Hands Off Easter!

There's a movement afoot to fix a common date for Easter by 2025. It's a movement fraught with problems.

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While visiting local Jesuits last February in Congo, Pope Francis repeated support for what looks to be the latest innovation on the minds of many Vatican liturgists and ecumenists: fixing a common date for Easter.  

Easter is the central mystery of our redemption (1 Corinthians 15) and thus the central feast of the liturgical year: to this day, the entire liturgical calendar revolves around it. But in the fourth century Church, there was a division over how to calculate when Easter fell. 

The current driver seems to be wanting to “do something” to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, the Church’s first ecumenical council, in 2025. Besides condemning Arianism and beginning composition of the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed (the Profession of Faith we declare every Sunday), Nicaea I set a common date for Easter.  

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Back then, the two primary contenders were a literal application of Leviticus 23:5-8—which tied Easter to Passover as calculated by the Jewish calendar—and celebration of Easter on the following Sunday (eventually, the Sunday after the first full moon of spring).

As we see even today, Passover can occur on any day of the week, not necessarily Sunday. Furthermore, the Jewish calendar is not a solar but a lunar calendar. The moon goes through its phases in 28-29 days. Most months in our (solar) calendar are 30-31 days long. So, a lunar calendar invariably falls out of sync with the sun (and, therefore, the seasons) quickly, which means one must throw in an intercalary month every so often to reconnect the calendar with what is actually going on astronomically with the earth’s revolution.  

The Council of Nicaea wanted all Christians worldwide to observe a common Easter and did not want its calculation dependent on the vagaries of the Jewish calendar. Eventually, the Church would also fix Easter to the Sunday after the first full moon of spring, which is how the Catholic Church continues to calculate it.

Fast forwarding through history, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches grew apart and the latter eventually went into schism in 1054. But even then both churches had a common civil calendar: the Julian calendar, imposed before the birth of Christ by Julius Caesar.

The Julian Calendar was a vast improvement over lunar calendars with their need for a thirteenth month every decade or so to realign with the seasons, but it still had problems. It assumed that a year is 365.25 days long (hence, a leap year every four years). But it’s not quite: it’s a little over 11 minutes shorter than a quarter of a day. While not as bad as a 2-3 day/month lunar flaw, 11 minutes a day throws the calendar out of whack from the sun by one day about every 130 years.  

While that doesn’t seem much in the life of man, whose length is “seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong” (Psalm 90:10), by 1582, the calendar and the sun were about 10 days apart. That’s important because the sky said “spring” but the calendar said “winter,” and the season was relevant to fixing the date of Easter.

So, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar by dropping 10 days and realigning sun and wall calendar. He also decreed a reform to leap years that keeps his calendar in solar alignment for several thousand years.  

Catholic countries, combining faith and science, adopted the Gregorian Reform quickly. Protestant lands—engaging in a version of ecclesiastical guilt-by-association, generally held out another 170 years, meaning their calendars fell out of solar alignment by another day. When adjusted, Americans who went to sleep September 2, 1752, woke up on September 14, 1752.  

Orthodox countries largely did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until after World War I (adding another 170-some years and one more missing day to their Protestant laggards). Even then, the Orthodox adopted it largely for civil, not religious, purposes. Many Orthodox lands used the Gregorian Calendar to interact with the rest of the world but reverted to the Julian Calendar when they went to church (if the Bolsheviks hadn’t yet razed it). Today, the Julian Calendar is misaligned with the sun by almost 13 days, (i.e., about half a month).  

That’s part of the context for why Catholic and Orthodox Easter (and Christmas) so rarely converge. The gap with Christmas is more consistent because Christmas has a fixed date: December 25. Easter falls in a more variable range, from March 22 to April 25. But if you define season according to your calendar rather than the vernal equinox, “spring” can mean wildly different things for each church.

There are, of course, other variations affecting their observances that have seeped into how the Orthodox calculate Easter (e.g., whether Easter must fall after the end of Passover); but I’d argue the fundamental problem is the calendar.  

As I see it, there are two main problems for the Orthodox: (1) unscientific cultural antipathy about applying the Gregorian Calendar ecclesiastically and (2) the lack of a pan-Orthodox governance mechanism to make that decision. Resistance to all “Catholic innovations” (like the Gregorian Calendar) still runs in some Orthodox circles, especially Russian Orthodoxy (whose recalcitrance may be driven by other, non-religious agendas). And, on so important a question as Easter—the quest for commonality about which having been a major driver at Nicaea—Orthodoxy rightly wants to stay linked up, not having “autocephalous” Orthodox in country A marking the Pasch differently than confrères in country B.

Not being part of the professional ecumenism establishment, I’m not inclined to pass over the Orthodox problem of decision-making that has bedeviled them since their schism but to which they cling because, arguably, they otherwise would be forced to confront the need for a center of unity…like Peter. Why not just adopt the Gregorian Calendar ecclesiastically, which might then perhaps leave the principle of when to mark Easter—the first full moon of spring—alone?  

Besides Nicaea, a “return to Vatican II” also inspires Rome’s current effort. In an “appendix” attached to Sacrosanctum Concilium—a provision that has lain dormant for 60 years—the Council said it did not object to a “fixed Sunday” for Easter, provided “those…who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.” Among the reasons for its dormancy was that the appendix was directed at the Orthodox and no one expected Orthodoxy to reach any consensus.    

But, given the “creative” interpretations of Vatican II over the years, what might “assent” be interpreted to mean today? If the Patriarch of Constantinople “assents” but doesn’t deliver Moscow, is that “assent?” What could that mean for competing Orthodox jurisdictions, e.g., within war-torn Ukraine?  

I won’t even go into the question of corralling 1,001 Protestant groups to a common Easter date. They might quickly fall in line, but it would be an exercise that, in my judgment, would represent much ado about nothing because considerable swaths of those communities don’t really agree on what happened on Easter. Did Jesus rise in His physical body or “in the hearts of His disciples?” What does that say for our embodiment and its implications for, say, sexual ethics? If answers to those questions remain not just different but, in fact, contradictory, then a common Easter celebrating nothing really in common is thin beer.

2025 is a tempting target to reach agreement on Easter, not just because of the anniversary of Nicaea I but because Catholic and Orthodox Easter coincide on April 20 that year. But, apart from the theoretical questions raised above, there are plenty of practical ones. We are less than two years away from any change. 

Is this going to be the next “liturgical reform” shoved by Rome down the throats of those remaining Catholics still filling otherwise empty pews? Will our “dialogical, synodal” Church just tell us to pray and obey? How is this going to be sold to the Orthodox faithful—even if, by some miracle, their hierarchies all buy in—when they are a lot more tradition-bound than the Catholic faithful? What’s the catechetical plan? Because, honestly, there seems to be far less demand for this reform from those still going to church than from the professional crowd wanting to “do something” for the anniversary. A change of this degree, not organically grown and nurtured, should not be imposed by clerical fiat.

And do we need a “fixed” Easter Sunday? The usual candidate is the second or perhaps third Sunday of April. I confess I am not an expert in current Orthodox calendar matters, but it seems to me that “April” remains a calendar, not an astronomical matter. 

So I ask: given that Catholics have, for more than 1,500 years, celebrated Easter in the light of the Paschal Moon of spring—correlating Easter to Passover—what compelling reason (other than needing to “do” something for an anniversary) justifies abandoning that tradition in the name of a “unity” (that might prove more nominal than real) when it seems the whole problem might be brought closer to a solution by adhering to the present discipline but simply employing faith and reason in terms of which calendar to use?

Lastly, I’d reflect on other, unconsidered dangers in not letting sleeping appendices lie. Alongside the caveat on a common Easter, the Council added it did not object to a perpetual calendar, provided there is no “introduction of any days outside the week.” What’s that about?

Simply put, 365 does not divide evenly by 7. That means calendars shift annually: April 1 is Saturday this year but Monday next. The “scientific,” “rational,” and “efficient” don’t like that. It stems from the “unscientific” Judeo-Christian week, based on the seven days of Genesis 1.  

Proposals for a perpetual calendar try to eliminate the shift. Early versions divide each quarter of the calendar into 91 days (x 4 = 364), then insert days 365 (and 366 as needed) as non-day dates, i.e., outside the week. That’s what Sacrosanctum Concilium opposes.

Other perpetual calendars dismantle the week, not unlike earlier ideological calendar reforms, such as those of the French and Russian revolutionaries. There are precedents for messing with the week.

Given the progress of secularism and the relentless effort to fumigate culture from its religious roots, calendar tampering seems to offer a new opportunity to amputate that culture from its Genesis heritage in the form of the week by opening up the question of the religious antecedents of how we calculate time.  Given the progress of secularism and the relentless effort to fumigate culture from its religious roots, calendar tampering seems to offer a new opportunity to amputate that culture from its Genesis heritage.Tweet This

We’ve already divested Sunday of any sacral social standing. If Sunday is just another day, why keep the week, other than for sentimental and hide-bound traditional reasons? Why not just abolish it and design a more “rational,” less “religion-based” calendar?  Political correctness already discreetly buries “the year of the Lord” by substituting “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” for “B.C.” and “A.D.”  

For most Western societies, Easter itself is invisible. Christmas is still hard to avoid (though we’ve turned it into a holiday that dare not speak its name) because the general culture has appropriated some of our traditions. In the case of Easter, that common pool of traditions and practices is markedly thinner. Do we need to rattle this cage?  

I understand the pope may be interested in using a common date of Easter as a pan-Christian witness to unity that strengthens that witness to those outside the Christian fold. But I ask whether, beneath that veneer of “unity”—important as it is—what other “there” is there. We currently lack a common celebration because of a lack of common understandings about how faith and reason go together, ecclesiology (governance), tradition (abandoning our Paschal calculatory formula that is a millennium and a half old) and self-preservation (saving not just ourselves but our culture from encroaching secularism).  

No doubt some believe the very act of setting a common Easter will be a catalyst to unity. I am skeptical and unwilling to risk 15 centuries of our Catholic heritage on that bet. These questions are too big to be sacrificed on the altar of “doing something” for an anniversary takeaway. As I don’t see them being tackled but rather being swept under the rug, I say: “hands off Easter.”  

[Image: “The Resurrection” by Perugino]

Author

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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