Easter, East and West by Fr. Isaac Skidmore

Why does the date of Easter often differ between the Catholic and Protestant churches of the West, on the one hand, and the Eastern Orthodox Church on the other? Believe it or not, the formula for calculating the date is the same for both, provided by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD: that Easter is to be celebrated on "the first Sunday, after the first full-moon, after the Vernal Equinox, and not according the reckoning of the Jews" (that is, not according to the calculation for the date of the Jewish feast of Passover).

In the early church, there were some who celebrated Easter on the day of Passover, the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. They did so regardless of whether it fell on Sunday or another day of the week, believing that this was the best way to express their belief that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb that the Jewish feast prefigured. Other Christians celebrated on the following Sunday instead, because it was the day of the Lord's resurrection. Still others chose not to rely on the Jewish calendar at all, because its 12 lunar months (each of which began with the first sighting of the new moon over Jerusalem) didn't correspond exactly with the 365-plus days it takes the earth to go around the sun, and so resulted in dates that weren't considered precise enough for determining Easter. These Christians, especially those in Alexandria, who had access to astronomical tools, calculated the date themselves, celebrating on the Sunday after the first full-moon after the Spring Equinox.

These different dates for celebrating Easter were annoying, but not an absolute problem. St. Irenaeus, at the end of the 2nd century, writes that Christians should not consider differing dates for Easter a reason to sever communion with each other. Still, it was hoped that there could be a uniform date for all. So, at the Council of Nicea, in 325, the common formula was put forth. It was followed in a straightforward way--identifying the Equinox as March 21st, where it appeared on the Julian calendar in use at that time. Thenceforth, for over a-thousand years, there was general uniformity regarding the date for the celebration of Easter.

To understand what happened next, a word must be said about calendars. Calendars have always relied (and still do) upon periodic adjustments, such as our modern "leap-years" to keep them in sync with the astronomical realities and seasons they're intended to measure. Lunar calendars are inherently imperfect because the lunar year is a mere 354 (and slightly more) days long. Without adjustment, a lunar calendar loses 11 days every year. A date that is in Spring now might be in Winter in a year or two, and in Autumn, in a decade. Solar calendars are likewise imperfect because it actually takes the Earth a little longer than 365 days to go around the Sun. They, too, require adjustment to keep them on track.

The Julian calendar had such adjustments--but not quite enough. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII noticed that it was losing time. Using a solar observatory he had built, he found that the Vernal Equinox was occurring on March 11th instead of the expected 21st. He devised an adjustment to get it back on track, and built in additional adjustments to keep it accurate over the long term. In 1582, he added 10 days to the date, and established an improved system for the observance of leap years. The changes were accepted first by Catholic, then, more reluctantly, by Protestant countries. Orthodox countries also eventually accepted the new dating with regard to international trade and civic life but not church holidays.

In 1923, some of the Orthodox churches narrowed the divide between their civic and ecclesiastical calendars by accepting the Gregorian (or modified Julian) calendar with regard to church dates except when it came to the date of the Vernal Equinox. Why exempt the Vernal Equinox? Because the East and the West had come to differ on their interpretations of the final clause of the Easter formula, "and not according to the reckoning of the Jews." The West took it to mean that the date of the Jewish Passover should be disregarded--considered irrelevant to the date of Easter. The East, on the other hand, interpreted it to mean that Easter should never be celebrated on the same day as the first day of Passover. In addition, the Eastern churches held that Easter should only be celebrated after Passover had occurred, and never before--as a way of testifying to Christ as the feast's fulfillment. Eastern Christians foresaw that, if they accepted the March 21st Gregorian date for the Equinox, there would be years in which Easter would fall on the same day as Passover, and sometimes occur before it (as it does in our present year, 2005).

The divergence between Easter in the East and West boils down to the interpretation of this one clause. The Orthodox churches that utilize the new calendar have refrained from using it as it concerns the Equinox date, not because they consider the older calendar to be inherently more sacred, but because it violates their principle of always celebrating Easter after the Jewish Passover (and, also, to maintain uniformity of the Easter date amongst the Orthodox churches, not all of whom have embraced the "new calendar"). It should be noted, though, that there is debate amongst Orthodox as to whether this principle is inherent in the Nicene declaration, or whether it is a rationale that took hold and grew, mostly unexamined, during the Middle Ages. (Those who opt for the latter point out that, using the Julian formula, Easter fell on the day of Passover several times during the first ten centuries.)

Some, in the East and West, who advocate a modern, uniform Easter date, propose calculating the Equinox by astronomical means and, so, not according to the approximate dates of either the old or new calendar, and that the clause regarding the Passover be interpreted as it currently is in the West. This would mean a change for East and West, but more so for the East. In the meantime, one can hope that St. Irenaeus' words will not be overlooked, and that the divergence of dates will not obscure discussion of deeper unities of faith.


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