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.