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The Date of Easter

On the western/Gregorian calendar, Easter (or Pascha) is March 23 this year, although on the eastern/Jullian calendar, it won’t come until April 27. The discrepancy is the result of a calendrical adjustment made by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century made to keep the calendar year in better sync with the actual solar year. As might be expected, non-Catholics didn’t embrace the pope’s reform. Protestant England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar for another 200 years when, in 1752, Wednesday, September 2 was followed immediately by Thursday, September 14 to bring the English system into alignment. This move spawned heated protests, with Englishmen demanding, “Give us back our eleven days!” Eventually, however, all western nations adopted the Gregorian system. If they hadn’t, Ash Wednesday would still be about a month away.

Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar for calculating the date of Easter. I believe the Baptist churches in the Republic of Georgia do the same, which makes perfect sense if you’re keen to convince your Orthodox neighbors that you in fact belong to a Christian church after all and not some strange cult.

Concerned as I am with Christian unity, I cannot help but be troubled by the fact that we can’t even seem to agree on when to celebrate our holiest days. There is at least one proposal on the table that would correct this, however. In 1997, a consultation of the World Council of Churches met in Aleppo, Syria, to see what might be done. They arrived at two recommendations:

The first has to do with achieving a consensus as to how the date of Easter/Pascha should be calculated:

In the estimation of this consultation, the most likely way to succeed in achieving a common date for Easter in our own day would be

(a) to maintain the Nicene norms (that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal full moon), and

(b) to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate possible scientific means,

(c) using as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The second recommendation is that the various church bodies study and discuss this proposal with a view toward implementation:

This consultation also recommends that the churches now undertake a period of study and reflection towards the goal of establishing as soon as possible a common date for Easter/Pascha along the lines set forth above. In the year 2001 the paschal calculations now in use by our churches will coincide. Together, Christians will begin a new century, a new millennium, with new opportunities to witness to the resurrection of Christ and to proclaim their joy in his victory over sin, suffering and death. The unity that will be reflected as Christians celebrate Easter/Past on the same date will be for many a sign of hope and of witness to the world. This celebration of Easter/Pascha on the same date should not be the exception but the rule.

Of course, Easter 2001 has long since passed, and Easter has been observed on the same day in both calendars on two years since (2004 and 2007). The next time Eastern and Western Christians celebrate Easter/Pascha on the same date will be April 4, 2010. Although there is no reason the various churches couldn’t adopt the Aleppo recommendation at any time, but when these conjunctions come around every few years, it ought to spur us to pray for Christian unity‚Äîand repent for how we have contributed (personally or ecclesiastically) to damaging that unity.

technorati tags: aleppo consultation, easter, ecumenism, gregorian calendar, julian calendar, pascha

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3 Comments

  1. Anne says:

    Then if you really want to stir things up, we could always go back to letting the Bishop of Alexandria declare the date and send the rest of Christendom a letter …

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  2. D. P. says:

    Actually, I would be very comfortable if Easter were simply declared to fall on the Sunday after Passover.

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  3. The method used by the Orthodox, the Nicene method, is actually so complicated it takes a whole brochure to explain it. My priest once gave me one and I gave up. I wasn’t interested enough to make give it the huge effort it required.

    Anyway, tying Pascha to Passover, while avoiding to celebrate it *during* Passover, was one of the dating criteria of major importance to the Nicene Fathers.

    If keeping it as a Springtime festival was a consideration in making the change (as I’m told it was), the Pope apparently forgot to consider the Southern Hemisphere.

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