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Dear Johan,

               Why are we celebrating Easter so late this year? Wouldn’t it be easier if we celebrated Easter on the same day of the year like we do with Christmas?

 


Gentle Reader


                 I suppose it would be easier and people would not have to ask, When is Easter this year? However, Easter by definition has to fall on a Sunday, the day of the resurrection. Therefore, it cannot be celebrated on a fixed date. But, please do not be embarrassed; throughout history learned theologians and saintly bishops alike have questioned the date of Easter.

As you note, certain feasts happen on fixed dates, for example, Christmas, which always falls on December 25. Other feasts are so-called moveable feasts that fall on different days of the calendar. The most important moveable feast is Easter. And because Easter moves, all feasts and seasons that are related to Easter move relative to the date of Easter. Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, and Pentecost, which marks the last day of the Easter season, are obviously dependent upon the date of Easter. However, Holy Trinity, which falls on the Sunday after Pentecost, and Corpus Christi, which falls on the Sunday after Holy Trinity, are dependent on the date of Easter as well. Even the solemnity of the Sacred Heart, which is celebrated on the Friday following Corpus Christi, and the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is celebrated the day after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, are dependent upon the date of Easter.

It took a while to decide on the all-important date for Easter. Different bishops celebrated Easter on different dates based on different theologies. Some opted for the celebration of Easter on the fourteenth day or the day of the full moon of the month Nissan in the Jewish lunar calendar, as they believed it to be the day on which Jesus was crucified. Others desired to celebrate Easter on the following Sunday, the day of the Lord. Still others desired to disconnect the celebration of Easter from the Jewish calendar altogether. It was not until the First Council of Nicea (325) that the current formula for calculating the day of Easter was established. Since then Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The Council of Nicea also established that the date of the spring equinox was March 21, though meteorologically it often falls on March 20. Using this method, the earliest possible date for Easter can be March 22, which happened last in 1818 and will not happen again till 2285. The latest possible date for Easter is April 25, which happened last in 1943 and will not happen again until 2038.

And to complicate matters just one bit more, let me tell you about Orthodox Easter. The Orthodox churches follow the same computation system established by the First Council of Nicea. However, because they still use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar, we end up celebrating Easter on different dates. March 21 on the Julian calendar corresponds to April 3 on the Gregorian calendar. Thus Orthodox Easter falls between April 4 and May 8. By contrast, the Protestant churches follow the same system as the Catholic Church.

© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.

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