Should we fix the date of Easter?

easter-date-calendarI don’t really know Nick Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury (he was appointed after I left the diocese), but he appears to have a deep capacity for irony. Apparently he believes that fixing the date of Easter is going to be more complicated than agreeing on the status of same-sex unions:

If the Primates of the Anglican Communion thought same-sex relationships are difficult to know what to do with, just wait until they get going on the implications of fixing the date of Easter.

Here are the ‘compelling’ arguments for not fixing the date of Easter.

1. The current system connects us with the Jewish celebration of Passover

Except it doesn’t. Last year they came close, but this year Passover (on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar) comes a month later than Easter. Here are the dates since the turn of the Millennium:

2000April 18April 235
2001April 6April 159
2002March 26March 315
2003April 15April 205
2004April 4April 117
2005April 22March 27-26
2006April 11April 165
2007April 1April 87
2008April 18March 23-26
2009April 7April 125
2010March 28April 46
2011April 17April 247
2012April 5April 83
2013March 24March 317
2014April 13April 207
2015April 2April 53
2016April 21March 27-25
2017April 9April 167
2018March 29April 13
2019April 18April 213
2020April 7April 125
2021March 26April 49

Since the first Easter followed Passover by three days, you can see that the current connection is not very close very often—and on three occasions the date drifts out by nearly a month.

2. It is about the Jewish roots of Easter

It is rather important that we recognise the connection between the Jewish festival and Jesus’ death and resurrection. But when was the last time you heard or preached a sermon which made that connection on the basis of the date of Easter, rather than by reflection on the biblical texts?

3. It is about historical reference

If this is so important, how do we manage to celebrate Christmas at a time which certainly does not correspond to the time of year of the original—and in fact noting clear evidence of this contradiction?

4. It is a question of Christian unity

Actually, there has been a desire to fix the date of Easter for some time, across a number of major denominations. Justin Welby comments that the first attempt was about 1,000 years ago! There has been interest in the Roman Catholic church since the Second Vatican Council in 1963. And it looks as though this initiative has support from denominations other than the C of E: Pope Francis asked the Eastern Churches if Christians could agree a date for Easter, and the Copts suggested a fixed date.

5. It is an accommodation to contemporary culture

Holtam comments:

It seems to me a curiously unexamined piece of cultural accommodation that would separate the timing of Easter from Passover and detach us from our Jewish roots.

That would be true—if there really was such a close connection, if the date facilitated that connection, and if there was any real theological importance attached to the date of Easter, which there doesn’t appear to be.

So how have we ended up being only semi-detached from Passover, and why is the discussion so complex? It comes down to the fact that we have three ways of counting time, from one year to another, and we have made some compromises about this.

  • The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and as a result has to add an extra month six times in every nineteen years.
  • Western calendars are based on the solar cycle of 365 days; the adjustment needed is much smaller, and effected by adding one extra day on most of every fourth year.
  • The detail of our lives is regulated by the weekly cycle of seven days, which matches neither the lunar nor the solar cycle.

In deciding when to celebrate Easter, we need to decide on whether to match our celebration with the place of the original event in the lunar, the solar or the weekly cycle. As Ray Fowler helpfully explains, the Council of Nicea decided to combine weekly and lunar cycles in the calculation, though framed within a solar cycle reference point.

The early church was faced with the following conflict in dates: Jesus rose on a Sunday, but Passover can fall on various days of the week. So the early church saw two options:

  1. Celebrate Easter in strict relation to the 14th of Nisan without regard for the day of the week, or
  2. Determine a system whereby Easter could always be celebrated on a Sunday.

Although the issue was hotly debated and variously practiced during the first centuries of the church, the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. eventually adopted the current system of celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.

The reason for keeping Easter on a Sunday (unlike Christmas) has to do with the theological significance of the resurrection: it is the sign of the breaking in of the kingdom of God, the Age to Come, which within some rabbinical thinking was the eighth age following the seven ages of this world. Sunday is the eighth day of the week, following the seven days from the previous Sunday to Saturday, and thus has immense theological significance—enough to lead this early Jewish movement to change its celebration of Sabbath, from rest in the first creation to resting in the new creation. When we worship together on a Sunday, we are symbolically stepping into this new Age, the new creation that we are anticipating.

(Measuring the lunar event of new moon from the vernal equinox introduces the framework of the solar cycle, and is what detaches the calculation from the Jewish lunar calendar.)

All this explains the varied distance between Passover and Easter, and in particular the occasional oddities.

Every so often the Jewish leap year will push Passover so far into April that a second full moon following the vernal equinox would appear before the Sunday following Passover. This happens anytime the Sunday following Passover falls later than April 25th on our calendar. On those rare occasions Easter is celebrated the month before Passover rather than the Sunday following Passover.

This then highlights our own cultural context. I don’t know about you, but I tend to celebrate my birthday on the anniversary date, rather than on the same day of the week I was born, or at the same time in the lunar cycle. The churches are also divided between those who use the Gregorian calendar and those who still use the Julian calendar, and so celebrate Easter (and Christmas) at a different time—for Easter, usually around 13 days later.

If we don’t fix the date of Easter, then we will lose the focus on Easter in the (note the name) Easter holidays. It has become clear this year that schools are going to prioritise having even terms and better teaching timetables over adherence to what looks to most people like a very obscure way of determining a date for the festival—and practically it is a bit of a nightmare. If we want Easter to remain a focus, rather than be marginalised in culture, fixing the date would achieve that. Seeing this as ‘unexamined cultural accommodation’ supposes that living in line with the lunar cycle is distinctively Christian or theological important, and I think it is neither.

And since we can work out the actual date of Easter with some confidence, the most logical thing to do might be to fix it near to the anniversary of that date.

In the meantime, I wonder if the Bishop of Salisbury might now address the simpler question, and stick with historic, orthodox teaching on sexuality…

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27 thoughts on “Should we fix the date of Easter?”

  1. My sympathies are with the Bishop of Salsibury on this one, his reasoning is rather more theologically complex than you give credit for, as indeed are issues of human sexuality.

    • What are the theologically complex issues on the date of Easter I have missed? I have never, ever heard anyone make a theological point based on the actual date that Easter is celebrated, just I have never heard a (useful) theological point made about Christmas based on the date—because the issues arise from the biblical texts, not from the calendar.

      Is your experience different?

      Are there ‘ecumenical’ Christian-Jewish celebrations I have missed?

  2. Personally I think the most important consideration in this should be whether this is a concerted move by Christians from all traditions.. We already celebrate Easter at two different dates across Christendom, to introduce yet another division seems counterproductive. And therein lies the difficulty — although I doubt whether it is greater than the difficulty surrounding sexual morality issues.

    • I suspect the comparative comment was rather tongue in cheek. But here I think having Easter fall outside the school holidays is a nuisance, marginalises it (how much longer would these be called the ‘Easter’ holidays?) and I suspect the vast majority of churchgoers, let alone the general public, would end up baffled.

      Do schools still fit round church holidays where you are?

  3. Ian, here in Edmonton in Western Canada the schools have long since stopped fitting ‘Spring Break’ around the Easter holidays. Personally, I prefer it that way. When the holidays are not near Easter, less young families go away and we have better attendance for Holy Week and Easter.

    But as for the rest of your argument, I entirely agree. Additionally, it makes lectionary writing so much easier. Here in Canada our main lectionary is still printed in our service books, and so we have variable numbers of Sundays after Epiphany, Sundays after Pentecost etc. etc. If Easter was, for instance, always the Second Sunday of April, it would be so much easier to write a lectionary. (We’re used to that in Canada with Thanksgiving, which is always the second Sunday of October, and Mother’s Day, which is the second Sunday of May).

  4. I forgot to do it this year, but often I say Happy Resurrection Day on Easter Sunday instead of Happy Easter, because Easter is named after a fertility goddess. Although then again, she was named after the the PIE for dawn, so I suppose we can’t be too rigid in our terminology.

    The moving date of Easter is one of those eccentric things I like about our calendar, but it would make things much easier if the date was the same every year. And without being cold-hearted about our Jewish heritage, I don’t think fixing the date will break the the link. The link is in all the Gospel narratives (and arguably many of the epistles and Revelation, too) so any worthwhile liturgy or sermon will hopefully emphasize Jesus as the Lamb without blemish.

    Christians don’t celebrate the other Jewish festivals, so I think any Jew today considering following Jesus will have many more important things to think about than why Easter is not celebrated with respect to the lunar calendar.

    • ‘The link is in all the Gospel narratives (and arguably many of the epistles and Revelation, too) so any worthwhile liturgy or sermon will hopefully emphasize Jesus as the Lamb without blemish.’ Yes, I would agree with you 100% there. Especially so in the narrative of John’s gospel.

    • ” … often I say Happy Resurrection Day on Easter Sunday instead of Happy Easter, because Easter is named after a fertility goddess”

      Are you sure about that? I would have preferred it if we had introduced ‘Pascha’ into English but I cannot find any proof that there really was a goddess called ‘Eostre’ worshipped by Anglo-Saxons. No such idea seems to be known in the Continent.
      I have read that it is really from the Old Germanic word for ‘dawn’ and refers to the dawn of the Resurrection. This seems more likely to me.

      I agree that Easter / Pascha should be celebrated on the second Sunday in April, keeping us in the range of 8 to 15 April. And I wish the Orthodox would adopt the Gregorian calendar so that Christmas is marked on the same day as well worldwide.

  5. Sun and moon are both given to determine time and seasons – plus the week which in its arbitrariness as regards natural cycles reminds us that God’s will cannot be discerned simply and exhaustively by observing what is “natural”.

    Given the interest in calendars at the time I wonder if the author of the letter to the Hebrews would have had more to say on this if astronomy had been further advanced at the time. In the old covenant the calendar is heavily shaped by what is moveable and has derivative glory, i.e. the moon. But now that Christ has risen on the first day of the week let us celebrate the feast on a Sunday and let our calendar be shaped more profoundly by the sun from whom the moon gets its light…

  6. It is worth remembering that a week is inherently related to the lunar calendar, as seven days represents a lunar phase, and four weeks, that is twenty eight days, represent a full cycle of the moon.

      • That’s because there are 52.1428… weeks in a ‘solar’ year of 365 days (which is really 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes, not that they knew that in the days of the Quartodeciman controversy).
        Another problem this year was that Good Friday kicked out the usual day for the Feast of the Annunciation.

    • 28? Not quite right methinks 😉

      “The period of time from new moon to new moon is known as the lunar month, lunation or synodic month. From the years 1760 to 2200, the longest lunar month spans 29 days 19 hours and 58 minutes (Dec. 9, 1787 to Jan. 8, 1778) while the shortest lasts for 29 days 6 hours and 34 minutes (June 12 to July 12, 1885).” Courtesy of EarthSky website

      • Quite right! From Wikipedia: ‘The mean period of the lunar month (precisely, the synodic month) is very close to 29.5 days. Accordingly, the basic Hebrew calendar year is one of twelve lunar months alternating between 29 and 30 days.’

        This is not unrelated to symbolic calendars; in the Book of Revelation, the months have 30 days.

        This means I was correct in noting our *three* systems: annual/solar, monthly/lunar and weekly. We have to choose which are the most important in remembering any event from the past.

        (I can’t help thinking, ahem, that women might be more on top of the numbers here than us men…)

  7. Thanks for a thought provoking article. But weren’t we here in 1928?

    Easter Act 1928.

    1 Date of Easter-day.

    Easter-day shall, in the calendar year next but one after the commencement of this Act and in all subsequent years, be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April, and section three of the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, the new calendar, tables and rules annexed to that Act, and section two of the Calendar Act 1751, are hereby amended and shall be read and construed accordingly, . . .

    2 Short title , commencement and extent
    (1) …
    (2) … Provided further that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.

    • Yes, we were! But the churches showed no interest there. So legislatively there is nothing more to do.

      I posted on the Facebook thread articles from 2011 and 2015 in newspapers both proposing that Easter be fixed. But I don’t remember them getting much coverage…

  8. This post giving the reason for the date of the Annunciation (and hence Christmas) as corresponding to Good Friday is deeply theological, and on the way past gives a theological reason for keeping Easter where it is – so that the Annunciation and Good Friday can, at least once a while, correspond:

    Personally I find a good theological reason for keeping Easter fixed in the way it is now (note it isn’t random) in reminding us not to try to pin God down. Let Easter control us, not us control Easter – or rather, let the Risen Christ control us, rather than trying to keep him in place. The guard, seal and stone tried that, and we know how they worked out.

    The idea that such a comparatively new-fangled thing as school holidays should determine our calendar seems somewhat dubious to me.

    And an aside: might we think it a bad thing if Easter fell on Passover, as presumably sometimes it would if it were “fixed” to the second or third Sunday in April?

  9. Sir, I think we are better too concern with what happen in the western world than the whole universe. Will fixing a date make Easter more significant? Will fixing a date bring more souls to Jesus? Will those who disagree with this view subject their stand? Will it bring uniformity or unity? Will other religion appreciate this move? Lastly will Jesus be happy about it? I beg for an answer from each of you. I thing we have rather left the most important for popularity and comfortability meanwhile Our Lord desire us to walk expectantly for His return. My stand is this ‘if fixing a date or not cannot stop Jesus from coming lets discuss and do what will bring men to the Kingdom of God’. Thanks

  10. Dear Ian,

    Schools don’t follow Easter here in Liverpool, but I quite like it that way – the children get an extra day or two off which is determined by a Christian festival, instead of Easter being lost in 2 weeks of school holiday when lots of people head for Benidorm anyway.

    And if the date of Easter gets fixed, what are English people going to talk about all spring…?


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