The Date of Easter

The date of Easter has always been a source of some controversy and disagreement among Christians.  To this day, the fact that Christians celebrate Easter on different days puzzles some Christians and annoys others.  Yet the issue is no longer a matter of huge controversy. Yet for centuries the Early Church was paralyzed by controversies over how to calculate the date of Easter.  Perhaps the most famous of these controversies was the Quartodecimanism Controversy.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the following potted history of the controversies:

1170 At the Council of Nicaea in 325, all the Churches agreed that Easter, the Christian Passover, should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon (14 Nisan) after the vernal equinox.

Yet Nicea did not solve all disagreement, there have been many other disagreements on the date of Easter over the centuries, for example, in the seventh century, the Irish Church almost broke with Rome due to one such disagreement on how to calculate the date of Easter. Such disagreements continue to this very day. Today most of the differences in calculating the date of Easter are not so much due to the formula agreed at Nicea, but because there are a number of calendars in use. Civil society and most Western Christians use the Gregorian Calendar while many Eastern Christians use the older, but less precise, Julian Calendar (while some use the Revised Julian Calendar).

Various Christian bodies are still working to agree on a common date for Easter. The World Council of Churches provides this summary of the situation on their website. At Vatican II, the Council Fathers approved of the idea of assigning Easter to a given Sunday each year, provided that other Christians would agree (see the appendix to Sacrosanctum Concilium). Unfortunately, this did not lead to a solution and various ecumenical negotiations have continued since then. In 2015 Pope Francis (prematurely) announcedthat the Catholic Church had reached an agreement with other Christians to have a single date for Easter.

Understanding and appreciation of each other’s traditions and spirituality will go a long way to overcome these divisions. But this year, with the two celebrations falling a week apart, I think that we have made some small progress in mutual understanding. It may be a miniscule step forward in the midst of the tragic and evil war in Ukraine, but I think it was a step in the right direction.

I am a news junkie and, in particular, these past few months I have read hundreds of stories about the situation in Ukraine. I have also read a lot about the catastrophic discommunion that is tearing the Orthodox world apart. But in the past few weeks, I have noted a much better news coverage in the difference in the dates of Easter.  Maybe I am wrong, but in both secular and religious news media I have discerned more nuance and acceptance of the fact that there are two dates of Easter. I did not come across any coverage that said that one calculation was correct and the other was wrong. While there are so many things to be worried about in our world, I think that this may be one small area where the Holy Spirit is working to bring about unity.

 

Cover image: A mix of traditional Ukrainian, diasporan and original pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) used under a Creative Commons license  – CC BY-SA 3.0

5 comments

  1. The Russian Orthodox Church effectively holds the rudder on any decision that involves a date it would not be willing to observe.

    Imagine if Rome offered to observe Easter using the Julian date and Eastern computus, conditioned on the willingness of the other churches in the West to agree to do so for the sake of Christian unity f observance? (That would seem more likely than the Russians agreeing to anything else.) Though the current Status Quo for the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre might have to be considered….

  2. I read somewhere that every 4 years the two dates of Easter coincide. Can anyone verify that or esxplain how that is wrong? If true, might that coinciding of the 2 Easters be a starting point for discussion?

  3. Here are the dates of Easter vs. Pascha from 2009 through 2022. There is no particular pattern of coincidence. They are calculated based on the same principles but using different calendars.

    Western Easter Eastern Pascha Occurrence
    2009 12 April 2009 19 April 1 week
    2010 4 April 2010 4 April same
    2011 24 April 2011 24 April same
    2012 8 April 2012 15 April 1 week
    2013 31 March 2013 5 May 1 month 1 week
    2014 20 April 2014 20 April same
    2015 5 April 2015 12 April 1 week
    2016 27 March 2016 1 May 1 month 1 week
    2017 16 April 2017 16 April same
    2018 1 April 2018 8 April 1 week
    2019 21 April 2019 28 April 1 week
    2020 12 April 2020 19 April 1 week
    2021 4 April 2021 2 May 1 month
    2022 17 April 2022 24 April 1 week

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