13 December 2017

The Date of Easter

For centuries Easter has been the most important date in the Christian year. There is an obvious association with the commemoration of Jesus’s death which is central to Christian faith. However, the date on which Easter is celebrated was a subject of intense theological debate in the Early Church era and, surprisingly, is still not resolved.

Jesus had an evening meal with his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem on the night of his arrest prior to crucifixion. It is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as a Passover meal or Seder (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-31 and Luke 22:7-38) yet in John’s account, does not appear to be a Seder (John 13:1, 19:31). Despite this puzzle, the earliest Christians were Jewish and easily adapted the Jewish Passover meal into a new Christian Eucharist with obvious imagery such a ‘Jesus, the Lamb of God’. Throughout Syria, and Asia Minor in particular the timing of this new Christian commemoration, Easter, coincided exactly with the timing of the Jewish Passover which took place annually on the evening of 14 Nisan. This date was calculated according to the 354-day Jewish sacred lunar calendar and could be any day of the week, falling in the Springtime. Within the Church this practice was called ‘Quartodecimanism’ because Passover was declared to begin on the evening of the fourteenth day (die quarta decima) after the full moon that fell on or following the spring equinox. Following the gospel chronology, Eucharist was celebrated on evening of 14 Nisan and Easter resurrection on 17 Nisan.

Gentile Christians in the rest of the Roman Empire preferred to follow the more common solar Julian calendar and many Church leaders, keen to distinguish between Jewish and Christian beliefs, were unhappy to link Christian Easter with Jewish Passover and therefore celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after 14 Nisan.This practice led to confusion and faction fighting among Christians in some of the large cosmopolitan congregations such as Rome. Christians with a Jewish background ended their Lenten fast and celebrated Easter on 17 Nissan (perhaps a Thursday) while Christians of a Gentile background continued their fast until the following Sunday. Such a state of affairs could not continue indefinitely and serious conflict developed in the second century between the eastern churches of Asia Minor and the western churches who looked to Rome for leadership. Roman bishop Victor I (c. 189 – c. 198) attempted to excommunicate all Quartodecimans but his ruling was opposed as much because of resentment at Roman dominance as the specific merits of the case for the Western date of Easter.

In addition to the irreconcilability of the lunar and solar calendars, the issue was further complicated by the fact there were variant interpretations of the solar calendar. In Rome dominated West the spring equinox was 25 March and in Alexandria dominated East the spring equinox was 21 March. The significant Council of Nicaea in AD325 which was attended by about 300 bishops discussed at length the Quartodeciman controversy. Here it was agreed, after consultation with Egyptian astrologers, that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the full moon that fell on or after the spring equinox and that the equinox is reckoned as 21 March. Each year the bishop of Alexandria would ascertain the forthcoming date from the astrologers and convey this information to the bishop of Rome. Each bishop would then announce the forthcoming agreed Easter date to their respective halves of Empire. One curious byproduct of this decision was the claim by the Quartodecimans that they were to be labelled as heretics for following the example of the apostles!

The Easter controversy does not end there. There were only six Westerners in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, certainly none from far off Ireland. The Celtic Church, which developed on this island after the ministry of Patrick in the late fifth century, displayed some distinctive features, including a monastic structure. When Roman missionaries began to penetrate Western Britain and Ireland in the late sixth century, they discovered a Celtic Church which still employed an old method of calculating dates which had been defunct in the rest of Europe for many years. During the earliest years of the seventh century British and European bishops wrote several letters to their Irish counterparts pleading for the Irish Church to abandon its dating system and conform to the more widely accepted European method of calculation. A delegation was sent from Ireland to Rome in 629 or 630 to discuss these differences but the Irish delegates returned in 632 proclaiming their personal acceptance of the Roman usage.

The dispute culminated in a royal household dispute in Northumbria. King Oswiu advocated the Irish custom but his wife Eanflaed came from Kent and adhered to the European custom. The famous historian Bede records that on one occasion the king was celebrating Easter with a feast while on the same day his wife was fasting and commemorating Palm Sunday. A synod was convened at Whitby in 664 where the Roman and Celtic wings of the church pursued agreement on the date of Easter under the chairmanship of King Oswiu. The Roman practice won the day but was not immediately or universally accepted everywhere. The Irish Church agreed to conform in 697 and Wales, the last bastion of Celtic resistance, in 768.

The matter remains unresolved to this day because the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the older Gregorian calendar for date calculations while most of the world now uses the newer Julian calendar. Each Church differs in its definition of the vernal equinox and the full moon with the Eastern Church adopting the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem, site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Hence in 2012 we celebrate Easter on 8 April but the Orthodox Church marks 15 April as Easter.

It remains a curious practice to this day that our date of Easter varies from year to year, yet even in our location, conforms to the advice of ancient Egyptian astrologers that it should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.