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When is Easter Day?

Easter Day can occur anywhere between March 22 and April 25. Often Easter Day for the Eastern half of the church is on a different date than for the Western half of the church. This year Eastern and Western Easter falls on the same date: Sunday April 4. Passover this year (5769) commences at sunset of Monday, the 29th of March.

The dating of Easter arises from the complicated joining of two different calendar systems. These calendars might be illustrated by the early story of Cain and Abel. If you are an Abel type – hunting, fishing, watching your flock by night, you will focus on the moon and the lunar cycle of 29 and a half days. Moonlight and tides will be significant to you. If you are a Cain type, a tiller of the ground and grower of crops, the solar cycle and its seasons will be more significant to you. The dating of Easter comes out of combining these solar and lunar calendars.

Passover – Pesach

The Jewish calendar is lunar. Twelve lunar months, with an occasional extra month popped in to keep up with the solar year. The month begins with new moon, and full moon, in the middle of the month, is the obvious time for extensive parties and festivals. There’s more light at night! Passover (Pesach) is the first full moon after the vernal (Northern Spring) equinox (14 of Abib in the Old Testament’s Hebrew Calendar) (Lev 23:5). This was to be a “perpetual ordinance” (Exodus 12:14).

Nicaea on Easter

There appears confusion between the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and John on the relationship between the Passover celebration and Christ’s death. Added to that, some early Christians celebrated Pascha (Easter) on the Jewish festival of Passover, whilst others always celebrated it on the Sunday following. The former were called Quartodecimans (Latin: quarta decima, fourteen). The Council of Nicaea (325) decided against the Quartodecimans and in favour of Easter always being on a Sunday. Rather than produce a canon on this, they communicated this to the different dioceses and gave the Bishop of Alexandria the privilege of announcing annually the date of Easter.

The Council of Nicaea determined that Easter would be the Sunday which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox. If full moon happens to fall on Sunday, Easter is celebrated the following Sunday. Furthermore, it fixed the vernal equinox to be 21 March.
By the sixth century complex mathematical methods had been devised, involving paschal cycles of 19 years in the East, and 84 years in the West. Hence Easter calculations are based not on the astronomical full moon but an “ecclesiastical moon,” based on these created tables.

The Gregorian Calendar

A further divergence developed when there was a growing realisation of the drifting of the Julian Calendar from the actual solar year. In the Julian Calendar every year divisible by four is a leap year. This actually makes the Julian year slightly too long. By the sixteenth century this drift had made 10 days of difference. Pope Gregory in 1582 declared that October 4th would be followed by October 15th, and that only centuries divisible by 400 would be a leap year. This is known as the Gregorian calendar most now use. 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was a leap year. England, not under the authority of the pope, did not change to the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and there were riots demanding the giving back of the (by then) 12 days lost! The Eastern part of the church continues to calculate its festivals by the Julian calendar.

Hence, Eastern Easter also falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, inclusive, but of the Julian calendar. There is currently a 13 day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars hence, from the Gregorian perspective, Eastern Easter falls between April 4 and May 8, inclusive. Eastern Easter also never comes before the Jewish Passover.

Easter in the future?

There has been discussion about abandoning any relationship with the lunar cycle and fixing Easter on the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Second Vatican Council agreed to a fixed date for Easter provided a consensus could be reached among Christian churches.

There was an ecumenical meeting in Aleppo, Syria in 1997. This concluded that the present differences in the calendars and lunar tables (paschal cycles) have no different fundamental theological outlook. The suggestion there was to replace both Eastern and Western calculations with the most advanced astronomically accurate calculations of the equinox and the full moon following, using the meridian of Jerusalem as the point of measure. This has not advanced further.

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12 thoughts on “When is Easter Day?”

  1. Is it also the case that the lunar calendar would naturally be more significant to those living nearer to the equator? Since their day length would not vary so much throughout the year, the passing of time would be better measured by lunar phases. Whereas for those further north or south the summer light and winter darkness is far more obvious and important.

    I like the fact that Easter moves – it reminds us that there are other ways of measuring time, a Jewish history we sometimes neglect, with significance we can easily miss. Maybe it also reminds the secular world that they cannot package everything neatly into a box with the chocolate eggs…

  2. Is the inclusion of “…using the meridian of Jerusalem as the point of measure…” for scriptural or practical reasons, I wonder. Should people in New Zealand, for example, time our Easter “day” according to the Jerusalem time zone? Or should the southern hemisphere time Easter based on the first full moon after the southern spring equinox? Hmmm.

  3. We, in the Southern Hemisphere, would still need to use a meridian line as our point of measure. I’m struggling to find a Southern Hemisphere city to use as a base-line. Dodoma in Tanzania is closest, but only about 6 degrees South of the Equator – only just scraping into the Southern Hemisphere. Nairobe in Kenya would be next, but hardly scrapes into the Southern Hemisphere at all! Blantyre in Malawi is a good candidate. Maputo in Mozambique is well into the Southern Hemisphere, as is Manzini in Swaziland. Durban in South Africa is nearly as far South as Jerusalem is North. I’m all for being invited to an all-expenses-paid conference on a warm, sunny Pacific Island to discuss “using the most advanced astronomically accurate calculations of the equinox and the full moon following, using the meridian of Durban as the point of measure.” See you there, Mark 😉

  4. Now this is what I always thought was the basis… despite being confidently told that Easter is calculated to be a fixed number of Sundays after Christmas Day. Is there any truth or whisper thereof in this Sundays after Christmas theory?

    1. I normally do not allow anonymous comments through moderation but think this one is worth allowing through in order to clarify a misconception. Your theory would be interesting if it were true, but it is not. In 1012 Passover is on April 7 and Greek Easter is on April 15, on 2013 Passover is on March 26 and Greek Easter is on May 5.

  5. Doug Morrison-Cleary

    The irony of CT’s misconception, a common one, I believe, amongst Orthodox Christians, is that the Nicaean Council’s decision was entirely based on moving AWAY from a dependence on Jewish calculations and rituals. Contra the Quartodecimans, Pascha would depend on sun and moon and not on the Jews. And there was some definite prejudice involved–with OUR Pascha always occurring after THEIR Pesach! This is the darker underbelly of our Easter calculations…

    1. Doug, I do not want to distract from your main point and acknowledge this darker underbelly you highlight, but some readers may be struggling to follow: as I understand it, Western Easter can be before Passover, Eastern Easter, following the Nicene calculation can be calculated to be prior to Passover, but then it transfers to after Passover – this “extra rule” is a later development and I’m sorry I cannot date it. Nor am I sure of how this “later Easter” is then derived – does one just keep moving forward Sundays, or does one do a new calculation with the next “full moon”?

  6. (in response to your last section – a fixed date for Easter)

    I like that Easter is a movable feast. It reminds us that God is quite involved in time, but that he can (and will) break into time quite unexpectedly.

    I have heard talk (thought, not officially) of re-examining the date of the equinox scientifically since we have better technology to do so. I have heard of this as a solution to the East/West dating problem.

  7. Quartodecimanism was not the issue at Nicea. By the time Nicea met, the quartodeciman controversy was long in the past. The question at Nicea was between two schools of Sunday observance: “Jewish calendarists” who wanted to continue the old custom of consulting Jewish neighbors for when their week of Unleavened Bread would fall, and set Easter to the Sunday in that week; and “Independent calendarists” who wanted to do their own computation, independently of any Jewish calendars, of when the week of Unleavened Bread should fall, and set Easter to the Sunday in that week.

    The discrepancy between the eastern and western churches’ Easters is not due only to the 13-day difference in their solar calendars. Their is a 4-to-5 day difference in their lunar calendars as well. Today, Tuesday March 23rd 2010, is the 7th day of the 4th lunar month of 2010 in the Gregorian lunar calendar. In the Julian lunar calendar today is the 3rd day of the moon of April. The Julian moon is 4 days younger than the Gregorian moon.

    The eastern churches’ “Zonaras proviso” in fact does not exist except in the minds of canon lawyers. The arithmetic of the Julian lunar calendar is the same now as what stabilized in the 4th-6th centuries. The reason Julian Easter is always later than Passover is simply that the Julian calendar is so inaccurate. The Julian lunar tables are 3-to-5 days behind the astronomical facts, while the Rabbinic and Gregorian lunar calendars follow the lunar phases fairly well. The first day of Unleavened Bread falls when the moon is 15 days old by the Hebrew calendar, when the Julian calendar’s moon is only around 11 days old. Since the age of the moon must be at least 15 days on Easter (by whichever lunar calendar it is computed), Julian Easter will never coincide with Rabbinic matzoth as long as both the Hebrew and Julian calendars continue in the present states.

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