What is the true meaning of Easter? Whether you know the theology, it's no longer just a Christian holiday

7 April 2023, 20:38

What is the meaning of Easter?
What is the meaning of Easter? Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

What is the true meaning of Easter?

It's a cliche to hear grumblings that people these days don't know enough about Christian holidays whenever they come around.

Christmas is often bemoaned as a holiday that has transformed from a celebration of Jesus's birth to a commercial affair focused on presents, drinking and generous helpings of turkey.

Easter has fallen into that category too, with people looking forward more to eating their way through chocolate eggs and taking advantage of the four-day weekend than celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

Critics say this is sad – that Christianity has been part of the fabric of British society, in a country where the Bible and Jesus's teachings have left such a profound mark. But is that the point of the holiday anymore?

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Whether it's within our Christian monarchs, the national memorial services, or ceremonies at St Paul's and Westminster Abbey, down to common phrases like "washing your hands" of someone - the religion's impact is clear to see.

They say it represents the decline of a religion so intwined with the history of the country, especially after the last census showed less than half of the population identifies as Christian for the first time ever.

So, would you assume the Easter message of hope - Jesus's death and resurrection - is lost on most you speak to.

Not so in London, where a surprising amount of people could recount the story.

I was asked to go about speaking to people in the centre of the city to find out what they knew about Easter, and a surprising amount did.

Admittedly, a few got the details the wrong way round during my quick fire questions, unsure which day Jesus was crucified and which he was resurrected. But many that I spoke to managed to get the basics right.

Several knew Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday.

Many knew Pontius Pilate and the role he played in Jesus's death. He washed his hands of Jesus – that phrase remaining in regular use today.

A governor of Judaea – modern day Israel and Palestine – he presided over Jesus’s trial and sentenced him to crucifixion.

Jesus remains popular with and believers and non-believers alike
Jesus remains popular with and believers and non-believers alike. Picture: Alamy

You might also feel sad that it is even noteworthy that someone can get all of those right, and plenty of those I spoke to got embarrassed when they couldn’t answer them or even hazard a guess.

So what does it mean? It's hardly a scientific sample but I was surprised how many people in central London could get most of my questions correct.

I was taught this at school and Sunday school and wasn’t sure if Jesus rose on Sunday or Monday. We had to research it after much debate in the office.

But does it even matter? This country has for a long time been in transition from a genuinely religious one to a nation that is just culturally Christian – where people who have no background in Christianity still join in eating Easter eggs, taking advantage of religious bank holidays, or celebrating Christmas in some way; more a family ritual, an excuse to get together, than anything to do with Jesus or spirituality.

This is nothing new – Easter and Christmas were heavily influenced by the pagan seasonal holidays that came before them, and there aren't exactly many latter-day pagans complaining everyone has forgotten the true message of Eostre, or the winter solstice.

Whether we believe or not, whether we know our Good Fridays from Easter Sundays, our Pontius Pilates from our John the Baptists, these holidays are opportunities now to enjoy ourselves, relax and arrange much needed catch-ups.

Many of those we spoke to were in London for an Easter break. Whether they knew the answer, they were joining others in visiting tourist landmarks, or meeting for a family meal – and that's the point now.

Those who do believe of course are welcome to focus more on the spirituality, of course. For the rest of us, there’s nothing wrong with knowing the history of a holiday, even if ultimately those answers might only benefit us at an Easter-themed pub quiz.

So what is the true meaning of Easter? It’s up to you. To me, you can delve into those easter eggs and roast dinners and enjoy your time with loved ones, whether or not you're clued up on the theology behind it.