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Michael Jensen

Why is Easter so Late?

This morning I had my monthly interview with Sean Herriott from the Morning Show on Revelant Radio. Today we discussed the date of Easter. It was a timely discussion as several people have asked me why Easter is so late this year. Some even suggested that it might be better to have a fixed date for Easter, similar to Christmas.

As to the latter, Easter by definition has to fall on a Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Therefore, it cannot be celebrated on a fixed date. Still, this very question was discussed at the Second Vatican Council. The resulting document suggests that the Catholic Church would be open to a fixed date for Easter as long as all Christians would agree on that date.

Until then, Easter will remain a moveable feast. And because Easter moves all feasts and seasons that are related to Easter move relative to the date of Easter. Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent and Pentecost which marks the last day of the Easter season are obviously dependent upon the date of Easter. However, Holy Trinity which falls on the Sunday after Pentecost and Corpus Christi which falls on the Sunday after Holy Trinity are dependent on the date of Easter as well. Even the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart which is celebrated on the Friday following Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary which is celebrated the day after the Sacred Heart of Jesus are dependent upon the date of Easter.

It took a while to decide on the all-important date for Easter. Early bishops celebrated Easter on different dates based on different theologies. Some opted for the celebration of Easter on the 14th day or the day of the full moon of the month Nissan in the Jewish lunar calendar as they believed it to be the day on which Jesus was crucified.  Others desired to celebrate Easter on the following Sunday, the day of the Lord. Still others desired to disconnect the celebration of Easter from the Jewish calendar all together.

It was not until the first Council of Nicea (325) that the current formula for calculating the day of Easter was established. Since then Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. The Council of Nicea also established that the date of the spring equinox was March 21though meteorologically it often falls on March 20. Using this method, the earliest possible date for Easter can be March 22 which happened last in 1818 and will not happen again till 2285. The latest possible date for Easter is April 25 which happened last in1943 and will not happen again until 2038.

And to complicate matters just one bit more, let me tell you about Orthodox Easter. The Orthodox churches follow the same computation system established by the first Council of Nicea. However, because they still use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar we end up celebrating Easter on different dates. March 21 on the Julian calendar corresponds to April 3 on the Gregorian calendar. Thus Orthodox Easter falls between April 4 and May 8. Sometimes, Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter fall on the same date as is the case this year. The protestant churches follow the same calculation system as the Catholic Church.

P.S. if you are wondering about the differences between the Julian and Gregorian Calendar, watch for another blog entry on this topic.

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