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World: Easter Is Holiest Day Of Year For Christians

Prague, 2 April 1999 (RfE/RL) -- Across the world on Sunday, hundreds of millions of the world's Christians will celebrate their holiest day of the year -- Easter.

The celebrants will include pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa (Path of Tears) to Jerusalem's hill of Golgotha, where they believe Jesus died horribly on a wooden cross.

At the Vatican in Rome, Pope John Paul and Roman Catholic clergy will preside at a special Mass in St. Peter's Square in which the pope delivers his annual "Urbi et Orbi" speech.

This is the day each year that Christians celebrate the belief that a poor carpenter's son from Nazareth named Jesus -- who was crucified and died near Jerusalem -- rose from the dead. This proved that he was the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, sent by God to save the world.

Here's how Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican, describes the significance of the holy day:

"The importance of Easter for Christians is that it marks the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus is the God-man, the word of God who became flesh. And he suffered and died for our sins."

That Jesus Christ, son of God, died on the cross and three days later rose from the dead and ultimately ascended into heaven is central to Christian belief. The date on which this seminal Christian event should be celebrated has varied.

Sociologists say that a nearly universal phenomenon occurs when one religion supplants another in a society. Elements of earlier observances will be retained in altered form in later customs. Easter -- a festival symbolizing rebirth and new life -- is timed near the Vernal Equinox, the beginning of spring, just as were numerous earlier pagan rites.

Although the cross is a symbol directly connected to the Christian faith, other Easter symbols -- the lamb, eggs as the symbol of life, lilies and other spring flowers, baby chickens and rabbits -- belong to many spring observances other than Easter.

Jews celebrate Passover, a spring festival that also memorializes the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. Jesus, himself a Jew, observed Passover. In fact, his last Passover celebration, according to Christian scripture, gave rise to the central rite of Christianity, the communion or Mass, re-enacting Jesus' "last supper" with his 12 disciples.

Many of the early Christians were Jews. So it's not surprising that the first Christians adopted the Jewish feast of Passover to mark the death and resurrection of Christ.

Since the 8th century, Western Christians have agreed to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or just after the vernal equinox (March 21). The rest of each year's church calendar is determined from this date. Eastern Orthodox Christians, using a slightly different calculation, celebrate Easter one, four or five weeks later. This year's Orthodox Easter comes one week later.

For many Christians, the festival of Easter is preceded by six weeks' of preparation during a period called Lent. Many of the faithful are instructed to concentrate during this period on fasting, prayer or good works. Most denominations offer weekday Lenten worship services, in addition to regular Sunday services.

The very devout may make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to retrace Jesus' steps to the hill where he died on the cross.

But for many people in majority-Christian nations, Easter has become as much a secular celebration of spring as a principally religious occasion. People dress up in new spring clothes. It's a time for families to gather. Children buy Easter-egg dye kits at the local grocery stores and spend happy afternoons and evenings dying hard-boiled eggs in bright colors.

In many Western countries, adults hide Easter eggs and send little children on hunts for the colorful trophies.

In Slovakia and some other East European countries, people display blown eggs hand-painted with exquisite designs.

In Italy, one symbol of new life -- the baby lamb -- has become the main dish at Easter Day feasts, so much so that animal rights activists have mounted protests against the annual slaughter of the innocent lambs.

In strictly religious terms, the seeds of the Christian Easter lie in scripture in the biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Gospel of Mark tells how a living Jesus met with his disciples three days after dying on the cross. Then, in the words of Scripture, "After talking with them, the Lord was taken up to heaven and sat down at the right of God. They went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed the Word by the wonderful proofs that went with it."

Or as the Vatican's Archbishop Foley explains the mystery:

"There can be no greater indication of divine power than rising from the dead. So Easter Sunday is for us the proof of the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is the indication that we, ourselves, are immortal and are destined to rise from the dead. It's our pledge of eternal life with Jesus."

For many churchgoers, Easter also is associated with the sacrament of baptism, when new Christians are washed free of sin and inducted into the church. Baptism, like Easter, represents rebirth into a new life.