The Date of Easter
by Derek Stone
Irenaeus (Peacemaker) approx. 100-180 a.d., bridged East and West. He moved from a childhood in Smyrna, Asia Minor, to being bishop of Lyons in Gaul.
Perhaps because of this, while still a Presbyter he led a delegation to the Bishop of Rome asking him not to hastily condemn the Montanists (somewhat heretical Pentecostals originating in Phrygia, Asia Minor, about whose early days we do not know a great deal). Later at the conclusion of Irenaeus’ writings as bishop, in a letter, he rebuked Victor, Bishop of Rome for thinking of breaking communion with the Bishop of Ephesus. Irenaeus urged tolerance of that bishop’s equally apostolic, but differently-calculated, minority-tradition of dating Easter by the Jewish Passover (14th Nisan) whatever the day of the week. Irenaeus claimed that this calculation came from the Apostle John who for many years had responsibility for Asia Minor.
The ultimate solution of this Quartodeciman controversy came with the Council of Nicea 325 a.d. Although no Canon resulted, a consensus was reached that, a) Easter should be on the Lord’s Day, b) that it should not depend on, or coincide with the Jewish lunar calculation of Passover; but yet have some reminder of the original connection. Hence Easter was to be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Northern Hemisphere Spring equinox. This calculation was independent of Jewish reckoning and followed Alexandria’s practice with which Antioch had hitherto been in conflict. In Antioch the Jewish dating had been followed to determine the Sunday celebration.
Today’s division between Christian East and West on this matter results from the East refusing to accept the West’s unilateral action in adopting the Gregorian calendar, from the East’s tradition of never celebrating before the Passover and the differing manner of calculating the epact, which is the discrepancy between the lunar cycle and the solar cycle.
One of the favoured solutions to the problem is for a common fixed day for Easter comprising the Sunday following the second Saturday in April, which would be the most frequent day chosen if the Council of Nicea were to be literally followed with astronomical accuracy. Alternatively a moveable date could be fixed provided a particular geographical point, e.g., Jerusalem, for calculation of the Vernal equinox, could be selected.
To the above three conflicts about the date of the major celebration of Christians, can be added:
a) In the 4th and 5th centuries, Alexandrian and Roman methods of calculation differed. Augustine of Hippo tells us that in 387 Gaul observed Easter on 21 March, Italy 18 April and Alexandria 25 April. Alexandrian practice ultimately prevailed.
b) Until about 750 there was uncertainty in Gaul about the date because of their use of a set of Paschal tables drawn up in Rome but seldom used there.
c) Cut off from barbarian Europe the Celtic church developed its own method of calculation. A long quarrel developed with the later Augustine’s Roman missionaries to the Anglo-saxons in Kent. Following the decision of the Synod of Whitby in 664 in favour of Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore from Tarsus (who had made an even greater geographical move than 'figs-to-frogs' Irenaeus), imposed the Roman calculation on all England in 669.
Later from Northumbria, the Venerable Bede put his scholarly weight behind the Synod's decision which the Celtic church continued to dispute.
Is this apparently pedantic technical disputation which has filled so many pages, significant or peripheral? The Venerable Bede and Irenaeus would use as their grounds for taking it seriously:
‘... that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me.’(John 17:21)
Of the many contemporary Christian persons with followings who claim to have personal revelations from Jesus, Mary and/or various saints, two ladies, quite independent of each other, are relevant to this Easter issue:
Vassula herself, Greek Orthodox, born in Egypt and currently living in Rome with her Swedish Lutheran husband, has through personal revelation repeatedly experienced and transmitted to the tens of thousands of the Roman Catholics and others to whom she speaks around the world, the present-day desire in Our Lord for a single common date for Easter.
Mrs Mirna Nazour is a Melchite Roman Catholic living in Damascus with her Orthodox husband and two children. Periodically, especially when the two Easters coincide, she has experienced the Stigmata which have been exhaustively photographed and filmed. In addition Mirna’s hands, and a couple of her ikons, exude copious quantities of pure and aromatic olive oil which has been associated with healings. The message she shares with believers around the world is that of John 17 above, an identical message to Vassula's.
In Ethiopia today where Roman Catholics of both Latin and Oriental rites represent only 0.5% of the Christian population, Catholics have set an example to the world by observing the Eastern Julian Calendar date of Easter. In Finland the reverse has occurred. There the Orthodox minority observe the Western date for Easter.