I 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:
|2000||April 18||April 23||5|
|2001||April 6||April 15||9|
|2002||March 26||March 31||5|
|2003||April 15||April 20||5|
|2004||April 4||April 11||7|
|2005||April 22||March 27||-26|
|2006||April 11||April 16||5|
|2007||April 1||April 8||7|
|2008||April 18||March 23||-26|
|2009||April 7||April 12||5|
|2010||March 28||April 4||6|
|2011||April 17||April 24||7|
|2012||April 5||April 8||3|
|2013||March 24||March 31||7|
|2014||April 13||April 20||7|
|2015||April 2||April 5||3|
|2016||April 21||March 27||-25|
|2017||April 9||April 16||7|
|2018||March 29||April 1||3|
|2019||April 18||April 21||3|
|2020||April 7||April 12||5|
|2021||March 26||April 4||9|
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 It is about historical reference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
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:
- Celebrate Easter in strict relation to the 14th of Nisan without regard for the day of the week, or
- 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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