If you didn’t know that more than one date for Easter existed, don’t worry, you’re not alone! In fact, the same is also true concerning the date of Christmas, which is fixed in the Roman liturgical calendar on December 25th, but differs in the Eastern Rite Churches. So perhaps a little background information might be helpful in better understanding the Easter date question.
The liturgical calendar differs from our civil calendar in respect of the year’s beginning (the First Sunday of Advent versus January 1) and of the seasons (Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Paschaltide and the times after Epiphany and Pentecost versus Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter). Added to the overlapping of times that occur on both calendars is the fluctuating date of Easter and its contingent moveable days (Sundays, feasts, vigils and ferials).
Easter of course is the holiest of days and the climax of the entire liturgical year, but its reckoning has been in dispute from the beginning of Christianity due to the different calendar systems that existed (e.g,. solar versus lunar), while the Jewish calendar did not sync with the Roman calendar. So while it was known that Christ’s Resurrection occurred the day after the 14th of Nissan (a Hebrew month that falls during March and April) when the Pasch (Passover Feast) was observed, the precise day was still difficult to determine from year to year.
However, it was known for a certitude that Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday. The Apostles thereby forbade the observance of Easter on a weekday (even if it was actually the 15th of Nissan) and ruled that the celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection should occur the following Sunday. From this decision arose the famous Easter Controversy of the Early Church which has many facets (see the topical entry in The Catholic Encyclopedia for details).
In 325, the Council of Nicea resolved the matter by ordering Easter to be universally observed on the same Sunday that followed the 14th day of the paschal moon. The paschal moon was itself identified as the moon that had its 14th day following the vernal equinox (i.e., an astronomical Latin term that refers to the date in Spring [vernal] on which the night [nox] is nearly of equal [equi] length to the day). Problem solved, right?
Well, it gets complicated again, because we are not yet in the age of nuclear time pieces that are accurate to the nanosecond. To make a long story short, the old Julian Calendar (named after Julius Caesar who ordered a reform of the even more ancient Roman Calendar) was hopelessly outdated (pun intended) causing problems with reckoning the vernal equinox. Rectifying this problem was a major concern of the Council of Trent and finally in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the reformed Gregorian Calendar which was adopted throughout the West and continues to be used today.
However, the East had fallen into schism and though eventually most of the Orient adopted the Gregorian Calendar in civil life, the Eastern Churches (including the Uniates—those in union with the Holy See) continued to use the old Julian Calendar (and later a Revised Julian Calendar; also it should be noted that the Copts use the even older Egyptian-Alexandrian Calendar). The practical result of this divergence is that usually the date of Easter is observed on different Sundays in the West and the East (for example, this year it occurred on April 5 in the Roman Church and on April 12 amongst the Eastern Orthodox, i.e., the Greeks and Slavs).
The suggestion of an actual fixed date for Easter (as December 25th is for Christmas) is not actually a new or novel one. Not only has this idea being suggested several times in Church history by eminent ecclesiastics, but it has even been practiced by parts of the Early Church in the West. The motivation for solidifying the Easter Day on the calendar is due to the practical inconvenience that an annual fluctuating date can cause.
As the current calendar mechanics work, the moveable feast of Easter causes a whole chain of liturgical days to move like a giant slide rule every year both before and after the celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord. While the Table of Moveable Feasts found in every lay missal demonstrates the impact that the changing date of Easter has annually on the liturgical calendar, this is only a partial sampling of its enormity and complexity.
The Tabella Temporaria Festorum Mobilium (as titled in the Missale Romanum) in fact only shows the most important days affected every year by the moveable date of Easter, starting with Septuagesima Sunday then to the marker of Ash Wednesday (thus the start of Lent) then to Easter followed by the Ascension, Pentecost and finally Corpus Christi.
But equally affected are such matters as III class feasts that give precedence to the Lenten ferials or are even omitted due to Holy Week or the Octaves of Easter and Pentecost. There is also the possible transfer of a I class feast such as the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on March 25. Even the Friday on which the Feast of the Sacred Heart is observed comes under the Paschal reckoning rules.
But perhaps the biggest effect of the “Paschal slide rule” is the number of Sundays that come after the Feast of the Epiphany (thus preceding Septuagesima Sunday) and after Pentecost Sunday (thus preceding Advent). To complicate matters further, per the Table of Moveable Feasts, the number of Sundays after the Epiphany is actually calculated post factum by the number of Sundays after Pentecost, which can range from 23 to 28 in number. This leads to perhaps the most frustrating moment experienced annually in the pews: when that studious lay person frantically realizes—despite their missal’s instruction—they’ve incorrectly set their ribbons for one of the last Sundays after Pentecost!
From this brief outline of the complexities connected with the reckoning of Easter in the liturgical calendar, it becomes clear that there would be a certain practical and pastoral advantage to fixing the date of Easter—either to a particular Sunday or even several fixed calendar dates. In either case, from what has been described above about the current system, many aspects in the liturgical calendar would be affected and require resolution.
At this point, many are perhaps asking: “Does the pope have the authority to change or fix the date of Easter?” History itself testifies that as with other feasts (such as the Nativity of Our Lord) the Holy Father can indeed authorize when Easter will be observed—and in fact, the popes have long tolerated a divergence of when Easter is celebrated by Catholics of the West (Latin Rite) versus those of the East (Uniates of Eastern Rites).
Even during the Second Vatican Council, the desire was expressed in Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches) that the various Uniate Eastern Rites—which followed different calendar systems and thus had divergent dates for Easter) work towards a common reckoning of Easter Sunday, which eventually was accomplished by adopting the ancient Julian Calendar.
The problem in today’s context is that after the Second Vatican Council, fixing the date of Easter has been favored for the ecumenical reason of establishing a sense of unity and peace between the various religions of Christianity. The use of a fixed date of Easter for this ecumenical purpose was in fact purposed by the World Council of Churches in 1923—but the attempt failed because the Catholic Church refused to participate in false ecumenism. Since then, similar attempts have been made by the WCC in 1997 and again in 2008 and 2009—but now with participants from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
When I first heard that Pope Francis had declared that an agreement on a fixed date of Easter with the Eastern Orthodox was almost a done deal, my initial thought was, “I bet it will be an Orthodox reckoning that will be agreed to”. It was the historical precedence of the Eastern Orthodox’s attitude of superiority over the Roman Church—and thus the Bishop of Rome or Papacy—that convinced me that they would never accept any proposal but their own. Unfortunately, my hunch turned out to be right, as can be seen in these remarks made by a Russian Orthodox Church representative:
“If the Church of Rome intends to abandon Easter according to the Gregorian calendar, introduced in the 16th century, and go back to the old one (Julian), used at a time when the Church of the East and West were united and used to date by the Orthodox, then this intention is welcome,” he said. If, instead, the idea is to “have a fixed date for Easter and not tie it to the first full moon after the spring equinox, as established in the East and in the West by the Council of Nicaea in 325, then this proposal is totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church.”
There are several problems with Pope Francis’ desire to establish a fixed date of Easter:
1. The primary context for universally fixing the date of Easter is not to rectify a practical issue of liturgical praxis in the Catholic Church (amongst the West and East), but rather as an ecumenical bridge to foster a false unity with those who are outside the One, True Fold in which Our Redeemer through His Passion, Death and Resurrection saves souls.
2. Pope Francis is practicing the error of collegiality in regards to the Orthodox, who do not respect the primacy of authority of the Papacy, and thus expect the Holy Father to behave as simply “another bishop” rather than as the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.
3. A fixed date of Easter would most likely be seriously problematic for the liturgical calendar of the 1962 Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum. As seen above, any necessary changes to the current calendar mechanics would not be minor ones. And who is competent to make these changes to the traditional Roman Mass per its authentic liturgical spirit (as opposed to that of the modernist Novus Ordo Missae)—the Congregation of the Divine Worship and Liturgy, the Ecclesia Dei Commission? One must wonder if they would insist on adding to the calendar of saints persons whose canonizations have been seriously called into doubt.
Though in itself fixing the date of Easter Sunday is a legitimate notion, due to the abovementioned issues, the current attempt to reach an agreement would most likely have tragic results. It is often said that God can draw straight with crooked lines, while He can always draw good out of an evil situation. Perhaps in this light, the renowned and previously cited obstinacy of the Eastern Orthodox will work in favor of preventing a fixed date of Easter at this time.
Of course, we can also fervently pray to Pope St. Pius V and St. Pius X—two great patrons of the Mass of All Time—for a favorable outcome in this matter.
1 It might interest some readers to learn that the Paschal Tables (Tabula Paschalis) of both the Julian Calendar (Antiqua Reformata) and the Gregorian Calendar (Nova Reformata) are published in the De Anno et eius Partibus (The Year and its Parts) of the Missale Romanum.
2 It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic Church uses the ecclesiastical moon for reckoning the vernal equinox, while the Eastern Orthodox Churches follow the astronomical moon.
3 There’s even a special transfer rule in the Rubricae Generales section (where the liturgical calendar rubrics are located in the missal and breviary) for this feast: if it must be transferred after Easter, then the Annunciation is observed on the Monday after Low Sunday.
4 This quote was given by AsiaNews in its June 16, 2015 article of “Moscow Patriarchate to Pope: On Easter a gesture of goodwill, but we will not overturn old traditions”.