Have you ever greeted a neighbour with a “Happy Easter,” only to learn that they are still in the season of Lent and won’t be celebrating the Feast for another couple of weeks? In areas where Christians of different denominations live closely together, especially Eastern and Western churches, the search for a common date to celebrate Christ’s resurrection has become an urgent concern. As St. Paul makes clear (1 Corinthians 15:12-14), belief in the resurrection is a fundamental aspect of the apostolic faith. By celebrating this event on different days, Christians compromise their credibility and effectiveness in bringing the Gospel to an increasingly secular world.
In the early Christian community, Sunday quickly became the day to gather, pray, and celebrate God’s reconciling love as manifested in the saving passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. While it seemed relatively easy to identify Sunday as the day on which Christ rose from the dead, efforts to establish a date for an annual celebration of the resurrection met with greater difficulty. Although the New Testament indicates that Christ’s death and resurrection were historically linked to the Jewish Passover, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Gospel of John differ in their identification of the precise day of Jesus’ crucifixion. These differences, as well as local decisions about whether to celebrate Easter on the same day as the Jewish Passover or on the following Sunday, led to varying practices in the ancient church. As many Christian communities relied on Jewish calculations of Passover to determine the time of their own Easter celebrations, the situation became more complicated in the 3rd century when new calculations in the Jewish community changed the date of Passover from the first full moon after the spring equinox to a fixed lunar cycle.
Convened in 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea sought to promote Christian unity by determining the “Nicene norm” or “Nicene formula”: Easter would occur on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox, returning to the norms for calculating Passover during Jesus’ lifetime. The Nicene formula addressed several key issues. While it removed reliance on the Jewish calendars for setting the date of Easter, it also maintained a clear connection with Passover. Based on the scriptural accounts regarding the historical association of Christ’s passion and resurrection with the Passover, it preserved the Jewish roots of Jesus and the Christian faith. By referring to the spring equinox, it encouraged a single annual observance of Easter by all the churches and demonstrated its concern for the witness of Christian unity in mission to the world.
Calendars and Calculations
The calendar date for Easter is established in relation to two sets of astronomical data: the solar year to determine the spring equinox, and the lunar cycle to identify the day of the month. The problem is two-fold: the movements of the sun and moon don’t line up with each other, and more importantly, Eastern and Western worlds have used different calendars to correct for that. The East uses the Julian Calendar, established by Julius Cesar on the advice of Egyptian astronomers in 45 BCE. Calculated on the assumption that a year is 365.25 days, it introduced the familiar four-year leap year cycle to compensate for that extra quarter day. Since the solar year is actually a little shorter than this, the Julian Calendar gains a day every 128 years. The West uses the Gregorian Calendar, a reform of the Julian calendar instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which adjusted the leap year cycle to keep the sun and moon aligned for several thousand years. Pope Gregory wrote to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, trying to convince him to adopt the new calendar, but negotiations were so unsuccessful that the Patriarch condemned the papal innovations in an encyclical letter.
A further complication is that, even with the best science of the day, the human ability to tell when it was a full moon or an equinox was limited. The early Christian community developed a series of conventional tables to determine when the full moon would occur, which they would use to set the date of Easter. Again, they used the best science at the time, but the limits of that science meant that their calculations diverged from the astronomical data itself. And those tables were still bound strictly to the movements of either the Julian or Gregorian Calendar. In the twentieth century, advances in astronomy and engineering definitively removed the scientific problem: we now know precisely when the full moon and equinox will occur.
The Contemporary Quest for Convergence
Gradually adopted over the next 300 years, the Gregorian calendar has become the most widely used calendar in the world today. When the Greek parliament introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1923, it became a crucial religious concern, leading to a conflict between church and state for the Greek Orthodox Church. A pan-Orthodox congress was called in Constantinople in May 1923 in part because of this problem. At that meeting, it was decided to revise the Julian calendar by adjusting it to greater astronomical accuracy. Adoption of this calendar led to a schism in the Greek Church, in the Romanian Church and elsewhere.
Over the past 100 years, several attempts have been made to identify a common date for Easter. In secular circles, discussion focused on establishing a fixed day for Easter as a way to facilitate commercial planning and public activities. The question was given parliamentary consideration in both Germany and the UK and was taken up by the League of Nations in 1923. The secular debate was brought to a halt in 1955 when the US Government refused to implement a new calendar.
While most Protestant churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch expressed openness to the idea of a fixed date, the response of the Roman Catholic Church was negative because it considered the question a primarily religious matter. An intra-Orthodox discussion was initiated by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1902, and in 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarch wrote an encyclical inviting the wider Christian world into the conversation.
From a Roman Catholic perspective, Vatican II gave new impetus to the discussion with its affirmation of a willingness to accept either a common moveable or fixed date for Easter if all the churches could agree. Since 1965, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has taken up the question on several occasions. From a renewed inquiry among its member churches in 1966-67, it was clear that all the churches were open to having a common date for the celebration of Easter. However, while the majority of Western churches voted in favour of a fixed date, the Orthodox churches preferred a common moveable date based on the Nicene formula.
The Aleppo Consultation
In March 1997, a consultation jointly sponsored by the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches (called the Aleppo Consultation) brought together Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant scholars for a careful analysis of the theological, historical, liturgical, catechetical, and pastoral aspects of the question. In the course of their deliberations, the participants in the consultation came to a deep appreciation of the continuing relevance of the Council of Nicaea in seeking a solution. Despite differences in the method of calculation, both Eastern and Western churches have adhered to the Nicene formula, and any decision to move away from this would render the resolution of outstanding differences even more difficult. The consultation also recognized the wealth of symbolism that the Nicene norms permit. The norms maintain the close association between Passover and Easter, which continues to remind Christians of their origins within the total framework of salvation history. Furthermore, calculating the date in relation to the spring equinox highlights the cosmic dimensions of the celebration, a reminder that in Christ’s resurrection, all of creation is renewed. Another important feature of the Nicene formula is its affirmation of the use of contemporary science in calculating the date of the spring equinox and full moon.
In light of their deliberations, members of the consultation offered two recommendations. First, they recommended that the Churches “maintain the Nicene norms,” but that they use “the most accurate possible scientific means” to calculate both the full moon and the equinox, rather than relying on tables referring to the Julian or Gregorian calendars. (#11) Second, they recommended that the churches “undertake a period of study and reflection towards the goal of establishing as soon as possible a common date for Easter/Pascha along the lines set forth above.” (#16)
They noted that in the year 2001, the paschal calculations in use in the churches would coincide, meaning Easter would fall on the same day in both East and West. The Consultation, therefore, suggested that the interval between 1997 and 2001 become a time for the churches to reflect on the recommendations and explore ways of implementing them. Further, it suggested that 2001 would provide an opportunity to review reactions and assess progress, and for the WCC to organize a consultation to report on progress.
Unfortunately, the Aleppo Consultation’s carefully considered recommendations were unable to bring the churches to agree on a common date for Easter at the beginning of the 21st century. A particular strength of the Aleppo consultation lies in its adoption of Nicaea’s decision to identify the date of Easter through the use of scientific data. As a consequence, both Julian and Gregorian calendars are removed from the date-setting equation. Also, by naming Jerusalem as the point of reference for calculating the equinox, Christians in the southern hemisphere who are at the beginning of autumn rather than spring may have reason to accept the Nicene rule and perhaps even explore new liturgical traditions relative to their seasonal context.
An Ongoing Challenge
With both Eastern and Western churches fully committed to following the Nicene formula of celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox, current differences in calculation of the date of Easter would seem to be more a matter of calendars and lunar tables than of fundamental theological positions. Yet, the resolution of this long-standing church-dividing issue has remained elusive.
As Christians around the world prepare to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea in 2025, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the WCC, Archbishop Job of Telmessos, has made a concrete proposal: to honour Nicaea’s efforts to set a common date for Easter by setting a common date for Easter. Meeting at the Vatican in November 2022, both Pope Francis and the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Catholicos Awa III, expressed their hope that Christians of East and West could finally agree on a common date for celebrating Easter. In a November 2022 interview with the Turkish press, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, “disclosed that specialists in the scientific realm are being consulted to identify the most accurate date for the Easter celebration.”
“The Pope has the best intentions,” he said, “and I think the moment has arrived, both for the Orthodox Church as well as the Catholic, to fix a common date to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. I hope that on this occasion we will be able to come to agreement.”
Will this upcoming anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, another year in which paschal calculations in both East and West coincide with a common date for the celebration of Easter, be the occasion enabling churches to reach a goal which has so far eluded them? If so, it will not only be the common celebration of Easter around the world but also the achievement of agreement on this goal that offers hope and a witness to the Christian commitment to unity. As Christians, we believe in a God who is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians. 3:20) This God can bring newness against all odds, shattering the known world to establish a new historical possibility. This is the kind of God who will enable Christian churches to enter a new ecumenical future.
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.