Bert Groen is professor of liturgy and director of the department of Liturgy, Christian Art, and Hymnology at the University of Graz. He is author of How Long It Was and How Far’: A Catholic and Ecumenical View on the Arduous Way to a Common Easter Date. Pray Tell spoke with him in light of recent news coverage about the desire for a common date of Easter.
Why is this issue of a common date for Easter coming up now? What are the new developments?
This spring, Pope Francis has written to several Orthodox Church leaders, proposing them a fixed Easter date. He did so in reaction to numerous complaints that the Churches give a divided witness with their Easter date differences. Many people are arguing in favor of a common paschal date. In 2010, 2011, 2014 Eastern and Western Christianity celebrated Easter on the same dates. This will again happen in 2017, and then it will last another eight years (2025). So, time is crucial.
However, Francis’ initiative is not new at all, because the issue of a fixed date is an ‘oldie’. During the twentieth century, Protestant Church leaders and others have made similar proposals which never met with success. In addition, the Second Vatican Council (in its appendix to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) said that it is not opposed to a fixed date, but neither this promoted the issue effectively.
On the one hand, an appointed date has several advantages, especially for civil calendars and long-term time planning. On the other hand, its theological disadvantages are obvious. A first disadvantage is that the close connection between the calculation of the Jewish Pesach and that of the Christian Easter would be lost. This is not just an astronomical and a calendar issue, but has to do with the Jewish roots of the Christian tradition and liturgy. Christian Easter is closely interconnected with Jewish Passover. Another theological disadvantage of a fixed Easter date is that it would contradict the stipulations of the First Council of Nicaea (CE 325) – not to mention the biblical witness itself and significant segments of the Christian tradition.
Help us understand: briefly, what are the differences between Julian, Gregorian, and Meletian calendars?
In 46/45 BCE Gaius Julius Caesar carried out a revision of the Roman system of time calculation. In the course of the centuries, the Julian calendar named after him began to display some minor inaccuracies. Because these increasingly became major inaccuracies, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a reformed, more accurate time reckoning. On the one hand, the calendar change resulted in a much needed improvement of time reckoning; on the other, both in the East and in the West, it caused a rupture with respect to the calculation of Pascha, because henceforth, in many places, there were two different dates. Most Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches held on to the Julian calendar, whereas nearly all Western Christian denominations adopted the Gregorian. After fiery resistance to the ‘papal’ calculation, England and its colonies finally adopted the new calendar in 1752.
The ‘Meletian calendar’, named after Meletios IV Metaxakis, Patriarch of Constantinople and former Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox in North America (1921-1923 CE), is a blend calendar, combining the Gregorian time calculation with the determination of Easter according to the Julian calendar. Use of the Meletian calendar thus means that even Orthodox Churches employing the Gregorian reckoning for fixed feasts (like the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church of Greece) still celebrate the cycles of Great Lent and Pascha in accordance with the Julian calendar.
News stories have headlines about the same Lord “only rising once a year,” saying that “he can’t rise on two different dates.” Are you uncomfortable with such literalism, as if the Resurrection “happens again” on the date we choose? Or does this show the power of the liturgy to bring people into a real experience of the saving events of salvation?
Well, it is a bit funny that, in various places, the central and unique main event of the Church year is celebrated several times consecutively. After all, we deal with ‘Christ’s resurrection as the basis of the common Christian faith’ and ‘a sign of the unity and reconciliation which God wills for the entire creation’ (Aleppo Statement, see below). Even so, the Paschal Mystery is celebrated not only at Easter but in any authentic worship service. In addition, we have so many seemingly ‘odd’ cultural differences already, e.g. Christmas being celebrated both in the snowy Alps and in summer hot Australia at the same time.
Just how important is this issue at the ground level? Do the differing dates really confuse or disturb some Christians?
It is important for everyday life in regions where both Eastern and Western Christians coexist. Especially in the Middle East this is a very disturbing issue. In many families, some members adhere to the Orthodox Church, others are Eastern Catholics, still others are Eastern Protestants, or Reformed, or… Taking into consideration that different Easter dates also mean different Great Lent dates, the schedules for fasting may differ too. So, you might have the curious case that some family members are still fasting, eating beans and drinking water, whereas others eat their fill of meat and drink wine. Also a pity for the person in charge of the kitchen!
Eastern Christianity is very diverse and decentralized, with some differences among them on the date of Easter. What are the chances they would come to agreement?
Indeed, there is quite a ‘gap’ between the Finnish Orthodox Church that celebrates not only Christmas and the other immovable festivals but also the entire movable Paschal cycle according to the Gregorian calendar, on the one hand, and other Orthodox Churches that hold on to the revised Julian time reckoning. For many of their faithful the Julian calendar is kinda sacred and an ‘untouchable’ identity mark. The Pan-Orthodox Synod set for June 2016 will have to deal with this issue. However, for any important decision to be taken, the vote must be unanimous. I doubt whether that will happen. Also in the Oriental Orthodox communities there is great variety. Some Armenian churches celebrate all festivals according to the Gregorian calendar, whereas others stick to the Julian calculation. All in all, the calendrical conundrum is astoundingly complex!
You propose in your book that the Roman Church adopt the Julian date, even though it’s ‘wrong,’ just to come to agreement with the East. Is this a sellout? Or the only possible way of coming to a peaceful resolution?
Well, sometimes you have to make a step backwards in order to make two steps forwards. ‘If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go the mountain.’ Actually, the policy which the Catholic Church pursues is finding provisional solutions at local and regional levels. Thus, in regions where the Orthodox are the majority, the Catholics adapt to the Julian calendar regarding the Easter date. This is the case in Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, and some other countries. For its part, the Catholic Church expects that in countries where it is the dominant denomination the Orthodox adopt the ‘Gregorian’ time reckoning for the Easter date. This, however, is mostly not the case.
But the best way still is the approach taken by the Aleppo Statement (1997). In that seminal declaration, called ‘Towards a Common Date for Easter’, pivotal recommendations are made: (a) maintaining the norms established by the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, according to which Easter must fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring, and (b) calculating the necessary astronomical data (spring equinox and full moon) by the most accurate possible scientific means, using the Jerusalem meridian as the basis for reckoning. This is a lucid statement, also explicitly supported by official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and many other Christian communities. Also the ‘North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation’ warmly welcomes the Aleppo Statement’s recommendations and wholly accepts them. It is a bit curious that Pope Francis, who undoubtedly is earnestly striving for inter-ecclesiastical unity, does not use the Aleppo Statement as his point-of-departure.
What would happen in Western Christianity if the Roman Church made a deal with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches? Would there be many evangelicals or fundamentalists or free churches, or Levèbvrians who rejected Rome’s move, and would the West become newly divided?
I fear that any move towards unity, and the changes that go along with it, cause new division. Although church mergers may be most beneficial, there are always groups that feel threatened and disagree. This applies to calendar issues as well. Look at spelling: try to modernize the antiquated spelling of the English language and adapt it to its pronunciation. This will cause a storm of emotion and protests (although many others will advocate for it).
Mutual information is important. At any rate, the goal of ecumenism cannot be a Catholic-Orthodox coalition without participation of the other Western Churches. Its objective is that all Churches together seek unity in Christ.
What should we expect in the future? How might Pope Francis move this issue forward?
Personally I think that the proposal of a fixed Easter date is the wrong way. Twentieth-century history proves that. The only viable way is the implementation of the Aleppo Statement. Or, but only provisionally, the adaptation to the Julian calendar. At any rate, this is a highly emotional issue. There is great need for careful education and pastoral sensitivity in approaching the question at hand. So far Pope Francis has often shown that he can go unconventional ways leading to the goal of unity, coveted by so many faithful. I wish him clarity of sight in this calendrical labyrinth.
For more information, see inter alia my study ‘How Long It Was and How Far’: A Catholic and Ecumenical View on the Arduous Way to a Common Easter Date, Graz: Grazer Universitätsverlag – Leykam, 2013 (= Allgemeine Wissenschaftliche Reihe 35), 78 pp.