FAIRMONT - The timing of Easter has a basis in ancient times and is tied to the Jewish custom of Passover, said local clergymen.
In the year 325, the First Council of Nicaea, a group of Christian bishops, established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, according to the World Council of Churches, www.oikoumene.org.
"It can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25," said Father Peter Schuster of St. John Vianney Catholic in Fairmont.
At different points in history, Easter has been a set date, added Pastor Anthony Bertram of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fairmont. At one point, Easter was a set date in late March.
In the Biblical account, Jesus of Nazareth celebrates Passover on Thursday, before being tried and crucified.
Passover goes back to the time of Moses when the Israelites were in Egypt and were spared the Angel of Death. That resonates in modern times, as well, Schuster said.
"Christ's Passover for us Christians takes the place of the Jewish Passover, which the Jewish people still observe," he said.
Easter has a period preceding it called Lent.
"The whole thing about Lent is it leads up to Easter," Bertram said. "It's that the (universal) Church is preparing to celebrate Easter and Jesus' resurrection - a celebration with joy the victory Christ won for us."
Lent serves a purpose.
"Lent is a very old season in the Church," Bertram said. "It started out as a time when the people who had been ex-communicated were required to follow a 40-day period of penance."
It also has a connection to Jesus, Schuster pointed out.
"Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the desert to prepare (for his ministry)," Schuster said. "We do the same thing, quiet and fasting to remember what Christ did for us."
"The length of days has changed over time," Bertram said, adding some denominations count the Sundays, others don't. "It used to be more days depending on which church you were in."
Some churches used Lent for instructing Christians in preparation for confirmation.
"On the eve of the Easter vigil, they'd be baptized," Bertram said.
Ash Wednesday has come to symbolize the start of Lent.
"Ash Wednesday is an interesting story," Schuster said.
The Catholic Church and other denominations observe Ash Wednesday by marking a cross on parishioners' foreheads with ashes. The ashes come from palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year. Even this has symbolism, Schuster said.
"Palm Sunday begins Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem," he said. "People hailed him, the same people who would yell 'Crucify Him.' The palms remind us of his passion."
The ashes also remind Christians of their mortality.
"We came from dust and because of our sin, we will return to dust," Schuster said. "Because of our sin, Christ had to suffer and die."
Marking the forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross harkens to baptism, when the sign of the cross is made over the forehead and heart, Bertram said.
"The sign of the ashes is a reminder of our baptism in Christ," he said.
Lent is also known as a time to give up or abstain from something.
The practice goes back to the custom of fasting, Schuster said.
"Abstaining goes back before the time of Christ; Moses fasted," he said.
Since Lent is a time of introspection, many people chose to give up something important to them. Meat became the universal item "because meat is pretty much a staple of our diet," Schuster said. "Because it's a staple, it's something we offer to give up. Fish isn't such a staple here."
Giving up meat goes back to the early 300s, when Constantine was emperor of the Roman Empire, and Christianity was legalized.
Abstaining from meat is more closely associated with the Catholic Church, and not a requirement of the Lutheran Church, but not forbidden either.
"Fasting is a tradition and practice that Lutherans accept," Bertram said.
"For Lutherans as well, Lent can be a time of fasting and repentance, and giving of alms," he said. "In giving something up, it gives us an opportunity to share with others."
Easter Sunday is a major Christian celebration, but it's not the end, Bertram said.
"Easter actually lasts for seven Sundays and a day," he said. "The Great 50 Days culminates with Pentecost, a festival by itself."