met with his disciples for a Passover meal, but a plot was already underway between high priests of the Temple and one of the disciples, Judas. The plot would lead to Jesus’ arrest later that night. He was crucified on Friday and died the same day. His body was taken down before sunset and placed in a tomb. All but one of his distressed disciples fled. On Sunday, women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices, but they found that the tomb was open and Jesus' body was gone.. An angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus many times during the following days until his bodily ascension into heaven. His newly hopeful followers met in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when they were filled with the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. This spiritual awakening at Pentecost is considered to be the birth of the Christian church.

Lent--Ash Wednesday

Christians begin preparing for Easter on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which occurs about 40 days before Easter, in February. Lent is a time of penitence and self-examination during which some form of self-denial may be practiced. Although decidedly not a religious practice, some regions of the Christian world celebrate Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) or “Carnival.” It is a spectacular event, one last party before self-denial begins the next day on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is solemnized by the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead of believers.

Passion Sunday

On the 5th Sunday in Lent, Christians begin to concentrate their thoughts on the Passion, or suffering of Jesus.

Holy Week

Lent comes to a close during Holy Week, that begins on Palm Sunday, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Practices vary among Christian denomination for the rest of Holy Week, but nearly all celebrate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is the day that Christians remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, “The Last Supper.” "Maundy" comes from the French word, "Mande," meaning "command" or "mandate.”  Before the meal, Jesus took a basin and towel and insisted upon washing his disciples’ feet. He did this to demonstrate that one who would lead must serve those whom he would lead. The towel has become a symbol of Christian servant leadership.

The meal Jesus ate with his disciples was a Passover meal. The Passover recalls God’s deliverance of his people, Israel, from bondage in Egypt. It recalls the night that the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites, sparing their first-born offspring. A lamb was sacrificed and the blood of the lamb was put on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where the lambs were eaten. (Exodus 12:1-20)


The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

Christians recognize Jesus as the Lamb of God, whose blood was shed to pay for the sins of the world (the wages of sin being death). On that long ago Thursday night, in anticipation of his coming crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that the bread he blessed and broke was his body, broken for them. The wine was his blood, shed for many. Christians today remember that event through the sacrament of the Eucharist ("The Lord's Supper," "Holy Communion" or “Mass”), when they partake of the consecrated bread and wine.

Jesus gave his disciples a “new commandment” that “you love one another as I have loved you.”

Maundy Thursday services may possibly include foot washing but they always include the Eucharist.

Good Friday

Good Friday, also known as Black Friday, recalls the day of Jesus’ death on the cross. Many Christian denominations mark Good Friday with “Tenebrae” services, or services of darkness, in which the seven last words of Jesus are spoken or sung. In many Good Friday services, lights (candles) and lamps are gradually extinguished until the sanctuary is in darkness.

Holy Saturday

Special services involving the lighting of the Paschal Candle and the renewal of baptismal vows take place in the evening in preparation for Easter. This is the last day of Lent.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday may begin with a sunrise service, an ancient practice. Church services may be marked by an abundance of flowers, exuberant choral and orchestral works and sanctuaries packed with people dressed in their best spring finery. Easter Sunday celebrates the hope of resurrection and new life. Orthodox Easter Day (called Pascha) is held on a different date. Because Easter is calculated on a lunar calendar, it moves in relation to the solar calendar. Orthodox and Western Churches disagree on  when the intercalary adjustment should be made, so there is no consistent relationship between the dates of Eastern Orthodox & Western Easter.

Feast of the Ascension

This celebration marks Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection, according to the Book of Acts.


Originally a Jewish festival (Shavuot) held seven weeks after Passover, the Christian version is held seven weeks after Easter Sunday. This commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus’ in a “mighty wind” and “tongues of fire.” Pentecost is also called Whitsuntide.

The entire period, from the beginning of Lent to Pentecost, has been said to move from ashes to fire.

Customs and Pagan Practices

In the Mediterranean regions of Christianity’s origin, Easter was known as “Pascha,” but in Europe it became known as Easter, meaning “spring.” The Anglo-Saxon priest, the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, wrote that the word was derived from the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre.

Folk customs have collected, many of which have been handed down from the ancient ceremonial and symbolism of European and Middle Eastern pagan spring festivals brought into relation with the resurrection theme. These customs have taken a variety of forms, in which, for example, eggs, formerly forbidden to be eaten during Lent, have been prominent as symbols of new life and resurrection. The hare, the  symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt, a role that was kept later in Europe, is not found in North America. Its place is taken by the Easter rabbit, the symbol of fertility and periodicity both human and lunar, accredited with laying eggs (often brightly colored or decorated) in nests prepared for it at Easter or with hiding them away for children to find.

In the United States today, the Easter bunny, Easter egg hunts and school holidays are perhaps more commonly associated with Easter than are the religious practices of the Christian faith.


  Shrove Tuesday
The approximate dates of Easter can be determined by adding 41 days to the date of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) which are shown at right.

2002 February 12
2003 March 4
2004 February 24
2005 February 8
2006 February 28
2007 February 20
2008 February 5
2009 February 24
2010 February 16
2011 March 8
2012 February 21

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