Saturday, April 23, 2011

Are You Sure Easter Is Tomorrow?

No disrespect intended.  It’s a serious question.  I was so anxious for the Easter Bunny to arrive this year that I wrote an Easter piece a few weeks back and realized in the course of writing it just how divergent were the views on the process of the calculation.  This year Christians in the West and the East celebrate it together on the same date, but that is not always the case.  And each year’s date is different from the last, which is why it’s called a moveable feast, unlike Christmas…at least for most.

So, why is there such uncertainty over determining the date of this seminal holiday so significant to so much of the world?

First Council of Nicaea (325)

I understand that officially the First Ecumenical Synod ruled in 325 that Easter Sunday should fall on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the point at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator, the sun having a northerly motion) and the invariable date of the vernal equinox is March 21.  If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Easter is observed the following Sunday.

Before the year 325 the determination of the date for Easter (or Pascha) seemed relatively easy.  Just ask the Jews in your community when they celebrated Passover according to the lunar-based Hebrew Calendar (now into its 5771st year), because the Jewish Holiday of Passover (or Pesach) was the occasion for the Last Supper.  The only dispute appeared to be over whether Easter should be celebrated on the Hebrew calendar’s date of Nisan 14 or the following Sunday.

Original mural by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1495-1498

The First Ecumenical Synod changed all that by calculating the exact date of Easter from the more modern, cycles of the sun-based Julian calendar.  And even though some in the Church did not agree with that determination, it became Christianity’s generally accepted method for calculating the date of Easter and continued to be so for more than five hundred years after the Great Schism of 1052 separated the Church of the West to Rome and the Church of the East to Constantinople (Istanbul).

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585)
But in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced what is known as the Gregorian calendar for the express purpose of correctly calculating Easter, something the Julian calendar was not believed to have achieved.  Today, the Gregorian calendar is the world’s officially accepted civil calendar (except in Greece’s 1500 year-old monastic community of Mount Athos—see Prey on Patmos), but there still is not agreement among the Christian world over whether it correctly fixes the date of Easter.

Indeed, as recently as 1997 the World Council of Churches proposed a method of using modern scientific knowledge for precisely calculating Easter and replacing divergent practices.  It was not adopted.

All of which means that (based upon our everyday calendar), Easter for Western Christianity always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, and for most of Eastern Orthodoxy on a Sunday between April 4 and May 8—at least during the 21st Century.

A White House Passover Seder
As for how Passover fits into all this, Julian calendar Easter always falls on a Sunday after the first day of the eight-day Passover holiday (and generally within those eight days), but Gregorian calendar observers who might think of tempting their Jewish friends with offers of treasured chocolate bunnies forbidden to their friends during that observant period should keep in mind that on the Gregorian calendar Passover will fall around a month after Easter three times in every nineteen year period.  My buddies in the old neighborhood learned that lesson the hard way.

But no matter what calendar you follow, with all my heart I wish you Happy Easter, Kalo Paska, and Zissen Pesach.  And a special message of love to my grandson, who turns four today.



  1. I am delighted that you cleared that up, Jeff. From now on, I will do what I have always done - look at the calendar and make some sort of inane, but silent, comment about it being early or late this year.

    This year it is late according to our calendar. Fools that we in the New England are, we thought that meant a guaranteed lovely spring day. We never learn. Today it is 44F and set to pour all day. We are promised that it might be 60F in the morning so the little girls in the beautiful dresses may not have to cover them up with their winter coats as they go to church but they will need to hurry home before it starts raining again.

    Growing up one of my friends was Albanian and belonged to an Orthodox church. When we were about eight years old we had a shared Easter and, to our delight, we had the same dress.

    All holidays and holy days are better with the addition of people who are four. We have a four year-old girl and a three year-old boy who will have great stories today about how they heard the Easter bunny arriving in the night.

    Blessings to you and your's, Jeff.


  2. Easter was one of those holidays I never paid much attention to, being a Godless soul. It just came around and I was thankful for a few days off. Now it's one of the first things I look for on the calendar, because it's timing dictates the time of the school holidays and the buying of chocolate for cocoa addicted kids. I often wondered who decided who decided when it was. Was there a committee somewhere?

    Now, you've enlightened me Jeff. Vernal Equinox. Great name for a prog rock album too...

  3. Thank you for this. I've always liked it when Easter and Passover (Hannukah and Christmas also) fall closely together. It serves as a reminder how close we really are as human beings. And how close disparate religions are, in spite of the nay sayers. Enjoy your holiday, your four year old, and the rest of your family.

  4. To all ye Yankees (not in the baseball sense, oh Red Soxer), Godless souls, and Luntzmen thank you. And I wish each of you and your families all the best at this joyous time of rebirth and chocolate.