The most significant 11 minutes and 48 seconds in the history of Christianity have been widening the gulf between Orthodox and western Christians since 1582. But if Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians can get their act together, the world’s Christians might finally start celebrating Easter on the same day.
“I often wonder what it signals to the rest of the world that Christians cannot assemble around a common date for Easter,” said Archdiocese of Toronto ecumenical and interfaith affairs officer Rev. Damian MacPherson.
It might be of no interest to non-Christians, concedes MacPherson, but it certainly matters to Christians who yearn for unity.
“I feel the division when we’re not able to do a common liturgy on a common date around the most significant event in our history — resurrection,” MacPherson said.
Speaking to a gathering of priests last year, Pope Francis said he was open to changing the date of Easter in the West so that all Christians around the world can celebrate on the same day. On June 12, 2015, he said, “We have to come to an agreement.”
He joked that the current situation causes confusion because it allows Christians to say to one another: “When did Christ rise from the dead? My Christ rose today, and yours next week.”
In January, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said Anglican leaders were willing to join the discussions for a unified date. He said he had discussed the subject with Pope Francis, Coptic leader Pope Tawadros and Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Bartholomew, and hoped a change would occur within 10 years.
Dating Easter is a problem as old as Christianity. Even the Gospels don’t agree. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the Last Supper takes place on the first day of Passover, which began this year on Thursday, March 24. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper takes place on the evening before Passover, Wednesday.
In the early church, when Christianity was a Jewish movement, most Christians celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after Passover. The Jewish lunar calendar prevailed. But it did not bring unity.
A group called the Quattuordecimans insisted there was no reason to do Easter on Sunday. They wanted it three days after Passover — the 14th of Nissan according to the Jewish calendar. By 325, when Emperor Constantine called the first ecumenical council in Nicea, Christians all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa had a wide variety of dates for Easter.
“People were celebrating all kinds of dates, whether it was in the British Isles or Spain or Italy, North Africa, Jerusalem,” said Orthodox Church of America Archbishop of Canada Irénée Rochon. “Everybody had their own way of calculating.”
So the first order of business at Nicea was a common date for Easter. Easter would be on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox. The Spring Equinox was determined to be March 21 on the Julian calendar. That was the common calendar for the civilized world at the time, in use since Emperor Caesar Augustus decreed it should be the standard in AD 46.
By 1582 Renaissance astronomers knew there was something wrong with the Julian calendar.
It was off by 11 minutes and 48 seconds per year. Pope Gregory XIII decided science should rule and ordered a 10-day correction. That was the beginning of the Gregorian calendar, which today rules in the secular order the world over. It actually took until 1752 for the British Empire to bow to a papal decision on the calendar, and Greece didn’t budge until 1923.
Because the Julian calendar always observes a leap year every four years, the gap between the calendars has been widening. The Gregorian calendar skips one leap year every century. Thus, by the time the King of England went Gregorian the British had to drop 11 days from their 1752 calendar and the Greeks in 1923 had to drop 13 days. By 2100 the gap will be 14 days.
Generally, the Orthodox celebrate Pascha (the Greek word for Easter) one to five weeks after the western world celebrates Easter. But there’s reason to hope East and West can get back on the same page.
In 1997 a meeting convened by the World Council of Churches in Aleppo, Syria, came up with a formula for calculating Easter completely divorced from both the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Since the Council of Nicea used the science of its day to determine the vernal equinox, the churches today should rely on the science of our own time, said the Aleppo statement on Easter.
Whatever the calendar date may be, the vernal equinox should be determined scientifically by astronomers. Once the equinox is decided, Christians should look for the first full moon in Jerusalem — the city where Christ actually rose from the dead. Easter is on the Sunday after that — according to the Council of Nicea formula.
The Aleppo solution was heralded as a great breakthrough, but none of the churches represented at the World Council of Churches gathering in Syria that year actually followed through.
However, in 2015 the Pope of Alexandria, head of the Orthodox Copts, wrote to the papal nuncio in Egypt urging a common date for Easter. Pope Tawadros II was acting on the same anxieties that prompted Catholic bishops of the Middle East gathered in Rome for the 2010 Synod on the Middle East to call for a common date for Easter.
In the Middle East, where Christians are increasingly a minority, a common date for Easter would be an important symbol of unity and a clear signal to the Muslims who surround Middle East Christians. A common date for Easter also means common observance of Lent. Parallel to Ramadan, the Christian season of fasting is recognized and respected in the Muslim world.
By chance, Orthodox and Catholic Easter do sometimes coincide. They did in 2014 and will again next year. But after 2017 such serendipity will not visit again for another 17 years.
Irénée isn’t holding his breath. The only resolution, as far as the Orthodox bishop is concerned, has nothing to do with science or the World Council of Churches agreement in Aleppo or the ecumenical movement. Rome must re-adopt the Julian calendar and fall into line with Orthodox practice based on the Council of Nicea.
“The western, Gregorian calendar, which came about in the 16th century, was a unilateral thing by the church of Rome,” said Irénée. “The Orthodox Church never accepted this change for the pascal date because this was something agreed upon by the whole church and only the whole church can change it.”
Which means that another ecumenical council of both western and eastern churches could decide again on the date of Easter. Though the Orthodox will hold their largest and most significant synod in nearly 1,000 years on the island of Crete this June, the date of Easter has been excluded from the agenda.
Neither the pope nor the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople can simply call an ecumenical council. The first ecumenical councils were called by emperors, but since then the Orthodox practice has been that only a council of the entire church can declare a previous council ecumenical, said Irénée.
It is the Slavic Orthodox, principally the Russians, who object to any move toward a common date. For many of them their own date for Easter has become a mark of Orthodox identity, distinguishing them from Rome and the Protestants. The Middle Eastern and other Orthodox (Syriac, Armenian, Jacobite, Ethiopian, Coptic) would gladly talk about a common date and are generally much more open to ecumenism.
“The Holy Spirit can move,” said Irénée, whose church began with the Russian Orthodox living in 19th-century Alaska. “(She) can move and melt the hearts of people. So we will see. You can never say never.”
“I don’t know whether it’s a measure of pride or of fidelity, quite frankly,” said MacPherson. “It would seem that there’s a value, a real value, to sharing a common date for Easter.”