A Removable Feast

Date: Friday, 21 April 2017
Author: Rev David M Blunt

It was looked forward to expectantly, with some people preparing for it long before it happened. In our country it took place later than in most years, although it was not as late as it can be. Lands to the east, for various reasons, are usually some distance behind us, although not this year. In any case, it is now over for another year.

What are we referring to? We could be referring to the coming of spring, which has now well and truly arrived in our northern hemisphere. Measured on the meteorological calendar, which gives the four seasons an equal length, spring always begins on 1st March. Determined by the astronomical calendar, spring commences at the first ‘equinox’ of the year, the point at which day and night are of the same length worldwide, which is almost always on 20th March. In the practical sense though, spring occurs when the natural world awakes from the slumber of winter and we can see the signs of new life.

During the cold, dark months which end one year and begin another, do we not have a certain longing for the springtime and all that is associated with it? The joy of the spring season is captured in Scripture: “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Sol. 2:11,12). Such things tell us that we will soon witness the lush growth of summer, followed by the fruitfulness of autumn.

Festival

Actually, it was not spring we were thinking of in our opening remarks. We had in mind the religious festival popularly known as ‘Easter’. The similarities between Easter and spring are intriguing. In its full-blown form, as seen in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Easter is preceded by a period of abstinence called ‘Lent’, mimicking Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1,2). This preparation involves various ‘penitential’ practices, such as refraining from meat and other luxuries and making greater efforts in prayer and good works.

Lent is followed by the services of ‘Holy Week’, in which we are supposed to remember the last week of Christ’s life. It begins with ‘Palm Sunday’, on which Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is commemorated. Easter proper starts on the Friday of that week, when Christ’s crucifixion is commemorated, and lasts to the following Monday. The festival reaches its climax on ‘Easter Day’, the Sunday between ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Easter Monday’, when Christ’s resurrection from the dead is commemorated.

Many people regard Easter as the most ancient and important festival in the Christian Church. As regards Protestantism, the Lutheran and Anglican churches never abandoned Easter when they split from Rome. The Methodist churches embraced it, and it has enjoyed some place among other non-conformists. Presbyterianism historically stood against the observance of Easter, but sections of it began to embrace the festival in the nineteenth century, and Easter now appears to have approval even within some of the more conservative denominations. But should Christians be celebrating Easter?

Origin

The parallel between Easter and spring is more than coincidental. Consider the name of the festival. In most European languages the name for it is derived from Pascha, the Latin word for the Jewish Old Testament festival of Passover, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew pesach and the Greek Pascha used in Scripture. Thus we have påske in Danish, Pasen in Dutch, and Pascua in Spanish. 

However, in English, German and most of the Slavic tongues, the name for the festival has a different background. The word ‘Easter’ may come from a Germanic word meaning ‘to shine’, and so may refer simply to the sunrise, but other origins have been suggested. Some say that the word is derived from Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility in whose honour a festival was held every April. Others maintain that it derives from Ēastre or Ēostre, an Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. It is perhaps impossible to tell, but customs associated with Easter, such as the making of hot cross buns and the decorating of eggs, suggest a pagan connection.

Date

It is a feature of Easter, and other major ‘Christian’ festivals, that the dates on which they occur do not correspond exactly with the dates on which the redemptive events they purport to commemorate actually took place. It is also the case that, with the exception of ‘Christmas’, they are ‘moveable feasts’. The dates on which all the festivals are held differ, like the arrival of spring, in line with geography, inasmuch as geography reflects the ecclesiastical division of 1054, when the ‘Great Schism’ led to the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity. Since the two branches follow different calendars, the East generally lags behind the West in its observance of the festivals. But in addition to this, the date on which each of the festivals (apart from Christmas) occurs within the two branches of Christianity differs from year to year. So Easter, again like the spring, may be ‘early’, or it may be ‘late’.

Three factors are involved in the determination of the date: the historic date of the Jewish Passover, the ‘ecclesiastical calendar’ and the lunar cycle. The result is that the date of Easter Sunday may vary from 22nd March to 25th April in Western Christianity, and from 4th April to 8th May in Eastern Christianity. This year the dates actually coincide. The last time that happened was in 2011; the next time will be in 2025. There is in fact a move by the World Council of Churches, supported by the Pope, to fix the date of Easter, so that it will occur at the same time every year, everywhere in the world; if it is ever successful, Easter is likely to be on the second or third Sunday in April.

Warrant

For those who are subject to Scripture as the only rule for faith and life – which should be all of us – only one question matters in all of this: Does God want us to celebrate Easter? We can say without fear of contradiction that neither did Christ institute, nor did His apostles encourage, the practice of commemorating His death and resurrection by a special festival held at a set time once a year. And if the glorious King and only Head of the church did not appoint such a thing, then we have no business with it. “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 12:32)

The regulative principle of worship was recovered at the Reformation, but it has been applied with differing degrees of rigour and vigour in reformed churches. The Synod of Dort (1618-19) stated in Article 67 of its Church Order, “The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day” (the article also encourages the observance of the day of Christ’s Circumcision and the day of Christ’s Ascension). The Westminster Assembly (1643-48) was more thoroughgoing. In its Directory for the Public Worship of God, it stated: “There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.”

Ordinances

In one sense, Easter is worse than Christmas, that other great festival which those of the world tend to love (in large part no doubt because they tend to be public holidays). God has not told us to celebrate either, of course. But whereas Christmas is a man-made celebration of a redemptive event for which God has provided no special commemorative institution, Easter is a man-made celebration of two redemptive events for which the Lord has appointed commemorative institutions – and it therefore flies in the face of these institutions. In His great kindness, the Lord has given us a sacrament to remember one of these two events and a day to remember the other.

To commemorate our Saviour’s death, God has appointed the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, instituted directly by Christ when He was gathered with His disciples in the upper room. “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) As well as it being a means whereby we express our thankfulness to God for His gift of salvation, the Lord’s Supper is also a visible declaration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, as Paul told the Corinthians: “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” (1 Cor. 11:26) The Lord’s Supper is to be observed frequently.

To commemorate our Saviour’s resurrection, God has appointed the Christian Sabbath. Originally the last day of the week, marking the completion of God’s creating work, the Sabbath was changed to the first day of the week following Christ’s resurrection, in honour of His redeeming work, when He triumphed over sin, death and Satan, and ushered in the new creation. The actual change is not recorded in Scripture, but its effects are: the New Testament church meets for worship on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1,2; Acts 20:7), and the apostle John is able to say, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10).

Tradition

We know that many will say, “Are these things really that important? Surely all that matters is that we give some thought to the fact that Jesus died and rose again?” That may be the wisdom of man, but it is not the wisdom of God. We must do the right thing in the right way for the right reason. Christ rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” He said that the rebuke God gave through Isaiah was intended for such as them: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:3,9).

It is evident from church history and from the present day that as the emphasis on Easter increases, so the scriptural observance of the Lord’s Supper and the Sabbath decreases. Preparation for partaking of the Lord’s Supper is reduced or done away with completely, and the self-examination necessary for a spiritually profitable use of the sacrament is lacking. As the Sabbath is no longer regarded as the only holy day for us, it is no longer sanctified in such a strict manner as it ought to be.

Divine revelation or human tradition? Which is it to be? It must be the former, and not the latter. It cannot be both, as some would like, for Christ says that if we follow the latter in our worship then we make the former “of none effect” (Matt. 15:6). We are disobeying God and displeasing Him, and therefore He withdraws His blessing. That really matters. Indeed nothing could be more serious for the Lord’s cause and for His people.

The best thing for this moveable feast is that it be removed altogether.