Important Easter Definitions
Easter is the most important Christian, religious holiday. It always falls on a Sunday and it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death—the key event upon which the Christian faith is based. But for those who are not familiar with Christianity, or for those new to the faith, the terms and holy days surrounding the celebration of Easter can be a bit overwhelming. Here’s a simple list of definitions that will help you understand what the Easter season is all about.
Holy Week (sometimes called Passion Week) is comprised of the seven days that lead up to Easter. Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday, and includes other Christian holy days, like Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Dark (or Holy) Saturday. During Holy Week, Christians commemorate the events of Jesus’ last week on earth.
Palm Sunday (sometimes called Passion Sunday) is always the Sunday before Easter Sunday. This day highlights Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion, as told in the biblical passages of Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 19:28-41, Mark 11:1-11, and John 12:12-18. We often hear this event referred to as the “triumphal entry,” because large crowds of people welcomed Jesus into the city. Rejoicing, they laid down their cloaks and waved palm branches, proclaiming Jesus the long awaited Messiah sent by God to save his people. Today, many churches begin their Palm Sunday services with a procession of people (often children) waving palm branches and shouting the biblical phrase, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The crowds on the very first Palm Sunday shouted this phrase thinking they were welcoming a political savior into Jerusalem, someone who would drive out the Romans and reestablish the kingdom of Israel. Today, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday with the assurance that Jesus Christ was not just a political savior, but is the Savior who redeems all who believe in him from sin and death (John 3:16), and who reigns in heaven and over all creation forever.
Maundy Thursday falls on the Thursday before Easter. This holy day commemorates the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples while on earth. Before the meal, which was during the Jewish Passover, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Then he modeled what would become the Christian practice of holy communion or the Eucharist. He gave his disciples bread and told them to eat it, as a symbol of his body, and then he gave them wine to drink, as a symbol of his blood (Matthew 26:26-28). The disciples didn’t understand the full significance of this at the time, but Jesus told them to do it in remembrance of him.
The term "Maundy" comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means "command." The day bears this name in reference to a powerful command Jesus gave his disciples on that night. He told them to "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34-35). Today, Christians often celebrate Maundy Thursday with communion, and sometimes with the practice of foot washing.
Good Friday is the most significant day of Holy Week. It commemorates a day that, at first glance, doesn’t seem “good” at all—the day Jesus Christ was crucified. On this day, Christians remember the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. It is a solemn day of prayer and worship. Many Christians fast on Good Friday and reflect on their need to repent for their sins and receive the forgiveness provided through the crucifixion. Many churches hold Good Friday services, which usually focus on how Jesus' death achieved the forgiveness of sins for all who believe. This is why Christians refer to the day as "Good" in spite of the violent and sorrowful event the day commemorates.
Dark (or Holy) Saturday
Dark Saturday is the day before Easter. It is the last day of Holy Week and commemorates the day after Jesus' death, when his body lay dead in the tomb. In Western Christianity, churches do not commonly hold services for or even celebrate Dark Saturday, but in Eastern Christianity, Dark Saturday is often observed with a symbolic funeral service for Jesus.
Resurrection Sunday (or Easter Sunday)
Resurrection Sunday, or Easter Sunday, is the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It begins the season of Eastertide in the Church, a 40-day season of feasting and celebration. The significance of Easter in the Christian faith cannot be overstated. It is a day set aside to rejoice in the knowledge “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). On Easter, Christians around the globe rejoice that “Christ has risen! He has risen indeed!”