Why Doesn’t Easter Settle Down to One Date?
Q: Some people have told me that the way the day Easter is determined is by what day there is a full moon in March. Is this true? I also wanted to let you know that I find your “Ask the Pastor” wonderful and for all denominations, not just Lutherans. Thank you very much.
A: You are very much welcome! Basically, you’ve been told correctly, but there’s more to the calculations and a lot more to the history. We’ll look at our past so as to lead up to our present method of determining when we will celebrate Easter. This also determines when we begin Lent, as we will see in an upcoming post.
In the early days of the Church, the Good Friday-Easter events were commemorated every week. A vestige of this remains in most churches, with our regular Sunday services. This is why many churches that observe Lent do not include Sundays in its 40 days, since no celebration of the Resurrection, even weekly, well fits a penitential season. It also explains why certain churches fast (or restrict the diet) on Fridays. Every Friday was to be a reminder of the Savior’s death, while each Sunday was a new celebration of His resurrection. Later, the Church began to focus on an annual Easter observance.
With scattered congregations, differing languages and theologies, and often poor communication, the date of the annual remembrance of the Resurrection was argued about. With all the early Christian defenses of the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ, you might be surprised to learn that they fought almost as hard over the date of Easter as they did over the person and nature of Christ.
Much of the Eastern Church, basing its calculations on the date for Passover, commemorated the death of Christ on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan, which could be any day of the week. The West focused on his Sunday resurrection, commemorating His death on the preceding Friday. The Western Church judged that the East’s practice over-emphasized His death at the expense of His resurrection. The dispute almost broke the Church apart before the Council of Nicea ruled against the Quartodecimans (the 14thers), who were then treated as heretics.
The Nicene council then moved to establish one date, based not on the Hebrew calendar and the time of Passover, but on the western calendar. The decree was that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal (spring) equinox — unless that full moon falls on a Sunday, when the date is moved one week later. The date was refined in later days, when our current calendar came into effect.
However, even this agreement isn’t perfect. The Western Church bases its calculations on the Gregorian Calendar. Meanwhile, Eastern Christianity, by and large, uses the Julian Calendar for liturgical purposes. Therefore, East and West rarely celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection on the same day. In fact, in the forty-one years from 1982 through 2022, Eastern and Western Christendom share a same-day celebration only ten times. Otherwise, the observations may be anywhere from a week to more than a month separated from each other. Just once during this span, in 2010 and 2011, do we see back-to-back years where the churches agree on the day.
A recent development leads to more “controversy” about the day on which Easter falls. In the United States, Daylight Saving Time recently was extended, from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday and then to the last Sunday in March. Since this happened, there is a possibility that Easter will fall on the date of the time change. The time change regularly causes problems with people forgetting to reset their clocks and coming to church an hour late — and those who attend are still tired because of a short night’s sleep. It becomes worse when our worship includes Saturday night’s Easter Vigil or a Sunday sunrise service commemorating the women’s early visit to the tomb.
See also Notes on the Christian Calendar and Setting a Date for Easter.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Updated from newspaper column #22