Setting a Date for Easter
Q: I’m passing along a question from my children. I gave a partial answer, saying it has something to do with the moon, but wanted to check with an expert. So if you’ll pardon my attempt at humor, why does the date that the Christian Church sets to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection hop like the Easter Bunny all over the spring calendar?
A: Your “partial answer” is correct: A lunar connection to Easter’s date indeed creates such radical shifts in the date of our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter in turn determines the length of other liturgical seasons. With an early Easter, Epiphany, which begins on 6 January, is much shorter. Meanwhile, the post-Pentecost (or Trinity) season is lengthened, since it always ends four Sundays before Christmas Day (25 December) with the First Sunday in Advent.
The early Church recognized Sunday as the day to especially remember Jesus’ rising from the dead. Some records indicate that at one time, some worshiping communities observed this fact with a full Easter celebration every Sunday. Even today, with only an annual celebration, most of Christendom makes a special point of weekly connecting “the Lord’s Day” to Christ’s resurrection and to that of all people — particularly all believers.
Once they were free to meet together without hiding from murderous persecution, numbers of Christian leaders from the known world occasionally gathered to “talk shop.” Many of these meetings, often known as councils or synods, were triggered by various heresies that kept cropping up. However, while they addressed these points, the bishops and others also worked to bring harmony among different practices that had grown up independently while the Church was scattered and persecuted.
Following the New Testament’s testimony, most of Christendom kept a connection between the Resurrection and the Hebrew Passover. Since the Hebrew calendar was based on the cycles of the moon, it never matched the Roman calendar used by most lands where Christians lived. Therefore, a Christian celebration based on the date of Hebrew feast was moving all about the Western calendar.
Efforts to standardize the date finally led to two major liturgical cycles. One is held by most of the Orthodox (Eastern) Church. The other is that of Western Christianity, including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and various bodies that left Rome through the years. Both follow methods that may seem peculiar or clumsy, but they follow the path established by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
Easter may fall on any date from 22 March through 25 April under the calendar used by the Western churches and by those nations where these churches are well-established. The Church uses the following formula: Easter falls on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox (the first day of spring). With the current year (AD 2008) as our example, we can see how the date was determined. The exact time of the equinox in 2008 was 5:48 a.m. GMT on 20 March (Holy Thursday). The next full moon was 21 March (Good Friday) and the following Sunday was the 23rd. Therefore, this year’s date for Easter was 23 March.
Previous related posts include Notes on the Christian Calendar and A Christian New Year.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, newspaper columnist, conference speaker, blogger, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Based on newspaper column #542:1