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‘Easter’ vs. ‘Resurrection Sunday’: African-Americans redefine tradition

This Sunday, millions of Christians will attend services for the most solemn and sacred religious celebration, Resurrection Sunday, also referred to as Easter Sunday.


Ministers weigh in on the power of words

By Cynthia Gibson | OW Contributor

This Sunday, millions of Christians will attend services for the most solemn and sacred religious celebration, Resurrection Sunday, also referred to as Easter Sunday.

When it comes to religious observances, how much power should words have? Some ministers say it’s not the words, but the meaning and the story behind the words that count most. Others counter that words are powerful and Christianity loses its meaning when words aren’t taken seriously.

In some sectors, it is believed that the name Easter was drawn from the pagan god Eostre (pronounced ee-ster), the pagan goddess of spring and fertility. Every spring the pagans would celebrate this deity with a festival.

‘Easter’ does not appear in the Bible

The word Easter does not appear in the Bible and no early church celebrations of Christ’s resurrection are mentioned in Scripture. Easter, like Christmas, is a tradition that developed later in church history.

To be inclusive, many Christian churches use both Easter and Resurrection Sunday when referring to Jesus’ rise from the dead.

“I use [Easter and Resurrection Sunday] interchangeably quite often. I think it’s almost a personal preference,” Oasis Church LA Pastor David Price said. “For me, as long as the stories are remembered and the lessons are being learned and hearts are being transformed, regardless of what we call it, that’s what matters to me.”

“I think in the case of religion in general, and Christianity specifically, we can get so caught up in the language, that we miss the lesson,” Price said. “For me, I tried not to dive too deeply into fates or the origins or the entomology of a word. I think it just sort of misses where some people are in their faith walk.”

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the word "Easter" comes from Old English, meaning simply the "East." The sun which rises in the East, bringing light, warmth, and hope, is a symbol for the Christian of the rising Christ, the true light of the world.

Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead

Catholics believe the season of Easter is the most important of all liturgical times, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, culminating in His ascension to the Father and the descension of the Holy Spirit.

Douglas Johnson, a deacon at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church and has been an ordained deacon in the Catholic ArchDioceses for 15 years. He agrees with Price that the focus should not be on the word Easter, but the observance of the resurrection and leading people to Jesus.

Johnson said that in Catholic history, there are many times when celebrations that pre-date Christianity are used to teach about Jesus.

“My primary objective is to use non-Christian or pre-Christian language to teach about Jesus and direct people’s attention to Jesus, who is the resurrection,” Johnson said.

“I don’t believe that as ministers we are called to win arguments. We’re called to win souls. I don’t like to argue with somebody and insist on not using the word Easter and only using Resurrection,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to let that divide us. I’m going to work harder to help people focus on the resurrection of Christ during this season.”

The commercialization of Easter

On the other hand, some ministers feel that the commercialization of Easter has diminished the meaning of the word.

Followed by Halloween, Easter is the second most candy-eating day of the year, by pounds consumed, according to the National Confectioners Association.

In 2019, Americans spent nearly $1.9 billion on Easter candy, while Halloween sales were nearly $2 billion; Christmas, an estimated $1.4 billion; and Valentine’s Day, just over $1 billion.

• Ninety million chocolate Easter bunnies are produced each year.

• Each Easter season, Americans buy more than 700 million Marshmallow Peeps, shaped like chicks, as well as Marshmallow Bunnies and Marshmallow Eggs, making them the most popular non-chocolate Easter candy.

• Americans consume 16 billion jelly beans at Easter, many of them hidden in baskets. If all the Easter jelly beans were lined end to end, they would circle the globe nearly three times.

First African Methodist Episcopal Associate Minister Judi Wortham said that Easter has a lot of associations that have nothing to do with the resurrection.

“As kids, Easter was a big draw. Easter egg hunt, Easter Bunny and all of that that goes with that. The focus was not the actual resurrection,” Wortham said. “Easter is about the Easter Bunny, jelly beans and Easter baskets. I think that’s cute. But I need to be about the business of the Lord, which is talking about resurrection power.”

Moving from a more ‘commercial’ term

In efforts to draw more pagans into Christianity early church officials decided to embrace some of pagan customs such as rabbits that symbolized fertility and new life, hence the Easter Bunny.

“Personally, I don’t use the word Easter because for me, it’s a very commercial term. Resurrection Sunday is my favorite Sunday of the whole year because of what it represents and what it means,” Wortham said.

Like Wortham, Bel-Vue Community United Presbyterian Church Pastor Oliver Buie and Nash Temple Revival Center Minister Adrian Fletcher feels strongly about using the name Resurrection Sunday.

Buie said the resurrection is the bedrock of Christianity and that the term Easter has no significance.

“If Jesus didn’t get up from the dead, Christianity would be just another religion,” Buie said. “One of the main things that distinguishes Jesus from every other person who claimed to be a savior is that he got up. There was nobody there. And that is one of the truths we can stand on. That’s why I’m saying Resurrection Sunday.”

Nash Temple Revival Center Minister is part of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a Holiness–Pentecostal Christian denomination which is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country.  COGIC teaches the deity of Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, sinless life, physical death, burial, resurrection, ascension and visible return to the earth.

Fletcher believes Resurrection Sunday, not Easter, tells the true story of Jesus Christ and that needs to be made clear.

More emphasis today on The Resurrection

“A lot of folks think that if people in the Bible were raised from the dead, it’s the same thing as being resurrected. It’s not,” Fletcher said. “Everyone in the Bible that was raised from the dead died again. When you’re resurrected from the dead, it means you’ll never die again. Jesus Christ was resurrected, is alive right now to this day and he will be alive forever.”

Reverend Henry L Master, a retired United Methodist minister with over 40 years of service and publisher of By Faith Magazine,” said the difference between Easter and Resurrection Sunday is scope. He said Resurrection Sunday is observance of the day, however Easter, commonly refers to the Lenten season. This season is a 40-day period of preparation and an opportunity to meditate and reflect on God.

Masters said the emphasis today has been placed on the resurrection because Easter includes secular traditions and lacks the elements and the theological meaning of the resurrection.

“It’s more the Easter story and Resurrection Sunday,” Master said. “Easter is derived from some of the Pagan traditions and evolved into the celebration of Christ’s journey through the Lenten season. There are some pagan elements involved in the original celebration and that’s probably why some people move away from it or use it very generally.”

Whether it’s Easter or Resurrection Sunday, Wortham said she prays that CME Christians – those that only attend church on Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter – will come and have a greater understanding of God.

“It is really about the resurrection power of Jesus and God giving us everything that God had so that we might have just an opportunity to live better and be whole,” Wortham said.