Cornerstone: Easter in the Western and Eastern Churches

by Peter Klapes

 

Although I am Greek Orthodox, I often find myself attending Catholic Mass. Whether it be through my attending a Jesuit, Catholic school, or my own intellectual and spiritual curiosity, I enjoy partaking in the liturgy of the “other lung,” as John Paul II alluded to. One such day on which I find myself attending the Catholic Mass is during Easter, when the dates for the Eastern and the Western traditions do not align. This year’s Paschal schedule allowed for that. In fact, Orthodox Easter is not until the first of May. At Mass, the priest characterized Easter as the cornerstone of the faith. But yet, why is the date of the feast of feasts different in the East and the West?

It can be said that the calendrical difference bears its foundation in a discrepancy in the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. The three Synoptic Gospels seem to express that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder (placing Jesus’s death the day after Passover), while the Gospel of John seems to elucidate that Jesus’ death occurred while the Paschal lambs were being sacrificed. This marked difference lead to two distinct practices: Easter was either observed on the day of Passover, regardless of the day of the week, or it was observed on the Sunday after Passover. Although the latter practice was most prevalent—almost universally—throughout the Church, various differences continued to exist.

 

The First Ecumenical Council convened in 325 to address the issue at hand. Its decision was clear-cut: Easter was to be celebrated the Sunday that followed the first full moon after the vernal equinox (Passover was originally celebrated on the day of the first full moon after the vernal equinox). The Council declared that March 21 would be the vernal equinox.

 

This Paschal determination remained—alas, with many technical “errors” and discrepancies—until the inception of a calculation method based on “paschal cycles” in the 6th century. The cycles were based on the occurrence of the full moon, which would occur on the same day in the first and last year of the cycle. The Eastern Church adopted a 19-year cycle, while an 84-year cycle was adopted in the West. Indeed, these cyclical variations led to calendrical differences in the East and the West.

 

In the 16th Century, the Western Church adopted the Gregorian Calendar, while the Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian Calendar. Due to a 13-day difference between the calendars (initially an 11-minute surplus in the Julian calendar), the vernal equinox was now taken to be April 3 in the West.

 

Currently, many voices remain advocating for the reform and standardization of Easter’s timing. The World Council of Churches, in 1997, proposed that Easter be observed according to the timing of the astronomical equinox in Jerusalem. The Eastern Church expressed opposition, for the Julian Calendar is more considerably different from astronomical predictions.

 

This year, Paschal will be celebrated May 1 in the Orthodox Church. But next year, both the Eastern and Western Churches will celebrate Easter on April 16.

 

 

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