Dating Easter: A Concise History of the Division

Feast of St Pelagia the Nun-martyr of Tarsus

Blue_Calendar_Square.jpgIN THE SEVENTH century A.D., while the queen of Northumbria was observing Lent on Palm Sunday, the king broke the Lenten fast to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior. The queen, who was from Kent, followed the Roman dating for Easter; the king followed the Celtic dating. In 664 A.D., the king called a council at the monastery of Whitby to establish a common Easter date for the Celts and the Brits. The effort failed and the king and queen continued to celebrate Easter on different dates.

It’s been well over a thousand years since that seventh-century council and the Church still does not have a common date for the celebration of its Feast of Feasts. A month ago, for example, Western churches (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern Orthodox churches found themselves in the exact same predicament as the Celtic king and British queen. While the West broke the Lenten fast to celebrate the Resurrection, the East observed Palm Sunday as it entered its final Holy Week of Lent.

The early Church also found itself in this predicament. By the second century, Christians in Asia Minor and parts of Syria had begun to celebrate the Resurrection (together with the Passion and Crucifixion) at the time of the Jewish Passover, regardless of which day the feast happened to be. They called this celebration Pasch, from Pascha, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew term for Passover (pesach). Because the Passover always fell on the fourteenth day of the first spring lunar month (Nisan), these Christians came to be known as the Quartodecimans (Latin for fourteenth day). Christians in Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, on the other hand, celebrated the feast on the Sunday after Passover, i.e. on the day of the Resurrection.

Initially, the different Easter dates were not considered problematic. Churches celebrated Easter on different dates and remained in communion. St. Polycarp (d. 155), whose church in Smyrna followed the Asian custom, was invited to Rome in the second century by Bishop Anicetus (d. 166) to discuss the different dates. Again, there was no agreement and, according to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202), “Rome didn’t regard the divergences as a ground for breach of communion and they parted in amicable disagreement.”

By the end of the second century, however, Rome’s perspective changed. Bishop Victor of Rome (d. 198) concluded that churches in Asia Minor should conform to the Easter date followed in Rome, Alexandria and Jerusalem. He believed all Christians should celebrate the Resurrection on a common date. So he called a group of bishops together to oppose the Quartodecimans. While some bishops urged him not to divide the churches over this issue and to respect the local customs of Asia Minor, Victor’s view eventually prevailed in the fourth century.

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA.jpgThe First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., affirmed Bishop Victor’s view. Although there is no canon that specifically deals with the issue, the Council’s view is made clear in a letter sent to the church of Alexandria and those not present at the Council:

We also send you the good news of the settlement concerning the holy pasch, namely that in answer to your prayers this question has been resolved. All the brethren in the East who have hitherto followed the Jewish practice will henceforth observe the custom of the Romans and of yourselves and of all of us who from ancient times have kept Easter together with you.

Although the letter does not provide a formula for a common calculation of the date to celebrate the Resurrection, the Roman custom is clearly common knowledge at the time of Nicaea. There is ample patristic evidence for the formula endorsed at Nicaea, including, for example: the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions, Epiphanius’ Panarion (“Medicine Chest”; renamed Against Heresies in 16th century), a letter to the bishop of Amelia by St. Ambrose of Milan in 386 A.D., and a Paschal Homily by St. John Chrysostom in 387 A.D. From these sources, there emerges a clear four-fold patristic formula that was endorsed by Nicaea, commonly known as the Paschalion:

1. Pascha is always to be celebrated by all churches...

2. On Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection,

3. After the first full moon,

4. After the vernal equinox.

Following the first Nicene Council, then, Christians throughout the world (for the most part!) honored this formula so that, in the words of John the Scholastic, everyone could “let their prayers rise to heaven on one single day of holy Pascha.” But this common celebration of the Resurrection was bound to run into trouble, and a little over twelve hundred years later it did.

In the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII unintentionally interrupted over a millennium of common paschal prayers. The Julian calendar, introduced by the astronomer Sosigenes in 44 B.C., is eleven minutes and fourteen seconds longer than an actual solar year. This means every 128 years it falls behind by one day; it is thirteen days behind today. In 1582, Pope Gregory established a more accurate calendar, commonly known as the Gregorian calendar (although far more accurate, it too is behind by four minutes and seven seconds, which means it will fall behind a day every 3,600 years).

The Gregorian calendar is now universally recognized. Almost. Both Orthodox and Protestants initially rejected it as a papal attempt to impose its authority. Protestants came to accept it in England in 1752. An Orthodox synod addressed this issue in 1923. Since then, the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria have adopted a calendar for their ecclesiastical year called the “Revised Julian Calendar.” By omitting twelve days, it synchronized with the Gregorian calendar (it does differ slightly however, in that it omits leap years every 128 years). To this day, however, all Resurrection_blue.jpgOrthodox churches continue to use the Julian calendar for the dating of Pascha. Consequently, the East and West continue to frequently celebrate the Resurrection on different dates. Although the dates can and do coincide, as they did last year, there will be a seventeen year divide between the next two common dates (2017 and 2034). This means, including this year, Easter will be celebrated on different dates eighteen times out of the next twenty years.

The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation released a document to address this division on the dating of Easter in 2010 titled “Celebrating Easter / Pascha Together.” The Orthodox and Catholic theologians opened by noting that the center of the Christian faith on which all Christians agree is the kerygma that Jesus is Risen. Despite this common agreement, however, the fact is that Christians “celebrate Easter on different days, fracturing the proclamation of this Good News of the Resurrection.” The document then enumerate three consequences:

1)    Interchurch families find themselves in conflict observing two Lenten cycles and two Paschal dates.

2)    The world looks on as Christians speak through their celebration with a divided voice.

3)    Many are impeded from hearing the Good News of the Resurrection by the scandal of this division.

Finally, their conclusion is a call for unity:

The need for unity is great, for our world has changed drastically . . . . We have witnessed the growth of secularism and the global effects of tyranny and war. More than ever, there is a need for a unified Christian proclamation and a witness of the core of our common faith: the Resurrection of Our Lord.

We heartily endorse this call for a unified Christian proclamation and witness of the Resurrection. How to proceed, however, is another matter, a topic to which we will return in a future post: “Common Pascha Prayers: A Call for Unity.”

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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