If you have encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses at all over the Easter period they may well have been eager to explain to you why they don’t celebrate Easter. The landing page of JW.ORG currently shows a piece explaining why Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate Easter. There is also a link to an article explaining what the Bible says about Easter.
Their explanations might, at first glance, look plausible and you might imagine someone doing a book study and hearing these things for the first time being given pause for thought. A closer examination and a wider search on the subject reveals some serious flaws in what they have to say. They have much to say, as many know, about the origin of the name 'Easter' and we will come to that, but in their explanation of their position on Easter they play a trick on the minds of the unsuspecting. After quoting various secular sources they finally come to the Bible and insist:
'The Easter holiday celebration is not based on the Bible. Jesus commanded that we commemorate his death, not his resurrection. We observe this Memorial each year on the anniversary of his death according to the Bible’s lunar calendar.—Luke 22:19, 20.' (see here)
They also insist:
'The Bible warns against worshipping God by following traditions or customs that displease him. (Mark 7:6-8) Second Corinthians 6:17states: “‘Separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing.’” Easter is a pagan holiday that those who want to please God will avoid.' (see here)
The trick is that they tell you something of what the Bible says but leave out certain vital information that puts things in a different light. Lets look at what the Bible says about Easter.
What the Bible Says
You can only come to the bizarre JW attitude to celebrating the resurrection of Christ if you take a narrow and pedantic view of how the Bible instructs us and of the etymology of the term 'Easter,' and that is exactly what they have done. They point out:
'The Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The English name Easter is of uncertain origin; the Anglo-Saxon priest Venerable Bede in the 8th century derived it from the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre.” Others link it to Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess who had the Babylonian counterpart Ishtar.'
This name 'Easter' does possibly derive from Eostre and, according to Bede, it names the month of April in the Anglo-Saxon calendar. He says April 'was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.' Note he refers to 'their' name for it and speaks in the past tense. So what is 'our' name for it? And where does 'April' come from?
April, it seems, may be named for the Roman goddess Aphrodite, its origin in the Latin aperire, to open (with reference to the opening of buds. I am sure you can make the connection for yourselves). Although not everyone agrees with this etymology, if we do what JWs do and depend on might-bes, maybes and could-have-beens we are on solid enough ground.
So, to the Romans it is April, to Anglo-Saxons it is Eostre but what they fail to tell you is that, in the Christian calendar, it is known as Pasch, and can be traced back to the fifties of the first century and Paul. The Greek and Latin name for this time is Pascha, derived from the Hebrew Pesach which denotes the Jewish festival of Passover.
Christ is linked to the Pasch in 1 Corinthians where Paul writes, 'Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.' (5:7) and it is clear that this is already an established tradition in the church. This season in the Christian calendar links the events of Pasch with the Exodus from Egypt when the paschal lamb was slaughtered and the blood smeared on the door-posts and lintel of the house.
Of First Importance
The resurrection is a foundational teaching of the church from the beginning. Writing to the church in Corinth Paul says:
'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time...'
The whole of chapter fifteen is an apologetic for the importance of the resurrection. 'If there is no resurrection...our preaching is useless and so is your faith...we are false witnesses...your faith is futile; you are still in your sins...If only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.' (1 Cor.15:12-19)
The resurrection is 'of first importance' along with every other foundational teaching mentioned here by Paul. Christ died for sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared to witnesses. You would think Witnesses would would want to be witnesses of what Scripture says is of first importance.
The good news preached at Pentecost is of the resurrection:
'Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and sign, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
But God raised him from the dead...God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear...Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.'
Witnesses of what? Witnesses of the resurrection.
Christ's resurrection is presented by Paul as evidence of his status as the Son of God (Ro.1:4) and as proof that God will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31). As a people fixated on the coming judgement you would think Jehovah's Witnesses would want to mark the vindicating resurrection at Pasch.
By the mid-2nd century AD the celebration of Pasch is fully formed and well established. Melito of Sardis wrote a Paschal Homily at that time in which he draws out the obvious parallels with Exodus and goes on to celebrate the resurrection:
1. First of all, the Scripture about the Hebrew Exodus has been read and the words of the mystery have been explained as to how the sheep was sacrificed and the people were saved.
2. Therefore, understand this, O beloved: The mystery of the passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal in this fashion:
3. It is old insofar as it concerns the law, but new insofar as it concerns the gospel; temporal insofar as it concerns the type, eternal because of grace; corruptible because of the sacrifice of the sheep, incorruptible because of the life of the Lord; mortal because of his burial in the earth, immortal because of his resurrection from the dead.
Socrates of Constantinople (b.c.380) known as Socrates Scholasticus, wrote a history of the late ancient church in which he says that this festival of Pasch is universally observed. Today, in most of the non-English world, it is celebrated among Christians and known by names derived from the Greek and Latin Pascha.
Latin - Pascha or Festa Paschalia
Greek – Paskha
Bulgarian – Paskha
Danish – Paaske
Dutch – Pasen
Finnish – Pääsiäinen
French – Pâques
Indonesian – Paskah
Irish – Cáisc
Italian – Pasqua
Lower Rhine German – Paisken
Norwegian – Påske
Portuguese – Páscoa
Romanian – Pasti
Russian – Paskha
Scottish Gaelic – Càisg
Spanish – Pascua
Swedish – Påsk
Welsh – Pasg
Socrates Scholasticus himself observes that there is no command from Jesus or the apostles to mark the resurrection but that from the earliest days the custom was observed.
But then, there is no injunction in Scripture to build Kingdom Halls, but the call to meet together necessitates meeting houses; no command to translate Bibles, or print magazines, but the charge to 'go into all the world' necessitates translations and printed matter; no instruction to have web sites, but the call to broadcast the message necessitates web sites in an internet world.
In the same way, there is no specific call to hold an early morning vigil, a sunrise service on Easter morning, but Christians remember that the women arose early on the first day of the week to tend the body of Jesus only to find the tomb empty. We hold the vigil to remember the empty tomb and the risen Christ, to worship the Christian God for his scandalous generosity and complete victory.
The fact that another group further down the road hold a similar vigil to worship the sun has no bearing on the matter, just as the strange JW custom of holding a memorial meal annually at which no one partakes of God's saving mercy has no bearing on how Christians have frequent communion services at which all faithful believers have a place at the table of grace.
What's in a Name?
Remember the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet? Juliet's lover watches as she soliloquises,
Oh, Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Juliet argues with herself that the name of something does not define the thing itself. Pasch is the universal memorial of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and what if it is in some places also called Easter, a name associated with a pagan fertility goddess – allegedly? There are so many things in our world that, innocent in themselves, are known by names that, according to JW lights, would not bear closer scrutiny. I think especially of that month of April, named for Aphrodite – allegedly.
But then all our months are named for pagan Gods, as are our days of the week. The Jews adopted pagan names from Babylon to name their days and seasons, although the Jewish calendar in the Torah used the ordinal names of the months (first month, second month, etc) and begins the New Year in Spring (Aviv). There is no evidence of Jehovah's Witnesses being squeamish about these names, and none that they have turned to the Torah to rename them.
On Easter Sunday Christians around the world share in the familiar call and response:
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
The good news that was preached at Pentecost will be published again, the victory over sin and death will be celebrated, and we will be reminded with the Corinthian church that, 'Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all those who have fallen asleep...For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.' (1 Cor.15:20-22)
(That's Welsh for 'Happy Easter')