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Fixed date for Easter

A Fixed Date For Easter?

Fixed date for Easter

Here in the NZ media I’ve seen more on the news that Christians might fix the date of Easter within 5-10 years, mentioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, than that other decision the Anglican Primates made.

Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby, Roman Catholic Pope Francis, the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (of the Greek Orthodox church) are all working towards a common date, he said.

Although I won’t oppose a fixed Easter date, I do think there is quite a loss in doing so. We mix two calendars: A nomad’s calendar, (represented by Abel in the Bible); nomads follow a lunar calendar (with the four lunar phases the most probable source of the weekly cycle that has never been broken for millennia). The solar calendar would be Cain’s calendar, with its annual sowing and harvesting. Christmas is a purely solar celebration. Our planet is essentially in the same spot on our solar orbit each Christmas Day, December 25.

Easter, on the other hand, is essentially lunar – and when we walk out to go to the Easter Vigil, the slightly waned Full Moon shines down, and does so as we gather around the sacred new Easter Fire.

We live in a world where most are increasingly losing touch with nature. Without looking, could you tell someone what phase the Moon is in? Most cannot. Most cannot even tell me which way the Moon waxes and wanes, or identify stars or planets. Fixing the date of Easter will be convenient for our world and its focus on the god of commerce, but we will lose yet another connection with nature, our planet, its moon, and our place in this amazing solar system.

How is Easter calculated?

Jewish Passover, when Jesus died and rose, of course always occurs at Full Moon. The twelve Jewish lunar months (unlike the Muslim calendar of lunar months) keep approximately to the solar year by adding in an extra lunar month every?? In the early church there was a controversy over whether to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection on that Full Moon (so that it could be any day of the week), or to celebrate it on the Sunday which followed (being the day of the week that Jesus rose, and the Christian day of worship).

At the Council of Nicaea (325), the decision was to go with the Sunday. The text of the decision has not come down to us, but in 725, Bede succinctly wrote, “The Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter.” The astronomical equinox can fall on 19, 20 or 21 March. The church takes its calculation by setting the equinox on 21 March.

But wait, there’s more! The church’s “full moon” is also not an astronomical full moon, but the 14th day of a calendar lunar month determined by ancient calculations!

But wait, there’s even more! Western Christianity follows the Gregorian calendar, a relatively-recent revision (which changed the rules that a century is only a leap year if it is divisible by 400, not just 4 – which, of course, every century is!). Eastern Christianity continues to use the traditional Julian calendar (at least for its calculation of the date of Easter). I could go on to explain Golden Numbers and Sunday letters (I have a maths degree remember) but I can see your eyes glazing over already.

In any case, East and West normally celebrate Easter on different dates. This year the West celebrates Easter 27 March, the East celebrates it 1 May. One suggestion had been to get the churches to agree to celebrate the “Astronomical Easter” – the Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox, all taken from the meridian of Jerusalem. 2014 would have been a great year to have switched to that: Astronomical Easter, Western Easter, and Eastern Easter all fell on 20 April that year.

Reforming the dating of Easter

All this doesn’t concern most of the world who are just frustrated by the apparent random movement of their well-deserved holiday. In the West, it can fall from March 22 (as it did in 1818 and will again, barring a change in the calculation, in 2285) to April 25 (as it did in 1943 and will again, barring a change in the calculation, in 2038). The earliest and latest dates for Eastern Easter are the same, but in the Julian calendar, so between April 4 and May 8 on the Gregorian Calendar.

There have been many, many attempts to reform the date of Easter: Pan-Orthodox Congress of Constantinople 1923; United Nations 1949 & 1950; The World Council of Churches 1997; in 2014 Coptic Pope Tawadros II wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking for him to consider making renewed effort at a unified date for Easter. In 2015, Roman Catholic Pope Francis remarked to the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services 3rd World Retreat of Priests at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome that “we have to come to an agreement” for a common date on Easter – it would follow the Orthodox churches’ Gregorian Calendar. [Note – already quite a different announcement to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s!]

On November 12, 1962, the Second Vatican Council heard proposals to fix the date of Easter, and went on to declare in the appendix to Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy):

The Second Ecumenical Sacred Council of the Vatican, recognizing the importance of the wishes expressed by many concerning the assignment of the feast of Easter to a fixed Sunday and concerning an unchanging calendar, having carefully considered the effects which could result from the introduction of a new calendar, declares as follows:

The Sacred Council would not object if the feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.

What is currently being talked about is fixing Easter as the second or third Sunday in Gregorian-calendar April (understood to be close to the actual date of Christ’s death).

Reactions have been varied, including suggestions that we set a Southern-Hemisphere Easter date: late September to late October. I’ve had friends suggest Christians can move their date of celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection, but leave the non-Christian feast day alone – it doesn’t belong to Christians to shift! “The Israelites sneaked out of Egypt while the Ancient Egyptians were celebrating Easter. The Egyptians give their slaves 3 days off for Easter and when they came back after the Easter break the slaves were all gone.” While Christians are at it, they can move the celebration of Jesus’ birth, which apparently happened on 17 June! (So there: you Northern Hemisphere winter Christmas celebrators!)

Currently there are two different dates for Easter this year. I don’t think that within five to ten years there will be a fixed date – but, I’d be fine to be proved wrong. If there is, if the majority move to a fixed date, I’m betting that minorities will continue with the current systems. If the date of Easter is fixed, there won’t be one date for Easter, there will be three, or four.


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11 thoughts on “A Fixed Date For Easter?”

  1. Timothy Phillips

    It is surprising to see a Patriarch of Alexandria proposing to abandon the lunar computation altogether. I wonder whether Archbishop Welby might be misinformed about the content of Pope Tawadros’s letter to Pope Francis.

    1. Like you, I am surprised at the rapid change from the 2015 papal announcement and this beginning-2016 archiepiscopal announcement. It is part of why I don’t think we will be seeing the rapid change suggested. Blessings.

  2. There will be a fixed date if we agree there will be a fixed date. I see nothing in your post preventing the churches securing agreement – if we choose to do that. Your post tells us why we might not want to make such a choice, but I suggest that a person and blog as influential as yours would contribute to fixing the date of Easter … if you choose to do so!

    I am making that choice and will be joining the mighty patriarchs in their attempt to persuade others to join in.

    PS I am voting for a change to NZ’s flag while I am in this radical move for change!

    1. Yes, Peter, there are several parallels between NZ’s flag debate and this announcement! I am not as convinced as you are (see previous comment) that this is a call from “the mighty patriarchs attempting to persuade others to join in” with fixing the date of Easter. Are you not at least a little surprised that it is the Archbishop of a relatively-tiny, argumentative communion that is revealing this breaking news to the world, quite a different announcement to that which Pope Francis made not that long ago (as I indicated)? Blessings.

      1. Welby is a leader, no matter how small the AngComm is! And, clearly, the other leaders have talked to this leader, though possibly with some things lost in translation.

        1. That Christian leaders talk (whatever the size of their community), and talk past each other (common enough), Peter, is not the subject of this post. A fixed date for Easter looking to be a reality within 5-10 years (the Archbishop’s announcement) is not likely (I continue to hold) if what is being talked about in the (much) larger communities is staying with the Nicene formula and just agreeing about its application so that East and West celebrate one (moving) Easter Day each year (unlike its current usually two). Blessings.

  3. It would be a surprise if Welby got something as significant as this so completely wrong. His is the latest statement of all patriarchal statements on the matter, so it is the marker stake in the ground.

    1. As you suggested, Peter, some things may have been lost in translation. “Require” seems to have become “ask”, so, within the Archbishop’s 5-10-year timeframe suggested, your stake in the ground can easily move, in ecclesiological politics, to an agreed way of calculating a way to follow the Nicene rule. That’s where I would suggest things may more probably move. You and I will talk again about this a decade from now (or possibly earlier). Blessings.

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