Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Date of Orthodox Pascha

I was asked by a friend to explain the difference in the date of Orthodox Pascha/Easter. Much of the article is a compilation of articles from Lewis Patsavos and Fr. Nabil Hanna. The date of Pascha has been controversial since the beginning of Christianity and early gave way to local customs. Some churches would celebrate on the actual Nisan 14, which was the actual date of the Resurrection, but it did not always fall on a Sunday. Other churches observed it on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. By the 4th century, the latter practice prevailed throughout the Church; nevertheless, differences continued to exist.

In response to this ongoing problem, the First Ecumenical Council convened at Nicaea in 325 took up the issue. It determined that Pascha should be celebrated on the Sunday which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox-the actual beginning of spring. If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Pascha is observed the following Sunday. The day taken to be the invariable date of the vernal equinox is March 21. Hence, the determination of the date of Pascha is governed by a process dependent on the vernal equinox and the phase of the moon. Furthermore, since the best scientific observatories were located in Alexandria at that time, the Council assigned the bishop of Alexandria the responsibility of sending out a letter to all the Church, year by year, announcing in advance when the Resurrection would be celebrated that year. This way, the whole of Christendom was sure to celebrate together a glorious Pascha/Resurrection.

Another factor which figures prominently in determining the date of Pascha is the date of Passover. Originally, Passover was celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Christians, therefore, celebrated Pascha according to the same calculation-that is, on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The correlation between the date of Pascha and the date of Passover is clear. Our Lord's death and resurrection coincided with Passover, thereby assuring a secure point of reference in time. This assurance lasted, however, only for a short time.

Events in Jewish history contributing to the dispersion of the Jews had as a consequence a departure from the way Passover was reckoned at the time of our Lord's death and resurrection. This caused the Passover to precede the vernal equinox in some years. It was, in fact, this anomaly which led to the condemnation reflected in Canon 1 of Antioch (ca. 330) and Canon 7 of the Holy Apostles (late 4th century) of those who celebrate Pascha "with the Jews." The purpose of this condemnation was to prevent Christians from taking into account the calculation of Passover in determining the date of Pascha.

Most Christians eventually ceased to regulate the observance of Pascha by the Jewish Passover. Their purpose, of course, was to preserve the original practice of celebrating Pascha following the vernal equinox, without having to rely on the local rabbi’s spotting of the new moon. Thus, the Council of Nicaea sought to link the principles for determining the date of Pascha to the norms for calculating Passover during our Lord's lifetime. They adopted, therefore, a solar calendar based upon the best scientific and astronomical data of the time. In fact they adopted the civil calendar of the Roman Empire which had been promulgated under Julius Cæsar (hence the name Julian Calendar), as refined under Augustus Cæsar.

Despite the intervention of Nicaea, certain differences in the technicalities of regulating the date of Pascha remained. This resulted occasionally in local variations until, by the 6th century, a more secure mode of calculation based on astronomical data was universally accepted. This was an alternative to calculating Pascha by the Passover and consisted in the creation of so-called "paschal cycles." Each paschal cycle corresponded to a certain number of years. Depending upon the number of years in the cycle, the full moon occurred on the same day of the year as at the beginning of the cycle with some exceptions. The more accurate the cycle, the less frequent were the exceptions. In the East, a 19-year cycle was eventually adopted, whereas in the West an 84-year cycle. The use of two different paschal cycles inevitably gave way to differences between the Eastern and Western Churches regarding the observance of Pascha.

A further cause for these differences was the adoption by the Western Church of the Gregorian Calendar in the 16th century. This took place in order to adjust the discrepancy by then observed between the paschal cycle approach to calculating Pascha and the available astronomical data. The Orthodox Church continues to base its calculations for the date of Pascha on the Julian Calendar, which was in use at the time of the First Ecumenical Council. As such, it does not take into account the number of days, which have since then accrued due to the progressive loss of time in this calendar.

Pope Gregory promulgated his new calendar in 1582. The motivation of the calendar was to create a more accurate reckoning of the Pascha date. Roman Catholic lands adopted it fairly quickly, but Protestant and Orthodox lands did not. England, including what were then its American colonies, did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until more than 200 years later. Even then, huge riots erupted in the streets in England over this issue. Some of the Orthodox Churches adopted it for the fixed feasts in 1921. It was only in the 20th century that the Gregorian calendar became the standard civil calendar worldwide. Even so, however, many countries in Asia still use other calendar systems internally and utilize the Gregorian Calendar only for purposes of international trade.

Practically speaking, this means that Orthodox Pascha may not be celebrated before April 3, which was March 21, the date of the vernal equinox, at the time of the First Ecumenical Council. In other words, a difference of 13 days exists between the accepted date for the vernal equinox then and now. Consequently, it is the combination of these variables which accounts for the different dates of Pascha observed by the Orthodox Church and other Christian Churches. Some years Western and Eastern Pascha fall on the same date, most years it is a week apart, and some times it is more than a month apart. Until the total communion of Orthodox churches meet in synod there will be no change to the reckoning of the date. Even then their may be a struggle with the Gregorian calendar, because often the Gregorian Pascha date happens before Passover which is problematic as well.



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