A full moon is juxtaposed with statues of saints on the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. A formula has been devised using a full moon to pinpoint the date of Easter, but still we don’t have a firm date that Roman Catholics and Orthodox can agree upon. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Hope for a unified Easter

By 
  • March 30, 2013

This year some 300 million Christians who claim apostolic succession back to the time of Christ will celebrate Easter 35 days later than Roman Catholics.

When Catholics sit down to Easter dinner on March 31, Orthodox Christians will still have most of Lent ahead of them as they wait for Easter Sunday on May 5.

Why would Christians be so divided about something as fundamental as Easter, the one day that stands at the heart of the faith? Getting all Christians to celebrate Easter together would be a major step forward in ecumenical relations, said Fr. Damian MacPherson, the archdiocese of Toronto’s ecumenical and interfaith affairs director.

“It certainly would create the sense of common celebration we would like to have if we could have a united Catholic and Orthodox Church, if the two lungs began to breathe together,” he said.

“It seems counterintuitive to claim that we share a common faith in the Resurrection of Christ but cannot agree on when to celebrate this central mystery of faith,” wrote Saint Paul University professor of theology Catherine Clifford in an e-mail from Ottawa.

The date of Easter has been a source of controversy since the second century. It has been calculated using lunar calendars, solar calendars, the Jewish calendar, the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar. For a few centuries the first Irish and English Christians had a different Easter date than Mediterranean Christians. It wasn’t until the 1582 promulgation of the Gregorian calendar that the Catholic-Orthodox split over the date was set in stone.

The first controversies over the date of Easter were disagreements over the Jewish calendar. One party, known as the Quartodecimans, claimed to follow ancient tradition by celebrating Easter on the 14th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan — the day on which the book of Exodus instructs Jews to sacrifice a lamb for the feast of Passover, and the critical date in all Gospel accounts of Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection.

It was a day that may or may not fall on a Sunday.

The Quartodecimans (14th day party) were opposed by others, including Pope Victor I, who believed Easter must always be celebrated on a Sunday — the day on which Christians celebrate the Resurrection every week. The Church in Antioch (in modern-day Syria) celebrated on the Sunday after the Jews celebrated Passover.

The Council of Nicea in 325 tried to put the controversy to rest by deciding that the whole Church should celebrate Easter on the same day, following the practice of the Church in Alexandria, which calculated the date of Easter Sunday without reference to the Jewish calendar.

In the ancient world it took a long time to get everybody calculating the date using the same lunar observations.

Irish missionaries taught the English Christians to celebrate on the Sunday which falls in a seven-day period between the 14th and 20th of the lunar month of Nissan. This calculation produced an 84-year cycle. It wasn’t until the early 700s that the Irish and their English colonies got on board with the date from Alexandria.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar which managed to fix the date of the spring equinox at the same time each year.

The Orthodox have always maintained that this unilateral action by the patriarch of Rome broke with the decision of the Council of Nicea, which fixed the date of Easter using the Julian calendar. For many Orthodox, sticking to the Julian calendar was proof they were true to Christian tradition and to the ecumenical council. Rome’s innovation with a new calendar only proved how the Church in the West had drifted away from tradition and the councils. For 450 years there’s been no movement.

“It’s hard to know how to untie the knot,” said MacPherson. There have been a number of proposals to unify the date of Easter coming from various ecumenical dialogues, said Clifford.

“However, these proposals have not been received by the Churches,” she wrote. “One might wonder whether they have understood the extent to which our differences on this matter give a counter witness to the world.”

In 1997 the World Council of Churches met in Syria and came up with a formula by which Easter would be the first Sunday after the first full moon which follows the vernal equinox as determined along the meridian of Jerusalem.

We may have reached a moment in Church history which could allow Catholics and Orthodox to make serious movement on the issue, according to MacPherson.

“The presence of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch at the Pope’s inauguration is extremely significant,” he said.

Clifford knows some people react to the controversy by dismissing it as trivial, dusty, irrelevant history. But she sees it as an opportunity to move toward real, visible unity among Christians.

“When we take seriously the interdependence of common prayer and the common witness of Christians in society, we can begin to see how important this question is.”

Reunification of Easter may happen in our lifetimes.

“It may be naive on my part, but I think it is achievable. It’s very doable,” said MacPherson. “Is it necessary? Critically so.”

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