For Christians, the story of Easter, the central tenet, the great mystery of the faith as recorded in the Gospels, is easy enough to understand. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day, he arose.
What’s harder for some to comprehend is how the church worldwide has decided when to celebrate this miracle in the 2,000 or so years since it was reported.
Easter, celebrated by Roman Catholics and Protestants on Sunday, falls on the early end of the spectrum for those believers this year; stores had scarcely finished Christmas clearance sales before the bonnets and chocolate bunnies were trotted out. But Eastern Orthodox Christians, who make up about 12 percent of the faith around the world, won’t mark this holy day until May 1, more than a month away.
Some religious leaders have again proposed correcting this disparity by unifying Eastern and Western traditions so all followers celebrate the elements of the Easter story on the same date. The second or third Sunday of April has been suggested. Other observances – Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday – would continue to be tied to the date of Easter each year.
“It may take a little while,” Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, conceded during a news conference in January, but he said he hoped that within the next five to 10 years, representatives of Pope Francis, the Coptic pope and the ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church could reach an agreement on a date for Easter that is more fixed and would be universally observed. Denominations around the world would decide whether to follow.
If that happens, it would put to rest one of the oldest, most fundamental disagreements in Christianity. It also could have implications for school systems, businesses and governments.
Biblical scholars are in general agreement on the historical facts of Jesus’ life, but there is no consensus on the exact date of his death, except that it most likely happened between the years 30 and 33 in the first century. According to Gospel accounts, it was during the Jewish Passover; Jesus’ last meal, shared with his disciples, was a Passover celebration. Popular dates among scholars for the date of Jesus’ death are April 7, 30 A.D., and April 3, 33 A.D., based on Biblical accounts and other sources.
Passover itself is a moveable feast. Kept in remembrance of the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the seven- or eight-day holiday begins on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. It changes each year.
Complicating matters, the majority of the Christian church follows the Gregorian calendar to calculate liturgical events while Eastern Orthodox churches, with more than 225 million adherents, use the Julian calendar.
Both calculations have Easter falling between March 22 and April 25, but because of differences in the calendars, the Eastern church’s celebration can fall between April 4 and May 8 on the Gregorian calendar. The two celebrations occasionally align on the same date.
Historians say each branch believes its custom is derived from the teachings of Jesus’ disciples. Neither calculation is now tied directly to the observance of Passover, which this year will begin April 22.
The date of the Easter observance each year is more than a matter of religious pedantry. Easter is a retail bonanza whose earnings – expected to be $16.4 billion in 2016 – can fall into first- or second-quarter reports, depending on the year. Many countries observe an official holiday at Easter. Across the U.S., school districts plan their annual spring breaks around it, and for those who travel, there is some appeal in having it occur on a fixed date.
Celebrating on grand scale
Though there have been several efforts since at least the 1920s to coalesce the two branches into a common Easter commemoration, neither side has indicated a willingness to give up its practice.
“It’s 2,000 years’ worth of tradition,” said Mark Goodacre, a religious studies professor at Duke University. “When you look back at history, these things were pretty hard fought. The good thing is that these days, you don’t usually draw blood on these kinds of issues anymore.”
Reasons for trying to negotiate a common, more fixed date, Goodacre said, include increased globalization, which Goodacre said comes into play in religious philosophy the same as it does in economic, environmental and social trends. Agreement among Christians on when to commemorate one of the faith’s most holy days could be appealing, especially now that people are connected around the world in real time through social media.
“There is something moving about celebrating something on that scale,” Goodacre said.
Agreement on when to celebrate Easter would be a chance to return to a more direct link from the Christian church worldwide to its Jewish roots and to its historical, factual beginnings, said Andreas Köstenberger, a New Testament and biblical theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.
Köstenberger has done significant research into the actual date of Jesus’ crucifixion, concluding that the most likely date is April 3, 33 A.D. But in the church, Köstenberger said, tradition and symbolism often have more power than historical fact. Christmas, for example, the celebration of Jesus’ birth – on Dec. 25 by most Christians, on Jan. 6 by some – has no basis in the Bible.
“I’m always urging people to separate things that we know historically from what is traditional that arose over the centuries out of superstition or ignorance or other reasons,” Köstenberger said. “The closer we can nail down some of the historical circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death, the more historical a foundation we have for our faith, right?”
Because of the depth of their traditions, Köstenberger said he doubts Eastern and Western branches of the church ever will agree on a common date for Easter. Even in the U.S., churches have yet to agree on the ordination of women and most are just beginning to determine policy on same-sex marriage.
The average church-goer probably doesn’t give much thought to the Easter issue, said Kent Massey, pastor of North Raleigh Church of Christ. The church holds an annual Easter egg hunt, has its preschoolers wave branches on Palm Sunday and has other special events during the season.
But Massey said the congregation celebrates Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday, with communion, a commemoration of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, built into every service.
Whenever it’s observed, Massey said, whether it’s once a week, once a month, or once a year for the legions who only go to church at Easter, the meaning is more important than the moment on the calendar.
“Easter isn’t just something to explain,” Massey said. “It’s something to experience. This is why we have hope. This is why we have life: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“It’s an everyday celebration that reminds us the best is yet to come.”
It’s not clear when the first Easter celebration was held, but even early Christians disagreed over when to mark the date. Some insisted on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, while others preferred the Sunday that followed. In the year 325, a gathering of bishops, called the First Council of Nicaea, introduced some uniformity by declaring that Easter should always be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox. The issue was magnified when the Gregorian calender was introduced in 1585 and was not immediately adopted by Christian churches worldwide.
There is no way to unilaterally reconcile the difference in the way Eastern and Western Christian churches calculate Easter. Leaders of the Catholic Church, which has the largest number of adherents, could agree with the Orthodox Church on one system and establish it as a rule. Protestant denominations could then decide whether to adopt the standard.
Individual churches could decide not to go along with the change. If that happens, different denominations have different ways of handling disagreements over major policy issues. In the past, some congregations have withdrawn from denominations when their members determined they could not adhere to policy changes.