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When’s Easter?

The phrase “moveable feast,” while popularized by Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, refers primarily to the holidays surrounding Passover and Easter. Although “Easter” is not a biblical word, Passover is a major holiday in the Jewish calendar. The origins of the festival, while disputed among scholars, are narrated in the biblical texts in Exodus 12–13, describing the Israelites who are anxious to escape slavery in Egypt, preparing a special meal on the night the “destroyer” slays the first-born of the Egyptians. (The theological implications of this, naturally, weren’t lost on early Christians.) So, when did this happen?

Without delving into the sticky issues of historicity, Judaism eventually fixed the date of Passover on Nisan 15 and here’s where it starts getting fun. The ancient calendar of Judaism isn’t fully understood. The Bible doesn’t lay it out in detail (presumably people of the time knew their own time-keeping) and the debate still continues. Generally the biblical calendar gets classified as lunisolar—lunar with elements of solar, or perhaps vice-versa. The date of Passover depends on the full moon, more precisely it begins on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Easter, in the Christian adaptation, is the first Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox. Follow?

As a result of this calendrical conflation, Easter may fall as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. But wait—this is according to the calendar used by the Roman Catholic and most Protestant Churches. Eastern Orthodox Christians base the date of Easter on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar used by Western Christians. So, when is Easter?

This question lies behind a recent initiative raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. As the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Welby has engaged in talks with Pope Francis, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church in Alexandria, in an attempt to set a fixed date for Easter. The moveable feast would finally be as predictable as Christmas.

A story on BBC News earlier this year outlines Archbishop Welby’s lead on the issue. The Vatican has, in principle, agreed to have a fixed date for Easter. However, challenges may lie further east, as the Orthodox Church is ran under an autocephalous status with no single leader of “Orthodox Christianity.” Issues revolving around the choice of calendar have deep roots. Such issues are often tied to religious identity. If the Orthodox Church doesn’t join in, the attempt to fix a date can meet only partial success.

Even more complicated are the implications for Protestants. Some estimates put the number of distinct Protestant groups into the tens of thousands. Although times change, the early breaks between Roman Catholicism and, particularly reformed traditions, fell along rather strong party lines. Would all major Protestant groups be willing to shift their calendars? Should Rome, Canterbury, Constantinople, and Alexandria agree? Right now most Protestants follow Rome for the date of Easter.

What about those beyond the church? After all, not only are religious celebrations impacted, but many school calendars and business interests as well. If the date’s going to change, a lot of people have to be on board.

A culture of convenience, however, may ease the issue, should the major liturgical traditions agree. Wouldn’t it be easier to make spring-time plans if the date of Easter could be fixed? Not to worry that we don’t know the date of Jesus’ crucifixion—we don’t know the day he was born either. Ironically, history is perhaps the least determining factor in such discussions.

Undoubtedly a permanent date for Easter would be a much easier discussion if the Bible stood behind Easter as a holiday. Like the argument that “the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus and Paul,” the date of Easter going back to the time of Jesus is anachronistic. Evidence for a full celebration of Pascha, the early name for Easter, dates to at least a century after the event it commemorates. Complicating matters even further is the fact that Passover and Easter fall into the very old and very pagan set of equinox celebrations. Easter isn’t just a Christian idea; scholars suggest Passover may go back predating biblical traditions as well.

The Bible has its share of holidays, Passover among them; while the New Testament provides no authoritative dates for events surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The date of Christmas wasn’t established until the fourth century. Even 17 centuries later we continue to ask, “When’s Easter this year?”

Featured image credit: Easter Procession, 1893 by Illarion Pryanishnikov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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