Nicea Council

Image of the Nicene Council promulgating Stultus Aprilis
the now-discarded rules to decide the date of Easter

An agreement has been reached to move Easter to April 1, “whatever day of the week that might happen to be”. A committee has been meeting several times a year for three years. It has had representatives from the Vatican, Eastern Orthodoxy (2 reps: Constantinople and Moscow), the Copts, Armenians, Anglicans, and The World Council of Churches (2 reps). The Vatican provided the chair: Cardinal Kurt Koch (of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and also secretarial support. The date chosen is the average date that Easter Day has fallen on since 326AD (the year after the agreement at the Nicene Council).

Pope Francis has been working very hard behind the scenes since his announcement on June 19, 2015 to seek a new way forward. Churches have, for too long, had different dates for Easter. The breakthrough came with the abandonment of the Nicene formula and a return to a principle that Eusebius of Caesarea wrote about in his Church History (V, xxiii). In the dioceses of Asia, according to an ancient tradition, they celebrated Easter not on a Sunday, but they celebrated (ἐπὶ ταῖς τοῦ σωτηρίου Πάσχα ἑορταῖς) on whatever day of the week it fell on the Lunar Calendar they were following.

Rows over the correct date for Easter began as early as the Second Century A.D. And discussion and disagreement over the best method of computing the date of Easter Day has been ongoing and unresolved for centuries. Different Christian denominations continue to celebrate Easter on different dates. This year, for example, Western and Eastern Easter are a week apart. The compromise of the new agreement has both East and West giving up their long-held protocols for calculating Easter Day.

Initial attempts to come to an agreement about how to implement, in an agreed way, the system decided at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) had come to nought. It has actually been the decline in Western appreciation of Christianity that helped lead to this major new development. Increasingly, Sunday is just another day – shops are open; people go to work. In some countries, that has always been the case. In Western, post-Christian countries, that is increasingly becoming the norm. In New Zealand, as just one example, the Easter Trading laws have recently been changed to allow for trading on Easter Day.

Lots of churches, currently, choose to “Sundayise” (move it to the nearest Sunday) feasts like Epiphany (January 6) and All Saints (November 1). In the same way, the agreement suggests churches will, from now on, be able to choose to celebrate Easter on the Sunday closest to April 1.

Flow-on details have yet to be decided. Ash Wednesday is likely to be changed to “Ash Day” – it is not lost on the committee that Ash Day will fall on the very popular Valentine’s Day (February 14), reconnecting, they hope, the central point of Lent being about love rather than “giving things up”. The suggestion is that Ash Day will be able to be “Wednesdayised” (celebrated on the nearest Wednesday).

Obviously, “Palm Day” (a week prior to Easter Day) will always coincide with the Annunciation (March 25). It, too, will be able to be Sundayised. And the parallels between the Annunciation and Christ’s humble entry into God’s holy city and temple have made this a very exciting fusion.

Ordinary, non-churchgoing people will find little changes. The majority of people, including most churchgoers, had no real idea anyway how the date of Easter was derived. Countries will need to decide how to organise holidays, but the fixing of Easter on its average date that it has occurred over the centuries will simplify things for everyone.

Lots of members of the committee, of course, are well aware that its decision will, at first, result not in the current two celebrations most years of Easter Day (Western and Eastern), but that there will now be three (Western; Eastern; April 1 – whatever day that falls on – and, one could argue, the Sundayised version of that as a fourth option). However, they are convinced that the “traditional” Western and Eastern will drop away to become less and less significant as society becomes increasingly secular, and that, in the end, this “average date of Easter” will, except for a small minority, win the day for Christians and non-Christians. Individual denominations will have to follow their own decision-making processes to decide when they begin using the agreed new dating; Pope Francis has indicated that, for Roman Catholicism, that decision will be made at the local Episcopal Conference level.

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