Celebrating Easter Together

 — Oct. 27, 201027 oct. 2010

On April 24th next year, we will celebrate Easter together in the Eastern and Western calendars. This happens occasionally, and it can always be a moment of great ecumenical opportunity. However, it also reflects one of the deepest divisions in the Body of Christ. Easter, as the celebration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of our Christian faith. The division over the date of Easter is a visible sign of division within a more profound unity, and thus is scandalous.

The difference between East and West reflects the choice between two different calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian. The Julian calendar, developed by Julius Caesar, is the basis for the entire Christian calendar. As Christianity grew outside of the Jewish homeland the Greek Christians used the Roman calendar based on solar observations rather than the lunar calendar of Judaism. The Julian calendar provided a more accurate account of the year, and allowed for greater precision in predicting seasons, harvests, and spring rains. The early church did not make this transition easily, with numerous factions defending each of the two calendars. As a result, Easter was celebrated at different times across the Christian world.

The Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was called to address disputes within the Christian churches that set Christians against each other. Along with its very important work on the divinity of Jesus, Nicaea also offered an important development in the Christian calendar. Nicaea determined that Easter is to be celebrated on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the spring equinox. This decision blends the solar and lunar calculations of the Roman and Jewish calendars, and is seen by historians and theologians as an acceptance of further adoption of Greek and Roman philosophy, science, and wisdom within a Judeo-Christian system of belief and life.

Unfortunately, the Julian calendar is not as accurate as hoped. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII in the late 1500s, the calendar was 10 days off from astronomical observations. Gregory reformed the calendar by removing the dates October 5th to 14th, 1582, and by modifying the leap years. Although it was a small reform, it set the Catholic countries in Europe apart from their Protestant neighbours and from the Eastern Orthodox churches. Gradually all of Europe adopted the reform, and much of the rest of the world now uses the calendar, but Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for calculating the church calendar. In Canada this is most obvious at Christmas and Easter when the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches have later celebrations.

Vatican II recommended that agreement between the churches on the date of Easter should be a priority, and that a new system of calculating the date would be acceptable as long as it was a consensus of the Christian churches. Proposals for a fixed date of Easter, such as the 2nd Sunday of April, were rejected by a number of churches, because of the difficulty in reaching a consensus.

More recently a proposal has been developed in the Middle East that was adopted by an international consultation in 1997 at Aleppo, Syria. The new proposal is that the calculations of Nicaea be followed carefully, but that the date of the spring equinox should not be fixed on March 21st. Astronomical observations are to be used, and the actual date of the equinox will be determined scientifically. The Nicene formula can then be followed.

In much of the discussion of this proposed agreement since 1997 a comparison of the projected dates of Easter plays an important part. The projected dates for the Western church would only change a few times in the next 50 years, while the dates for the East would change almost every year. This appears to place a greater burden of change on the East. However, the change that is asked of the East is actually a more precise application of the Nicene formula, which is not a difficult change to make.

There is one other change that is also reflected in the proposed agreement. In 325, the bishops ruled that when Easter falls on the Jewish Passover, Easter is postponed by a week. This remains the firm practice in the Eastern churches, but not in the West. In the Western liturgical tradition the Last Supper is understood as a Passover meal (as described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The Eastern tradition does not make a direct connection between Passover and the Last Supper (following the gospel of John), and thus not between Passover and the Eucharist or Easter. This difference between the Eastern and Western traditions touches upon a number of Western doctrines, particularly how we understand the connection between the sacraments and salvation, and between the death and resurrection of Jesus and salvation.

The Eucharist is the most obvious connection for Western churches between Easter and Passover. In Western sacramental theology, there is a strong tendency to view the Eucharist as a sharing in the Passover and therefore a sharing in the covenantal promises of Israel and the spiritual gift of salvation. Other sacraments are related in a similar fashion. For the Eastern churches, however, the sacraments are a sharing in the divine life of the Trinity. They lead to salvation because they transform us into the image and likeness of God.

In the Western church, since Easter is about sharing in the Passover, the emphasis is placed on the death and resurrection Jesus, which is understood as Jesus’ own passover from death into life. In the East, greater emphasis is placed on Jesus’ whole life, and particularly on the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation unites the human and divine natures in the person of Jesus, and thus makes possible our sharing in the divine nature through the sacraments and other spiritual disciplines. The Western idea of vicarious atonement, that remains popular in certain Evangelical circles, is inconsistent with the Eastern understanding of Easter.

The 1997 Aleppo agreement on the date of Easter has not been formally adopted by any church. No church wants to introduce new divisions by adopting a system without universal agreement. But how is such an agreement to be enacted? The opportunity to celebrate together in 2011 gives us an encouragement to continue working on this important sign of the unity given to us in Christ.

Posted: Oct. 27, 2010 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6263
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Christian unity, Date of Easter, dialogue, ecumenism, WCC
Transmis : 27 oct. 2010 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6263
Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Christian unity, Date of Easter, dialogue, ecumenism, WCC

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