(RNS) This is Holy Week, the most sacred time of year for Christians. It is the time they mark the betrayal, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and a week that culminates in Easter Sunday, the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. So what do colored eggs have to do with anything?
Q: Is Holy Week really a whole week? I only know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
A: Holy Week is the entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Not a whole lot happens on Monday and Tuesday, but some Christians mark the crucifixion on Wednesday, and some celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples. It is sometimes celebrated with a foot-washing ceremony, a tradition beloved by Pope Francis, and a “Pascha” or “Paschal” meal, derived from the Jewish Passover Jesus would have known. Then comes Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Fun fact: Not all American Christians greet each other with “Happy Easter.” To many evangelicals, the day is “Resurrection Sunday,” in part because they believe the word “Easter” has pagan roots.
Q: What is so “good” about Good Friday, the day Jesus was horribly tortured to death?
A: One strand of thought goes like this: Jesus had to suffer whippings, beatings and a ring of thorns before being nailed to a cross and hung until he died. A bedrock Christian tenet is that Jesus died so horribly so as to save his followers from their own sins. And that’s “good.”
But “Good Friday” may also be an English adaptation of “Gottes Freitag,” German for “God’s Friday,” an older version of the day’s name. Or it may be a version of the German “Gute Freitag,” or “Good Friday.”
Christians do not universally call this day “good.” Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to it as “Great and Holy Friday” or just “Great Friday.” In Denmark, the day is referred to as “Long Friday,” which it certainly must have seemed to poor Jesus.
And not all Christians observe Good Friday. Some Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists and nondenominational Christians mark the death of Jesus on Wednesday of Holy Week, which would mean he spent three full days dead before rising from the tomb.
Q: I don’t get that. Christian liturgy contains some version of “on the third day he rose again,” but there aren’t three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What’s up with that?
A: Jesus and his disciples were Jews and used the Jewish calendar, in which the day’s start is marked not with the sunrise, but with the sunset. So if Jesus was crucified on Friday, that would be the first day. Sunset on Friday would be the beginning of the second day — Saturday — and sunset Saturday would start the third day — Sunday. Easter Sunday. Three days.
Q: So Happy Easter! Now, why am I eating an egg to celebrate?
A: For that you can thank Mary Magdalene, one of the few named women in Jesus’ circle and one to whom he first appeared as the risen Christ, according to the New Testament. There is a traditional story from the Orthodox tradition about Mary Magdalene trying to convert the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar with an egg, a symbol of the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. She handed Tiberius the egg with the greeting, “Christ is risen.” Tiberius is supposed to have answered, “It is as possible for someone to rise from the dead as it is for that white egg to turn red.” And then the egg turned bright red right there in the Magdalene’s hand. Today, Orthodox Christians mark Easter Sunday with the greeting “Christ is risen” and the giving of red-painted eggs.