One of the outcomes of the meeting of Anglican primates in January was an agreement to work towards a fixed date for Easter. What’s that all about then? That’s what I’ve been wondering, and I thought I’d try to find out.
Disclaimer: I really don’t know what I’m talking about in what follows, as it’s all very complicated, so please take it with a large pinch of salt!
The day on which Jesus rose from the dead was, plausibly, Sunday 5 April, 33 AD. This was, simultaneously:
- the first day of the week,
- the day after Passover,
- the 16th day of the first (lunar) month of spring,
- the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox,
- the first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March,
- the 5th day of April, according to the Julian calendar,
- the 3rd day of April, according to the Gregorian calendar, and
- the first Sunday of April.
So when should we celebrate Christ’s resurrection? Of course, the answer is ‘every day’! But, in terms of specific days, perhaps we should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on…
- The first day of the week? The day of resurrection is the first day of the new creation. This is significant, and it makes Sunday into a weekly celebration of the resurrection. (Please don’t sing resurrection hymns on only one Sunday of the year!)
- The day after Passover? There are two problems here. First, Passover can fall on any day of the week, so we would lose the connection with the first day of the week. Second, the Jewish festival of Passover has become disconnected from spring, because the Hebrew calendar has, since the fourth century, followed a 19-year cycle of leap months, which doesn’t quite keep the lunar year in step with the solar year. As a result, Passover falls (I think) on average around a fortnight later than it did in Jesus’ time (compare this with this).
- The 16th day of the first (lunar) month of spring? In ancient times, they waited until the barley was ripe before they allowed the first month to begin (adding a leap month if necessary). So if we really want to maintain the link between Easter and Passover, then we ought to do it properly, and restore the link between Passover and spring at the same time!
- The first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox? 14 Nisan falls on a full moon, and around Jesus’ time this would have (usually) been the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This is almost the traditional date for Easter, except that the vernal equinox has been fixed at 21 March.
- The first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March? This is the current definition of Easter. But according to which calendar? The Julian calendar was in use when the catholic (universal) church agreed on this date for Easter. But the Julian calendar was wrong! So when the Roman church (and eventually the world) switched to the Gregorian calendar, the Eastern churches were a bit miffed, because the Western church was acting unilaterally (again). So the Eastern churches still observe Easter according to the Julian calendar (1 May this year).
- The 5th day of April, according to the Julian calendar? I don’t think anyone is suggesting this (though if you were born on 5th April under the Julian calendar, and then the switch to the Gregorian calendar took place during your life, you would have continued to celebrate your birthday on 5th April under the Gregorian calendar).
- The 3rd day of April, according to the Gregorian calendar? This would strike us intuitively as being the ‘actual’ date on which Jesus rose. But it’s only the ‘actual’ date in relation to the earth’s motion relative to the sun. And that’s just as arbitrary as anything else.
- The first Sunday of April? There seems to be some momentum globally towards fixing Easter on a particular Sunday in April. (Interestingly, Archbishop Welby mentioned the second or third Sunday in April as the probable date at the meeting of primates mentioned above.) I can see the benefits of having a fixed date, though it does feel as though we’re forcing Jesus to fit into our ‘liturgical’ calendar of consumerist festivals and holidays. But I don’t think it’s too big a deal. Either we maintain the link with Passover, which means we don’t always celebrate Easter on a Sunday (and also that we either accept the ‘wrong’ date of Passover, or restore the link between Passover and the onset of Spring in Jerusalem), or we make some kind of arbitrary decision about when to celebrate Easter. And a fixed date to keep it close to the ‘actual’ date of the resurrection (according to the solar calendar) strikes me as not entirely unreasonable.
And that’s all for today. I’m sure there are many errors in what I’ve just written: please leave a comment if you spot one!
And remember: Easter lasts for 50 days, so may I wish you all a very happy Easter!
Christ is risen!