Christians everywhere have spent approximately the last month and a half preparing for the most important holy feast day of the liturgical year: Easter. The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important holy day in the life of the Christian but as Easter has been commercialized and secularized in American popular culture, and as Lent has even been neglected by many Christians, it seems like an opportune time to reflect on the true meaning of Easter and the season leading up to it.
Many have lamented the lack of consideration given to Lent by modern Christians, but why ought we give it any consideration? What is the
purpose of Lent, and why have this time of preparation before Easter? First it is important to note that Lent can never be separated from Easter. The Lenten fast exists for the sake of the Paschal feast. While in the early church Lent had a catechetical aspect to it, Lent has always been a time of repentance and spiritual discipline even for those Christians not undergoing formal catechesis. The element of repentance is so inherently ingrained in the Lenten fast because Easter is a return, and Lent is the beginning of that journey. As we return to Easter each year, we are returning to the promise of the Gospel, to what we received in our Baptism. “Even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his book Great Lent. Lent is how we reorient ourselves towards God leading ultimately to “the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection,” in Fr. Schmemann’s words, which was, of course, accomplished in Christ’s resurrection. Thus, Lent may be thought of as a pilgrimage with the destination being Easter.
At that destination, on Easter Sunday, the Christian finds not merely the commemoration of a real historical event, but a joyful
celebration of an eternal reality—the redemption of humankind. Within the redemption attained by Christ’s resurrection lies not only the possibility for the remission of sins but also the defeat of death. Death no longer has power over us; in Christ’s own return from death he freed humanity from its grip, and it is in this reality that we hope for our own eternal life. This is why this is the Feast of Feasts, the most important holy day of the year—as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, this reality is the basis for our Christian faith: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” This is the reason for the joy in the Paschal feast, and the reason we take preparation for it so seriously. We are best able to participate in the joy of the eternal Feast if we prepare ourselves spiritually before getting there.
Thus, we see that Easter is not just a “holiday” in the secular, American sense; it is not just a commemoration, but a true feast, an acknowledgement and celebration of the redemption of the whole world. Philosopher Josef Pieper writes in his Anthology that in order for a festival to be a real one, it must have more than just “ideas” as its occasion. Indeed, “The celebrant himself must have shared in a distinctly real experience,” he writes. “Strictly speaking, the past cannot be celebrated festively unless the celebrant community still draws glory and exaltation from the past, not merely as reflected history, but by the virtue of a historical reality still operative in the present.” In Easter, the Christian celebrates the present reality of returning to the gift received in her baptism, made possible by the redemption accomplished in Christ’s resurrection—the most glorious reality we can celebrate.