On What Day Did Christ Rise From the Dead?

A Lesson Inspired by the Baltimore Catechism

Resurrection of Christ
The Resurrection of Christ.

What day did Jesus Christ rise from the dead? This simple question has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries. In this article, we'll examine some of those controversies and point you to further resources.

What Does the Baltimore Catechism Say?

Question 89 of the Baltimore Catechism, found in Lesson Seventh of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Eighth of the Confirmation Edition, frames the question and answer this way:

Question: On what day did Christ rise from the dead?

Answer: Christ rose from the dead, glorious and immortal, on Easter Sunday, the third day after His death.

Simple, right? Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. But why do we call the day Christ rose from the dead Easter, when exactly is Easter, and what does it mean to say that it's "the third day after His death"?

Why Easter?

The word Easter comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon word for the Teutonic goddess of spring. As Christianity spread to the Northern tribes of Europe, the fact that the Church celebrated Christ's Resurrection in the early spring led to the word for the season being applied to the greatest of holydays. (In the Eastern Church, where the influence of Germanic tribes was very minor, the day of Christ's Resurrection is called Pascha, after the Pasch or Passover.)

When Is Easter?

Is Easter a specific day, like New Year's Day or the Fourth of July?

The first clue comes in the fact that the Baltimore Catechism refers to Easter Sunday. As we know, January 1 and July 4 (and Christmas, December 25) can fall on any day of the week. But Easter always falls on a Sunday, which tells us that there's something special about it.

Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday, because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday.

But why not celebrate His Resurrection on the anniversary of the date on which it occurred—much like we always celebrate our birthdays on the same date, rather than the same day of the week?

This question was a source of much controversy in the early Church. Most Christians in the East actually did celebrate Easter on the same date every year—the 14th day of Nisan, the first month in the Jewish religious calendar. In Rome, however, the symbolism of the day on which Christ rose from the dead was seen as more important than the actual date. Sunday was the first day of Creation; and Christ's Resurrection was the beginning of the new Creation—the remaking of the world that had been damaged by the original sin of Adam and Eve.

So the Roman Church, and the Church in the West in general, celebrated Easter on the first Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. (At the time of Jesus' death and Resurrection, the 14th day of Nisan was the paschal full moon.) At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the entire Church adopted this formula, which is why Easter always falls on a Sunday, and why the date changes every year.

For a more detailed explanation of the controversy and the formula for calculating Easter, see How Is the Date of Easter Calculated?

How Is Easter the Third Day After Jesus' Death?

There's still one odd thing, though—if Jesus died on a Friday and rose from the dead on a Sunday, how is Easter the third day after His death? Sunday is only two days after Friday, right?

Well, yes and no. Today, we generally count our days that way. But that wasn't always the case (and still isn't, in some cultures). The Church continues the older tradition in Her liturgical calendar. We say, for instance, that Pentecost is 50 days after Easter, even though it is the seventh Sunday after Easter Sunday, and seven times seven is only 49. We get to 50 by including Easter itself. In the same way, when we say that Christ "rose again on the third day," we include Good Friday (the day of His death) as the first day, so Holy Saturday is the second, and Easter Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead—is the third.