Saturday, 16 January 2016

Should We Fix the Date of Easter?

A formidable line-up of Christian leaders is discussing whether to fix the date of Easter. It includes Pope Francis, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Coptic Pope, the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

When so many global concerns clamour for the attention of religious leaders, why on earth are they even considering talking about the church calendar? Isn’t it a case of displacement activity of the first order?

These are waters to venture into warily. Blood has been spilt over the date of Easter. For the Saxon church in England, Bede tells us, it was a big point of dispute between those who followed Roman use, and those who adhered to the old Irish calendar. When a royal husband and wife observed different customs, there were years when for a whole week, one would still be fasting while the other feasted merrily away.

When I was a chorister and (God forbid!) my thoughts wandered during the sermon, I used to amuse myself deciphering the complex rules set out in the Book of Common Prayer to calculate the date of Easter. My head would spin with Sunday Letters, Epacts, Golden Numbers and long division by 19. I even wrote an article about it for the school magazine, arguing that we should fix the date of Easter on the second Sunday of April. Not only would it be so much simpler, and make life more convenient for a lot of people, and enable Christians across the world to celebrate the resurrection on the same day, but it would also mean more reliable bank holiday weather and considerably increase the frequency on which Easter Day fell on my birthday.

There is, clearly, a strong ecumenical case for Christendom to observe a single liturgical calendar. Nobody would dispute that. It’s impressive that even Islam in its bitterly divided state observes the same (lunar) calendar, as of course does Judaism. So I’m all for top-level discussions about whether agreement about the date of Easter could be reached by the world’s historic churches.

But I’d need persuading to think it’s right to disconnect the date of Easter from a long history of determining it in the way we currently do. Here’s why.

Firstly, its origins go back centuries before the Christian era itself. Easter Day falls on the first Sunday after the Paschal Moon which is the first full moon after the spring equinox. (There were debates about what happened when the full moon fell on a Sunday, and whether it counted if that was the equinox itself.) It’s the Paschal Moon that determines the date of the Jewish Passover on the night following 14 Nisan. So the Christian Easter is hard-wired to Judaism and the Festival of Passover. This is made much of in the New Testament where the passion and resurrection accounts are shot through with passover imagery. It’s not too much to say that the entire biblical theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection is premised on it. We should not sacrifice it.

Second, this close relationship between the Jewish and Christian calendars is a vital link between our two faith traditions. Holy Week and Easter texts have always had a special regard for Jewish rites and ceremonies taking place at precisely the same time of year. Our two faiths are uniquely held together by scripture, history, covenant, and also by our common observance of time. It would be a bad mistake to weaken the calendrical and liturgical threads that bind us together. (I should declare an interest here and admit that I write as a Christian of Jewish background.)

Third, the calculation of Easter, involving as it does the movements of sun, moon and earth, gives our feasts and fasts a dimension that is nothing less than cosmic. Astronomy and our concept of time comes into things. It tells us that what we do as people of faith is intimately connected to physical science and mathematics. You could say that the universe is ‘aware’ of and ‘interested’ in when and how we celebrate the passion and resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, Easter is of cosmic importance. It involves the whole of creation. It isn’t any old date in springtime that happens to suit us.

I believe that our capacity for religious imagination is at stake here. The prosaic ‘second or third Sunday in April’ could never capture the rich theology that I’ve outlined. Easter would be cut adrift from a truly ancient religious history. It would have severed its relationship with astronomy and mathematics that makes it a festival not only of human but of universal significance. The symbolism of the paschal season which is the pivot of the entire year would be impoverished. A glory would have departed.

Easter, with its idiosyncratic and rather wonderful variation of date, compels us to notice it and adjust our lives around it. It’s that way round. I’m just not persuaded by arguments from convenience. However, as I said, I’m all for worldwide Christianity agreeing on a matter that shouldn’t divide us. I’d have thought that nowadays there was sufficient consensus about the calendar to achieve this. So by all means, let an ecumenical conversation happen. But please don’t let’s give up on such a long and rich paschal tradition too quickly.

11 comments:

  1. I completely agree. We would lose so much if this went through.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hear, hear!! By all means agree on a common liturgical calendar but resist selling out to the secular world's agenda - making Easter invisible. This goes very deep and the ABC's casual tone does it a disservice as an issue.

    ReplyDelete
  3. raymond r collins20 January 2016 at 16:53

    I think that the Passover connection is too important to lose, because of the date of the most sacred time in the Christian tradition, the commemoration of Jesus' death and resurrection,and Christianity's relationship to Judaism, to which the Roman church is paying particular attention


    ReplyDelete
  4. Glad to find this. I'd like to get you on my Dashboard, but me and technology . . ! I'll be back.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I rather agree with the Chorister Sadgrove rather than the retired Dean Sadgrove and would certainly opt to fix Easter Day on the Second Sunday in April. As a clergyman still in harness but getting older each and every successive year, early Easters such as we are having this year are hellish! One hardly has time to draw breath after Christmas before Ash Wednesday and Lent are upon us with all that entails. The poor season of Epiphany does not know whether it is coming or going.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David, are you alone in your ministry? I can't do tone of voice, obviously, and this is meant purely in a tone of inquiry, but couldn't you get someone else to do stuff?

      Delete
  6. Having, I think, nailed it, but mystified as to why this site chose to christen me only "Athena", when I'm EnglishAthena everywhere else.... Anyway. I'd be very sorry to lose the connection to Passover, personally. It is a bit of a pain for schools, universities and so on, but it's all perfectly predictable, so it can't be that hard.

    ReplyDelete
  7. http://www.epageuk.com/ business and personal webpages from united kingdom.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't understand why you use the term "hardwired". Easter and Passover have a definite historical connecetion but they almost never occur on the same date. This year they're almost a full moon cycle apart. Other years they can be a quarter or half moon apart, or almost co-incide. What does "hardwired" mean?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love it. I hope that more and more Blogger will use this feature in the future, because it just makes the internet better I think!


    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi,
    Thanks for the information about this Really nice Post.


    ReplyDelete