For some reason I’ve been asked several times over the past couple weeks why this year Greek Easter falls so much later than “western” Easter. Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans will celebrate Easter on March 31st, Greeks and other Eastern Orthodox observers on May 5th. My simple answer was that Greeks and others of the Eastern Orthodox faith calculated their Easter based upon the Julian calendar while Western Christianity used the (relatively) modern Gregorian calendar.
Blank stares followed, accompanied by, “But why is this year so different from other years?”
I couldn’t help but wonder why were they asking that question of the father of a rabbi.
|First Ecumenical Synod|
Perhaps they knew that before the First Ecumenical Synod (First Council of Nicaea) in 325 the generally accepted method for determining the date for Easter (or Pascha) was to ask a Jew in the community when he celebrated Passover. That’s because, according to the lunar-based Hebrew Calendar (now into its 5773rd year), the Jewish Holiday of Passover (or Pesach) was the occasion for the Last Supper, and 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.
The First Ecumenical Synod changed all that by calculating the exact date of Easter based upon the then modern Julian calendar and ruling that Easter Sunday should fall on the Sunday that followed the first full moon after the vernal equinox, with the invariable date of the vernal equinox being March 21. If the full moon happened to fall on a Sunday, Easter was observed the following Sunday.
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).
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.
|Calendar men Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII|
And though the date of Easter remained the same as set in 325—the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21—it was now based upon the Gregorian calendar’s March 21, one different from March 21 on the Julian calendar. Add to that an “it’s-all-Greek-to-me” series of ecclesiastical moon, paschal full moon, astronomical equinox and fixed equinox calculations and you have a precise explanation for why there are often differing dates for Easter.
Did you get that?
The simple answer to the question I was asked about Easter 2013 is that, this year, the first full moon after March 21 on the Gregorian calendar falls before the Julian calendar’s March 21, and therefore the Greeks must wait until after the next full moon to celebrate their Easter.
And for those still reading, a bonus bit of information. Based upon our everyday, Gregorian 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. And Easter always falls after Passover.
This year Passover is observed between March 25 and April 2. But don’t ask me why. Ask my son.