Why Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrated Easter at a different time than Orthodox Christians
Wait a second. Wasn’t Easter back in early April? For Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, yes. But your Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters celebrate Easter – or Easter, a Greek term commonly used in the Orthodox world – on Sunday, May 2. Why this difference? It’s complicated … but there you have it, in short.
An early Church rule (AD 325) called for Easter to be observed on the Sunday after Passover – the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring (vernal) equinox. If the full moon fell on a Sunday, Easter would be celebrated the following Sunday – they have thought of everything! Pretty simple… but in the almost 1,700 years since this decision was made, things have gotten a bit tricky.
First, for lack of the Internet (or even the Farmer’s Almanac) to find the date of the first full moon in spring, astronomers, around the sixth century, developed tables based on lunar cycles that follow each other. are repeated after a number of years. Once you’ve determined which year of the cycle you’re in, you can look up the date of the first full moon in spring – and the Sunday after that was, by definition, Easter. But over time two different sets of tables were used, one in the east and one in the west. Slightly different dates for Pascha have sometimes resulted.
More importantly, in the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a “new calendar” that corrected some flaws in the Julian calendar that had preceded it, aligning it much more precisely with the annual revolution of the Earth around the Sun. While many Orthodox churches have switched in the last century to the new (Gregorian) calendar for their fixed holidays – such as Christmas, Epiphany and the Transfiguration – most continue to use the old (Julian) calendar to calculate the date of Easter.
On the Julian calendar, which is now 13 days behind the Gregorian, the spring equinox only occurs on April 3, 13 days after March 21. If a full moon does occur, then after March 21 but before April 3, it would not – on the Julian calendar – count as the first full moon after the spring equinox. In this case, we will have to wait for the next full moon, and finally the following Sunday, for Easter.
This explains the sometimes longer lags between the two Easter dates, as we have seen this year: a full moon fell on March 28, which was the first full moon after the spring equinox for Catholics and Protestants, but the Orthodox had to wait for the next full moon on April 26. In each case, they celebrated Easter or Easter on the first Sunday after their respective spring full moon.
But there is another reason why it is still legitimate to greet you in mid-May with “Christ is risen!” Which – rather than “Happy Easter!” – is the traditional Orthodox greeting.
Easter is not just one of the feast days of the Church. The Orthodox hymnography, in fact, refers to Easter as “the chosen and holy day, first of the Sabbaths, King and Lord of days, the feast of feasts, holy day of holy days!” And we celebrate it, joyfully, for 40 full days, because Jesus “presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to (his apostles) for 40 days, and speaking of the kingdom of God”. (Acts 1, 3) Thus, until June 10, Orthodox Christians will greet each other as I am happy to greet you: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!
For more information on the Orthodox celebration of Easter, I would recommend www.oca.org/saints/lives/2020/04/19/27-holy-pascha-the-resurrection-of-our-lord.
Reverend Seraphim Solof is Assistant Pastor of St. George’s Antiochene Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester.