The American holiday calendar commemorates religious, patriotic, and secular events. The year starts with New Year's Day, an event that celebrates the beginning of a new year, hopefully better than the old, with the dropping of a big crystal ball in Times Square. The occasion marks a milestone in life as each of us marches toward our final destiny. Next, it moves on to February when we commemorate the birthdays of our two great presidents, Washington and Lincoln. Then, in March or April we celebrate Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which coincides with the coming of Spring. Then, on the Fourth of July, our most patriotic holiday, we celebrate the birth of our nation - the birth of freedom and independence.
In September we observe Labor Day, a secular holiday honoring labor unions, or bemoaning the end of summer. On October 31, there is Halloween, not a national holiday, but a relic of Druid paganism that the public schools have adopted as some sort of ghoulish festival of the black arts of witchcraft. From there we go to Thanksgiving Day, a combined religious-secular holiday in which we thank God for His bounty and blessings, but which also begins our Christmas shopping season.
And finally, we end the year in a blaze of light, music, and festivity with Christmas, celebrating the birth of the most important person in human history, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Indeed, the religious holidays memorialize the life of Jesus, honored differently by Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox churches. Actually, there are three calendars intertwined in the American calendar: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. The Protestant calendar reflects a simpler form of Christianity practiced by the Puritans who settled in New England beginning in 1620. The Catholic calendar reflects the more elaborate festivals celebrated worldwide by Catholics: Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), Palm Sunday, Lent, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas. The Jewish calendar, quietly subsidiary to the Christian calendars, celebrates religious holidays only. You cannot secularize the cycle of Jewish holy days. They remain distinctively religious events, although in Israel they also celebrate such secular events as Independence Day.
But there is one holiday in which the three calendars converge: Easter. The Jewish holiday of Passover is an important part of the life of Jesus Christ, whose momentous Last Supper was a celebration of Passover. From there the Son of God went to His crucifixion, and from there He was laid in a tomb where He was resurrected. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His ascension to Heaven.
Today, Easter has been so thoroughly secularized that most Americans see and enjoy it as a celebration of Spring in Hollywood technicolor images. Here, show business merges with religion. Thus, we hear Judy Garland sing of her Easter bonnet with the blue ribbon on it, and see television pictures of the Easter Parade in New York, with everyone decked out in their new finery, with throngs of worshippers crowding St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. And there are the Easter bunnies and Easter eggs for the little ones. Indeed, it is a joyous time all over the United States and among Christians the world over.
But it is also the most important day in Christendom, for without the resurrection there could be no offering of salvation, no forgiveness of sin, and no life after death. There could be no Christianity without the Son of God, for it was the miracle of the Resurrection and Ascension that affirmed the divinity of Christ. The New Testament relates the entire dramatic story in the words of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. This is not fiction. It is not a myth. It was a miracle. Mark writes in 16:2-8:
And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted; ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
Back in the 1980s, while on a tour of Israel, our group was taken to the actual tomb in Jerusalem or a tomb similar to the one described in Scripture. It is a cave hewn out of the rock with a stone surface inside where the body must have lain. To secure the tomb, there is a great round stone, like a wheel, that is rolled in a groove at the entrance of the tomb. No one from the inside could roll that stone away.
Jesus was born in the Jewish year of 3761. The Jews had waited a long time for the Messiah to arrive. Jesus was a Jew, and His first followers were Jews. They were convinced that He was the Messiah prophesied in Scripture. And He went on to conquer the non-Jewish world so that Jew and Gentile alike could be saved from sin and be brought into covenant with Almighty God. That is what Easter is really all about. It is about our salvation, our future after death, and God's love of imperfect humanity.