St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Why Are These Different Dates for Easter?

This year Orthodox Christians celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 15th, one week later than Roman Catholics and Protestants.  In 2013 the difference will be more dramatic. Western observance will be March 31st and eastern observance May 5th – the farthest apart the dates can get.

So why these different dates?

Start with this: the calendar hanging on your wall at home, the one you take for granted, is called the Gregorian calendar. Though slowly adopted for international use, it has been around since the end of the 16th century. Most of us just think of it as “the calendar.” But hold on a moment.

Eastern Churches calculate the date using the Julian calendar that, as the name might suggest, goes back to Julius Caesar who commissioned its invention. In our century that calendar is thirteen days off the Gregorian calendar. In other words, December 25th on your everyday wall calendar is December 12th on the Julian calendar. Some Orthodox Churches follow the Julian calendar, which means that they celebrate Christmas on what you call January 7th.

In the year 325 there was only one church throughout the world, the Orthodox Catholic Church, and the date of Easter was set to a formula adopted at the Council of Nicaea.  The formula was: Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, and after the Jewish Passover.

As time went on, however, the western church began to use the “ecclesiastical equinox” – 21 March – and projected the date of Easter from the next full moon. Meanwhile, back in the east calculations were made based on the astronomical full moon, reckoned from the meridian at Jerusalem.

This explains why the different observances are so far apart in some years; sometimes the western church celebrates Easter before Passover, but the east never does. Because of this difference, the observances will be five weeks apart in 2013.

Oh yes, one more ingredient to add to this stew. In Semitic areas of the early church – Syria, Palestine, Arabian regions – Easter was related to the date of the Jewish date Passover, 15 Nisan. Thus Easter could be on any day of the week. The fixed use of Sunday was also decided at that Council of Nicaea.

The Second Vatican Council (1959-1965) of the Roman Catholic Church proposed that a fixed date for Easter be found that would satisfy all churches, but no progress has been made since that declaration. The Roman Church favored a fixed date on the second Sunday in April, but did not push the agenda.

In 1997 the World Council of Churches, meeting in Aleppo, Syria, proposed a compromise solution that could be adopted by all churches throughout the world. That solution has yet to be agreed upon.

In Finland, where Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays, the Orthodox Church agreed to adopt the civil dates along with the official Church of Finland (Lutheran).

Unfortunately, this lack of uniform dating can shift our attention from the main point of the Paschal Celebration, which is the new life that is offered to humanity through the resurrection of Christ. That’s the key; that’s the main event; that’s the reason for the rites and ceremonies that wrap around the celebration itself. Don’t let the two dating methods obscure the Paschal shout, which is the same for all Christians: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

published 06 April 2012