Before we bid Eastertide farewell, it’s worth reflecting on the effort, being pushed in Rome (including by Pope Francis) to adopt a “common” date for Easter for the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea by 2025, a year in which Catholic and Orthodox Easter will coincide.
I’ve previously criticized this idea because I am convinced there are deeper issues at stake that should not be glossed over in the rush to “do something” to mark Nicaea’s anniversary or advance ecumenism. These problems are not just liturgical; they involve our understanding of the relationship between faith and reason.
Catholics and Protestants currently observe the same date of Easter because Protestantism was largely a Western phenomenon. And by the mid-18th century, even recalcitrant Protestants conceded the then almost 200-year-old Gregorian Calendar had something important going for it: reality.
Its dates aligned with astronomical facts like the vernal equinox. The Julian Calendar didn’t. By the 1750s, when the officially Protestant Anglo-American world adopted the Gregorian Calendar, Protestant hostility to “the devil’s whore, reason” (the position of several Protestant groups in the reason/faith debate) was yielding to Enlightenment rationalism. (That the Enlightenment blamed Catholicism for being opposed to reason is a story for another day).
The Orthodox world stuck with the Julian Calendar well into the 20th century. Eventually, Orthodox-majority states adopted the Gregorian calendar.
Orthodox churches, however, were another story. The international federation of autocephalous national churches, which we call “Orthodoxy,” split: some adopted the Gregorian Calendar for ecclesiastical purposes (which they call the “New” Calendar), others (most prominently, the Russians) did not.
The background to all this needs retelling. Among the Council of Nicaea’s achievements was settling when to celebrate Easter, the central feast of the Church’s liturgical calendar. The main debate was whether to follow Jewish practice, linked to Passover, which meant Easter could fall on any day of the week, or to keep it on a Sunday. Nicaea decided on the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.
The Council appears to have stopped there. It then assigned the practical calculations to astronomical experts in Alexandria. They determined (rightly) that the first day of Spring is March 21, so the first full moon of spring would appear between March 21 and April 25.
But “Spring” is an astronomical fact, dates are calendar designations. Spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere for everybody – Catholic, Orthodox, and atheist – at the same time. But March 21 in the “Old” (i.e., Julian) Calendar is April 4 in the “New” (Gregorian) and April 25 is May 8.
In case your history is a little rusty about all this, Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed in 1582 a change in dates of ten days and in the method of calculation because the earth’s orbit around the sun is not exactly 365¼ days (it’s really 365.2425), so even with leap years the seasons had drifted – including the dates for Easter (as explained here).
After Orthodox countries and some Orthodox churches adopted the Gregorian calendar, an across-the-board Orthodox “solution” came about to transpose Julian calendar dates on to the Gregorian calendar for liturgical purposes. Calendar literalism clashed with astronomical reality.
As I see it, two characteristics of Easter are fact-based: when Spring begins and when the first full moon occurs after Spring begins. That should be the basis for a common formula for setting Easter.
Orthodox attachment to calendar dates (based on an unscientific calendar) are literalist readings of post-Nicaean practice, which subordinates the key factor – the Paschal full moon – to human-devised date reckoning. The Orthodox should recognize that.
After all, fourth-century Christians set the dates for Spring according to the Northern Hemisphere at a time when that was the known world. If calendar literalism trumps astronomical reality, then Orthodox in Australia are violating post-Nicaean practice because, even though they stick to calendar dates, those dates astronomically fall after the hemispheric autumnal equinox.
A common calendar would serve three purposes:
1. It better preserves the current norm, in place for over 1,500 years, of observing Easter on Sunday after the first full moon of Spring (whenever you think “spring” started) rather than compelling both Rome and Constantinople to abandon that tradition in favor of a complete novelty: tying Easter to the second or third Sunday of April.
2. Adopting the Gregorian Calendar would further advance inter-Christian witness because it would make Christmas a – fixed Solemnity on December 25 – a common date that both churches could start observing at the same time.
3. It helps the Eastern Churches to grapple with the importance of the faith-and-reason problem, which cannot be overlooked in modern times without undermining overall Christian witness.
I fear that the quest for a grand gesture on the anniversary and the proclivity of some ecumenical types to preemptive surrender in the name of showing Catholic openness to “unity,” Rome would force a “solution” upon Western Christians. Besides, “unity” will be rather elusive, inasmuch as getting Orthodoxy (with its lack of any central decision-making center and many internal divisions) to a common agreement would be, frankly, miraculous.
And the absence of that miracle, however, would likely leave the Russians – by far the largest autocephalous Orthodox church – once more doing their own thing. (Just think of the implications for intra-Orthodox relations in Ukraine).
The Paschal moon establishes a link between Easter and Passover, a significant theological statement. We should not lose that connection to placate Orthodox prejudices against a nearly 500-year-old scientific calendar reform and drive both churches to abandon how they have calculated the Pasch in favor of some ecumenical novelty that avoids a deeper issue of faith and reason.