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On the 500th anniversary of Reformation, reflecting on how the religious movement changed Easter

POSTED: April 15, 2017 11:11 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Alex Bury, left, Juliana Snow and the Rev. Eun-sang Lee of the First United Methodist Church carry the cross as it leaves the First Presbyterian Church during the Good Friday Procession of the Cross in Salt Lake City Friday, March 25, 2016. At right is the Rev. Michael Imperiale of the First Presbyterian Church.

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Five hundred years ago, a man named Martin Luther and his fellow reformers forever changed Christianity and the Western world. Their mounting opposition to Roman Catholic rituals, teachings and control over everyday life led to the formation of new faith groups, whose followers were collectively called Protestants.

No religious practice was safe from the reformers' scrutiny, not even Easter, one of the high points of the holy year.

"(Protestants) were very big on regulating their worship exclusively by the scripture, and the Bible doesn't mention Easter or any Christian festivals," said Alec Ryrie, author of the new book, "Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World."

But what was once a point of contention among believers has evolved over the centuries into a common celebration. Christians around the world — including Catholics and Protestants alike — will recognize Easter this weekend with pageantry, musical performances and even egg hunts, religious historians said.

The last century in particular has witnessed a surge in interfaith cooperation, as well as an increased interest in traditional Christian ritual within Protestant congregations.

"I think there has been a bit of a pendulum swing," said Erik Herrmann, an associate professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

Easter and the Reformation

In the early 16th century, when the Reformation began to take hold, Easter was a major highlight on a church calendar packed with holy festivals and feast days.

"Medieval and late-medieval Christianity was very much a ritual-based religion. There was a lot of emphasis on particular rites, practices and processions, especially in the celebration of days like Easter," Herrmann said.

Catholics at the time were required to go to confession and receive communion at least once a year. Most believers fulfilled this obligation during Easter week, and churches were flooded with unfamiliar faces, noted William Tighe, an associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

"Crowds of people would turn out as almost never happened other Sundays of the year," he said.

For the reformers, high levels of participation didn't mean the church was thriving. They criticized Catholic rituals that focused believers' attention on celebrations, rather than religious teachings.

"Protestant ministers worried about superstition and idolatry, and what they called 'will-worship,' that is, worshipping in a way that humans have invented, not a way God has commanded," Ryrie wrote in an email.

They saw the pomp and circumstance surrounding holidays like Easter as a distraction from the true work of religious leaders: helping church members develop strong personal faith.

"To them, certainty of faith wasn't based on rituals or the teachings of popes and bishops. It came from believing in God's promises," Herrmann said.

In the years after Luther nailed his 95 theses, which explained the flaws of then-current Christian theology, to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Reformation leaders set about refocusing faith communities on God and the Bible. There was a new emphasis on preaching the gospel and a shift away from pageantry.

The reformers weren't of one mind when it came to making changes. Lutherans, or members of the denomination that grew directly from Luther's work, were generally more conservative in their approach, while Calvinists, Anabaptists and others called for drastic alterations.

"Lutheran reformers considered the Catholic Church to be like a sick man with gangrene or a bad appendix. You cut off the leg if you have to and take out the appendix, and then you sew up the body and let it heal," Tighe said. "For Reformed Christian leaders, Catholicism was sick with a highly infectious disease like bubonic plague. You had to bury it as soon as possible."

Lutherans were comfortable with keeping a familiar religious holiday like Easter, so long as it wasn't a distraction from spiritual development, he added, noting that they "generally came to the view that if something isn't explicitly forbidden in the Bible, then you can do it."

However, reformers like John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, whose teachings spawned modern Protestant denominations such as Presbyterianism and the United Church of Christ, didn't think any Sunday should be singled out from others.

"They thought if you couldn't find a basis in the Bible for supporting a practice, you'd better get rid of it," Tighe said.

Changes to the celebration of Easter and other holidays were inspired by the sense that believers should be working through the meaning of a holiday in their minds and hearts throughout the year. The Reformation called for a deeper intellectual engagement with faith, Herrmann said.

"After the Reformation, the whole shape of worship, in general, shifted away from ritual-based Christian piety to a sermon-passed piety" he said. "There had to be a lot of reflection about the meaning of what happened at the cross, in the Resurrection."

Ongoing shifts

In the centuries since Luther and other leaders of the Reformation fractured the Christian community, Easter traditions have undergone further transformations.

Most notably, many Reformed Christian denominations have welcomed Easter back into their church's calendar, most likely for social, rather than religious, reasons, Tighe said.

"By the beginning of the 20th century, Protestant denominations in the U.S. were giving some official recognition of Easter or at least allowing individual congregations to do so if they wished to," he said. "American culture, in general, paid more attention to holidays, and the more the culture paid attention to them, the more those denominations that had completely rejected them began to take notice of them."

Increasingly, Protestant communities are drawing on rituals to add spiritual significance to Easter festivities, and there's a growing focus on preaching in the Catholic Church, Herrmann said. These shifts have created a new middle ground for Christians in different denominations, enabling more interfaith gatherings.

For example, churches in downtown Salt Lake City join together each year on Good Friday to pray, sing and meditate on Jesus Christ's sacrifice. Members of participating congregations walk together from church to church, putting aside theological differences.

"Easter is a time for all of us to get together around the one most important common theme we share: our belief in Jesus Christ," the Very Rev. Ray Waldon, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in downtown Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News last month.

These ecumenical efforts over the last century prove that cooperation is possible, and churches today are more likely to struggle with the growing commercialization of Easter than with each other, Herrmann said.

"Modern interest in toleration has influenced the way that churches with different histories treat one another," he said. "There have been some advances made."
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