This week in the Christian calendar is known as the Holy Week that is the week that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. This week being the week that Jesus was crucified is very important because it is the basis or object of our faith. It is one that every Christian should fully understand and be confident about. As I reflect on this week and what it means for us few things have jumped out at me. Apart from the obvious that Jesus’ death made a way for us to be reconciled back to our Father, there is the breaking down of barrier that divides us that Paul talks about. But what is Easter and where does that word come from?
The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Eostre which means April. A cognate of the word Eostre-monath means the month of openings. Eostre, April was named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre who was believed to be the goddess of new beginnings hence celebrated with eggs and hare (Rabbit or Bunny) symbolising fertility. The Christian roots and meaning of Easter goes back to the Jewish feast of Passover (Pesah in Hebrew and Pascha in Greek and late Latin) and not to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. Although when the old English or Saxons became Christians, Pascha being commemorated and celebrated in April made it easy for them to call Pascha Easter. The Passover feast in the Old Testament commemorated the Jewish deliverance from death and slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12). The Passover was celebrated with a male lamb that is without defects, however for the New Testament writers Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of this Passover lamb (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). John hinted that Jesus’ death was around the time that the Passover lamb was being slaughtered in preparation for the feast (John 19:31). John the Baptist also mentions that Jesus was the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29, 36).
Matthew in his Gospel recorded something not found in the other Gospels, this was that when Jesus died on the cross the curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the other courts was torn into two (Matthew 27:51). The writer of Hebrews would later explain that this was a sign of Jesus making a way for us to enter into the Holy of Holies or God’s presence (Hebrews 10: 19-22). This is very significant because in the OId Testament it was only the High Priest that could enter into this Holy of Holies and that was even once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The effect was that not every Israelite in the Old Testament could have a direct relationship or access to God they needed Priests to be the mediator between them and God. The writer of Hebrews says Jesus is now our High Priest and our mediator (Hebrews 8) and through his sacrificial death on the cross everyone can now have a relationship with God!
Paul took this slightly further in Ephesians 2 by saying while it is true that Jesus’ death reconciled us back to God, in addition, it also reconciled Jews and Gentiles together in one body. Paul expounded that Jesus’ death abolished the division that separated Jews and Gentiles. In Paul’s day this would have been in the form of the temple which has various compartments to separate Jews from Gentiles when they are worshiping. This divisive curtain was so serious that if a Gentile decides to enter into the court where the Jews were worshipping it would have cost him his life (Acts 21:27-29). Paul and the other Apostles put this meaning of the death of Jesus into practice by allowing Gentile Christians to be accepted into fellowship (Acts 10, 15). The Church in Jerusalem which was predominantly Jewish had to respect the Church in Antioch which was predominantly Greek. They also fellowshipped together by helping each other see Acts 11: 27-30.
As we journey towards Good Friday, let us put aside our theological and cultural divide that so easily separates us. Whether we be Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants, Black Majority or White Churches, let us remember that Jesus’ death was meant to bring us together not separate us. One good way of celebrating the meaning of Jesus death is by having a joint Good Friday service. I have seen good examples of this happening. For example in Brockley, Lewisham, the Churches together there have a joint Good Friday service every year. These Churches which are Catholic, Indian Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Black Majority Churches, and Charismatic all put their differences aside to make this happen. This is one of the true meanings of Easter. Let us therefore endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace this Easter!