On fixing the date of Easter

Nearly overshadowed by this week’s contentious statement of the Anglican Primates’ Meeting concerning the status of the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion was an announcement by the Archbishop of Canterbury that he has been in conversation with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church as well as with Coptic Pope Tawadros II concerning a shared and fixed observance of Easter. The latter has, it seems, spearheaded this latest of many efforts to reconcile the celebration of Easter, putting the idea forth to both Roman Pope Francis and Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Francis has said that the Roman Church is not opposed ‘in principle’ to such a change, and Bp Welby remarked that he hoped to see this resolved in five or ten years’ time.

The proposed dates are apparently either the second Sunday of April (in which case it could fall anytime from 8 to 14 April) or the Sunday after the second Saturday of April (9 to 15 April).

The reckoning of time is an extremely complicated subject. The independent cycles of the earth’s rotation about its axis, the moon’s revolution about the earth, and the earth’s revolution about the sun, along with the tilt of the earth’s axis, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and even more complex astronomical phenomena, mean that days, months, and years do not coincide or occur in exact multiples of one another.

Various cultures have taken individual approaches to keeping time and reconciling these cycles according to their needs, and reviewing such schemes reminds us that, to a certain point, the way we measure time is relatively arbitrary. It may surprise us to recollect, for example, that the archaic Roman calendar had only ten months covering the agriculturally active part of the year and ignoring the rest (and for that matter, republican Rome used an eight-day market week, the seven-day week only coming into use with the Julian calendar in 45 bce). The Jewish calendar is a lunar and agricultural one; ours is largely solar, and the attempt to convert dates from one system to another, along with various imprecisions (or varying solutions thereto), have led to discrepancies in observance.

Thomas J. Talley treats the development of the Christian year thoroughly and lucidly in The Origins of the Liturgical Year, relevant parts of which I attempt to summarize below.

Our Lord’s Passion, of course, is said by the evangelists to have taken place at the feast of the Passover (the discrepancy between the synoptic and Johannine chronologies – i.e. whether the Last Supper was the Passover meal itself or a meal on the day before – though important, need not concern us here). Passover begins on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, Nisan being the first month of the year or at least the first spring month.

Very early Jewish Christians probably continued to celebrate the Passover, at least until the separation of the Christian community from the synagogues. On the other hand, Gentile Christians may not have had such a tradition – even as late as 165, Easter may not have been celebrated at Rome – and the earliest Christians’ expectation of the imminent return of Christ likely discouraged the keeping of any feast other than the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. As the Apostle wrote, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ [1Co 11.26]

In time, however, and by whatever means, the annual commemoration of the historical fact of the Resurrection at Pascha became important for the Christian community. As long as Christians were connected to the Jewish community, they could keep the Christian Pascha at the same time. When Christians were separated from the Jewish community, however, the necessary adjustments to the Jewish lunar calendar that were promulgated by the religious authorities became unavailable to them – and thus the need arose to determine the appropriate date for the celebration on their own.

One effort with far-reaching consequences – and resonance for the current situation – simply undertook to convert the fourteenth day of the first (spring) month in the Jewish calendar to the fourteenth day of the first (spring) month in the solar calendar in use. In first-century Asia (i.e., the Near East), this was an adaptation of the Julian calendar first promulgated in 9 bce. This calendar, though its intervals were synchronized with the (Western) Julian calendar, was some days off from it, taking IX Kalendarum Octobris, or 23 September – the birthday of Augustus – as the beginning of the civil year. Thus the fourteenth day of the first spring month, Artemisios, was equivalent to 6 April.*

(This date, not entirely incidentally, is likely at least one datum underlying the celebration of the Epiphany – originally a unitive feast of the Incarnation – on 6 January, nine months later: a rabbinical tradition placed the births and deaths of the patriarchs on the same day – also often believed to be the day of creation and of redemption – and this idea, it seems, was applied to Our Lord, so that His conception [i.e., the Annunciation] and Passion were held to have occurred on the same day. Even the idea of creation and the parousia also falling on this day underlies the themes of the Easter Vigil, as we shall see.)

A Western Roman attempt to calculate the historical date of the Passion (by calculating the ‘fourteenth day of the moon’ in various years) placed it on 25 March. This date was reinforced by the same logic of birth (or conception)–death coincidence just described by establishing the Conception of St John the Baptist at 24 September (understanding Zechariah’s service in the Temple [Lk 1] to have taken place during the High Holy Days of Tishri, the seventh month) and thus setting his nativity at 24 June, as well as understanding the Annunciation of Our Lord to take place ‘in the sixth month’ of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 25 March. By these calculations, of course, we arrive at 25 December for the Nativity of Our Lord.

Those who celebrated the Christian Pascha invariably on 6 April came to be known as Quartodecimans (i.e., ‘fourteenthers’); they eventually lost out to those who chose to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection on a Sunday, in particular the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (when, in theory, the Passover was kept). This Sunday observance has been the general norm at least since the First Council of Nicaea (325), the date being calculated at Alexandria and promulgated throughout the Church in a proclamation (solemnly sung to the same tone as the Easter Proclamation, Exultet) on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Observance diverged, however, in 1582 with the introduction in the West of the Gregorian calendar, which, with the immediate dropping of thirteen days and the adoption of certain other adjustments, aimed to correct for the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar over the centuries vis-à-vis the astronomical situation (the Gregorian reform is one of several such calendrical reforms that can make calculating the ‘actual’ anniversary of a historical date difficult if not impossible). The Orthodox Churches of the East did not accept the Gregorian reform (and indeed, owing to the Catholic–Protestant split, its adoption in the West was gradual and tortuous), and so the observance of Easter has often been unsynchronized between East and West. Though in the twentieth century a number of Orthodox Churches adopted a Julian calendar revised to take into account the corrections offered by the Gregorian calendar, not all of the Orthodox adoped this reform, and in any case it affected only the feasts of fixed dates and not the calculations for Easter. Furthermore, the rules for determining the date of Easter adopted at Nicaea do not always correspond to the rules eventually adopted for the calculation of the observance of Passover, with the result that perhaps a quarter of the time, the Jewish and Christian Paschas do not even broadly coincide (they do not necessarily correspond with the astronomical definitions of the spring equinox either).

Thus the question arises of both a uniform and a fixed observance of Easter. A uniform date, it is argued, would advance the cause of Christian unity and witness. This may be true, but Christians have lived with many differences large and small from the very beginning. As the fifth-century historian Sozomen wrote of divergence in Easter observance,

As the bishops of the West did not deem it necessary to dishonor the tradition handed down to them by Peter and by Paul, and as, on the other hand, the Asiatic bishops persisted in following the rules laid down by John the evangelist, they unanimously agreed to continue in the observance of the festival according to their respective customs, without separation from communion with each other. They faithfully and justly assumed, that those who accorded in the essentials of worship ought not to separate from one another on account of customs. [he vii.19]*

As for a fixed date, or something close to it, such a thing has not been observed since the days of the Quartodecimans. The proposed time-frame mentioned at the beginning of this entry would place Easter close to, if not exactly coincident with, the 6 April equivalent for the ‘fourteenth day of the first spring month’ mentioned above (modern calculations for the actual historical date of the Crucifixion or Resurrection – i.e., the question to which 25 March was one early answer – apparently range from 3 to 7 April).

The suggestion of this fixed observance no doubt raises a number of questions: certainly practical ones, as well as questions dealing with symbolism and perhaps the priorities underlying the observance of certain feasts in certain ways. Probably none of these are, to use the common parlance, ‘deal-breakers’, but it is well worth examining the potential consequences of such a change, and I hope that many minds much greater than mine are being consulted and raising many more questions than occur to me.

Perhaps one question is whether it is more important to observe a memorial of the Passion on a (somewhat symbolic and approximate, though less symbolic – or, to the modern mind, ‘arbitrary’ – than the dates of the Incarnation cycle) equivalent of its historical date, or to maintain a connection to the living observance of Passover. Another might be whether the connection to the equinox (however determined) is important: the equinox did not directly influence Christian observance in the beginning, it seems, but it underlay the date of Passover and came to have important symbolic significance for Christians. In the industrialized world, astronomical phenomena have come to have drastically less importance: is it important for us to continue or reclaim these connections?

Whatever the answers, the catholic faith is neither strictly historical nor merely symbolic; its sacramental and incarnational understanding of the world posits that matter and spirit, time and eternity, history and myth are intertwined, and our calendar and feasts have agricultural and astronomical, historical and symbolical aspects that should all be kept in view.

As far as the practical effects of the proposed change upon the fixed-date observances in the Western Christian calendar, it seems that these would largely be positive or at least unimportant:

In the first scheme, with Easter on the second Sunday of April (8 to 14 April),

·   Septuagesima would fall anywhere from 5 to 10 February (?)
·   Ash Wednesday would fall anywhere from 21 to 28 February
·   Palm Sunday would fall anywhere from 1 to 7 April
·   Maundy Thursday would fall anywhere from 5 to 11 April
·   Good Friday would fall anywhere from 6 to 12 April
·   Ascension Day would fall anywhere from 17 to 23 May
·   Pentecost would fall anywhere from 27 May to 2 June – placing it, in the US, on Memorial Day weekend even more often than it falls now
·   There would only ever be 7 Sundays after the Epiphany (in the modern system)

In the second scheme, with Easter on the Sunday after the second Saturday of April (9 to 15 April),

·   Septuagesima would fall anywhere from 6 to 11 February (?)
·   Ash Wednesday would fall anywhere from 22 to 28 (or 29) February
·   Palm Sunday would fall anywhere from 2 to 8 April
·   Maundy Thursday would fall anywhere from 6 to 12 April
·   Good Friday would fall anywhere from 7 to 13 April
·   Ascension Day would fall anywhere from 18 to 24 May
·   Pentecost would fall anywhere from 28 May to 3 June – placing it, in the US, on Memorial Day weekend even more often than it falls now
·   There would be either 7 or, rarely, 8 Sundays after the Epiphany (in the modern system)

As far as I can tell, the only truly major feast that might more often be affected is the Visitation, 31 May; other feasts that are often displaced significantly due to Holy Week (St Joseph, 22 March; the Annunciation, 25 March) or Easter Week (St Mark, 27 April; Sts Philip & James, 3 May) would permanently avoid falling in these privileged octaves. The feast of St Matthias (24 February†) would be displaced one day by Ash Wednesday more often than it is now.

The connection, in the old calendar, between Candlemas and Septuagesima – by one reckoning, the end of an old year and the beginning of a new – would be much closer, with no intervening Sunday.‡

On the other hand, in the bcp1979 Calendar and Lectionary, I believe, the lessons assigned for the (Seventh and) Eighth Sundays after the Epiphany, equivalent to Propers 1 and 2 for the weeks after Pentecost and Trinity, would never be read, leaving a permanent hole in the course-readings of the Gospels.§ There may be other consequences for those following Eastern calendars.

Given early diversity concerning the date or even the observance at all of Easter, it might seem that the Church today could continue to live with such diversity. In any case it remains to be seen whether the necessary momentum will gather, and whether the other Oriental Orthodox, or the even further separated churches East and West, might be willing to follow the lead of the prelates currently involved in the discussion.

Whatever decision is ultimately made, perhaps the discussion will provide the opportunity for the forging of greater ecumenical awareness and stronger bonds, as well as for a good deal of teaching about, and reclamation of, the symbolism and import of the Christian Pascha, rooted in the Passover themes and images of creation, the Binding of Isaac, the deliverance from Egypt, and the coming of Messiah. Perhaps those Protestants who do not observe Holy Week at all, and Anglicans whose leaders have not taught them (or do not themselves believe in) the critical importance of a richly celebrated Triduum, may be brought to a deeper encounter with Christ through a fuller celebration of the liturgy; more people may be prepared more thoroughly through Lenten catechesis for Easter Baptism; more Christians may live lives of joy and expectancy by renewing their own Passover on the night in which, as we alluded earlier, time and eternity, history and symbolism, ‘earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God’.

*  Sozomen referred to a supposedly amicably resolved dispute between Victor, Bishop of Rome, and Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, but in fact the dispute was between Victor and Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, which ended in Victor’s excommunicating the province of Asia until he was persuaded to relent. There had earlier, according to Irenaeus, been an amicably resolved dispute between Anicetus, Bishop of Rome, and Polycarp, which, according to Talley, may have been as fundamental as whether to observe Pascha at all, the Gentiles at Rome perhaps feeling no connection to Passover, while the Jerusalem-influenced Asian Church did. If such a fundamental issue was left to local custom, perhaps – following the amity suggested by Sozomen – the more prominent issues raised at the Primates’ Meeting might also be set aside.

†  Actually the official Roman date is the 5th day before the Kalends of March; when a leap day is added, the feast remains on the 5th day before the Kalends of March, but this ought to be observed as 25 February. In the Tridentine Calendar of Pius V, the feast of St Matthias is celebrated twice in leap years.

‡  On the other hand, if Easter be celebrated on 25 March, some interesting symmetries then occur: the Feasts of the Ascension and All Saints fall six months apart (the 1 November date of All Saints in the West apparently derives from the foundation of an oratory in St Peter’s Basilica ‘for the relics of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world’, though its coincidence with the autumn cross-quarter day and the harvest themes thereof may have been deliberate), and the traditional Feast of the Transfiguration (6 August, this date chosen to fall forty days before the Feast of the [Invention of the] Holy Cross, itself commemorating the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on 13/14 September 335) falls very nearly opposite the observation of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in the Episcopal Church and many denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary; the latter then also nearly coincides with Candlemas, another great feast of light (which also falls on a cross-quarter day).

§   Though the series of readings in what the Roman Lectionary more clearly calls ‘Ordinary Time’ is theoretically continuous between the Sundays after the Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost, simply interrupted by the Lent–Easter season at whatever point it should fall, Trinity Sunday in fact obscures one such Ordinary Sunday and its propers, and in the Episcopal Church, the privilieged Last Sunday after the Epiphany – a doublet of the Transfiguration – obscures another. Actually, in years when there are only 33 Sundays in Ordinary Time, one of these propers is also omitted.