In response to a recent blog post “Eastern Orthodox Paschalia,” an astute reader forwarded to me an article correcting an error in the aforementioned post, wherein it was stated that the date of Eastern Orthodox Pascha (Easter) is based on the Jewish lunar calendar and must always fall after Passover. I stand corrected, sort of…
Pascha in the Old and New Testaments
The Old Testament specifies that the Passover is to be observed on the 14th day of the first month (alternately known as Abib or Nisan (Deuteronomy 16.1-7). Being a fixed day on the old Hebrew calendar, it could fall on any day of the week. The early Church in the East continued to observe Pascha on the eve of the 14th of Nisan, according the Jewish Calendar, with the Resurrection on the third day, that is on the 15th. That meant that the Resurrection could fall on any day of the week. In Rome and Alexandria, however, the early Christians always kept the Resurrection on a Sunday.
The Date of Pascha in the Early Church: A Problematic Situation
In the second century, Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, journeyed to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus regarding the disagreement over the proper date for the celebration of Pascha. Neither was able to convince the other, and they ultimately decided that both practices could coëxist.
The situation was actually messier yet. There existed in practice, because of the way the Hebrew calendar worked, not two but a multitude of dates for the celebration Pascha. Jews and others in the ancient Near East followed a lunar calendar in which each month averaged 29½ days in length. They had twelve months in most years, each month beginning with a new moon. This made the year too short, so an extra, thirteenth month was inserted every two or three years to keep the months in step with the seasons, which depended on the sun rather than the moon.
There were no printed calendars at that time, and no one ever knew exactly how many days there would be in a given month or year. The beginning of a new month was declared when the first sliver of a new moon was sighted in the sky. Of course, observation of the new moon depended on location and weather conditions, thus people in different places often did not start a new month at the same time. Since Pascha was observed on the 14th of the month — and that depended on local sighting of the new moon — there was no way for Christians (or Jews, for that matter) to plan a united observance of Pascha.
The Council of Nicæa
In the fourth century the Emperor Saint Constantine espoused Christianity and made it not only legal but the favored religion of the Empire. The Church suddenly started growing by leaps and bounds, and he gave public buildings for the Church’s use, but he was perturbed to find out about the different practices regarding the date of Pascha.
Constantine convened the First Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicæa in 325 AD to unify the date of the observance of Pascha throughout the new Christian Empire. When the question relative to the sacred festival of Pascha arose, it was universally agreed that all should keep the feast on the same day; for what could be more beautiful and more desirable than to see this festival, through which the faithful receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with one accord and in the same manner?
Unanimously, the bishops gathered at the Council decided to keep the feast on Sunday in order to retain the mystical symbolism of the Resurrection falling on the day which is both the first day of the week and the eighth day, the Day of the Lord. They agreed that the most important thing was for the Church to demonstrate her unity by celebrating together, whenever she chose to celebrate, without regard to the astronomical calculation methods of the Jews. The hierarchs of the First Ecumenical Council adopted, therefore, a solar calendar based upon the best scientific and astronomical data of the time, which was the civil calendar of the Roman Empire promulgated in 45 BC under Julius Cæsar (hence the name Julian calendar) in effect during the lifetime of our Savior.
The Council decreed that the Resurrection would be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). Furthermore, since the best scientific observatories were located in Alexandria at that time, the Council assigned the bishop of Alexandria the responsibility of annually disseminating a letter to all the Church, announcing in advance when the Resurrection would be celebrated that particular year. This way, the whole of Christendom was sure to celebrate together a glorious Pascha/Resurrection.
As it became increasingly more tedious and impractical for the bishop of Alexandria to annually disseminate letters, astronomers began creating charts that revealed the dates of the full moon for many years into the future. This practice was temporarily successful; small errors and discrepancies only showed up in extrapolations for dates that were hundreds or thousands of years in the future. And, although ecclesiastical authorities became aware that the Julian calendar was astrologically off by one day in every 133 years, they nevertheless continued to observe the liturgical cycle according to the Julian Calendar, opining that the Julian calendar retained continuity and was sufficiently accurate for ecclesiastical purposes.
The Astrological Inaccuracy of Both Calendars
In 1582, Pope Gregory of Rome decided to revise the Julian calendar in an attempt to rectify its errors. His “Gregorian” or “new” calendar eventually became the standard civil calendar throughout the world. Although more astrologically correct than the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar, nevertheless, was also determined to be scientifically inaccurate. Failing to account for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation which makes each day slightly longer over time, the Gregorian calendar falls behind the astronomical seasons.
The Current Situation
Currently there is a thirteen day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. According to the Julian calendar, the first day of spring, a key element in calculating the date of Pascha, falls on the civil date of April 3rd; whereas, according to the Gregorian calendar, the first day of spring falls on March 21st.
The Spiritual Link of Jewish Pesach and Christian Pascha
The bishops considered the Christian observance of the Pascha of the Lord connected to and in continuity with the Passover of the Old Testament, and they understood that the Resurrection, by definition, must follow the Passover. After all, the Church considered herself as the true heir of the Old Testament. She was comprised of both Jews and gentiles, all those who responded to the God of the Old Testament when He came in the flesh. In the words of our Savior:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” – Matthew 5:17.
Although the calculation of the date of Pascha is not canonically bound to the date of the modern-day Jewish Passover, our observance of the Resurrection is related to Passover in an historical, spiritual and theological way. According to the Gospel of Saint John, the Jewish Passover fell on a Saturday the year that Jesus was crucified.
It is important to note that Christ died on the Cross at the very hour the paschal lambs were being slaughtered for the Feast; thus Christ is our Pascha, our Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us. Strictly speaking, then, we must distinguish between the Feast of Pesach/Pascha (on Holy Friday) and the Feast of the Resurrection (on Sunday); the two are distinct though inseparable. Affirming this inseparable theological and spiritual ink between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Pascha, the Eastern Orthodox Church has retained the continuity since the fourth century for calculating the date of the Lord’s Resurrection according to the Julian calendar in spite of its astrological imprecision. And, by default, the Jewish Passover always precedes the the Eastern Orthodox Church’s celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.