Catholics and Orthodox Are Closer Than Ever to a Common Date for Easter

Can Nicaea again bring Christian unity?

Serbian Orthodox priests celebrate the Easter liturgy on April 19, 2020, at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica, Montenegro.
Serbian Orthodox priests celebrate the Easter liturgy on April 19, 2020, at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica, Montenegro. (photo: Filip Filipovic / Getty Images)

A common date for Easter between East and West as a sign of Christian unity — how far are Christians from this ideal?

This initiative has received a renewed breath of life as Catholics recently celebrated their Easter Sunday on April 4, and Orthodox Christians are preparing for their Easter on May 2. Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and Orthodox Archbishop Job Getcha of Telmessos have agreed to work to find a common date to celebrate Easter and give united witness to Christ’s Resurrection.

Archbishop Getcha suggested that the year 2025, which coincides with the 1,700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and during which the Eastern and Western Church will celebrate Easter on the same day — April 20 — might be an opportune time to reform the calendar. 

The difference in the date the Eastern and Western Churches celebrate Easter has to do with two different calendars, the time and date of the spring equinox, and the full moon.

Eastern Christians follow the Julian calendar in calculating the date of Easter, and Western Christians follow the Gregorian calendar. This results in Christians celebrating Easter on different Sundays in most years.

The division is not new — it goes back to 1582, when the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, was introduced to correct some inaccuracies of the Julian calendar (46/47 B.C.), named after Julius Caesar. According to the Gregorian or the New Calendar, the dates were rearranged so that the equinox would fall either on March 20 or 21 as in the time of Nicaea I.

This calendar was accepted widely in the West. Pope Gregory XIII wrote to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremiah II, trying to convince him to adopt the New Calendar and the revisions, but negotiations brought no result. In fact, Jeremiah condemned papal innovations in an encyclical letter.

It was not until the first half of the 20th century when several Orthodox countries adopted the Gregorian calendar, and their respective churches followed suit. For example, the Orthodox Church of Finland adopted the Gregorian calendar as early as 1920. This has resulted in Lutherans and Orthodox celebrating Easter in common. 

The question of a common Easter date for Eastern and Western Christians was addressed in two documents of the Second Vatican Council in the appendix to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which stated:

“The Sacred Council would not object if the feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.”

The same desire to accommodate was expressed in the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches:

“Until such time as all Christians agreed on a fixed day for the celebration of Easter, with a view meantime to promoting unity among the Christians of the same area or nation, it is left to the patriarchs or supreme authorities of a place to come to an agreement by the unanimous consent and combined counsel of those affected to celebrate the feast of Easter on the same Sunday.”

In March 1997 an important consultation sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches met in Aleppo, Syria, and issued a statement, “Towards a Common Date for Easter.”

The statement, which calls attention to the centrality of Christ’s Resurrection as a sign of Christian unity, recommended maintaining the norms established at Nicaea: that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal full moon, to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate possible scientific means and using as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's death and resurrection. By celebrating the Feast of the Feast (Easter) on separate dates, Easter and Western Christians dilute and divide the Christian message.

Pope John Paul II, taking advantage of the common day of Easter of 2001 for Eastern and Western Christians, raised the ecumenical question of finding ways to celebrate Easter on a common day every year.

In his homily concluding the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2001, John Paul II commented on the happy coincidence of that year’s feast of Christ’s Resurrection on the same day for East and West as an important time for Christians to bear common witness and encourage them “to find ways for a common date for this feast.”

For Pope John Paul II the celebration of Easter “should no longer be a cause of division,” urging the ecclesiastical communities to return without delay to a common celebration of the Paschal Feast, as he stated in his address to the ecumenical meeting at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Syria on May 5, 2001. 

The exact text of the decree of the Council of Nicaea that settled the Easter controversy has not been preserved, but Eusebius’s Life of Constantine (Book 3, Chapter 18) has an important piece from the deliberations of Nicaea, showing that “it resolved by the united judgment of all present, that this Easter ought to be kept by all and in every place on one and the same day,” adding “for what can be more becoming or honorable to us than that this feast from which we date our hopes of immortality, should be observed unfailingly by all alike, according to one ascertained order and arrangement?”

The time has come to look with hope to a common Easter celebrated and witnessed in unity, in the East and the West, following the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. The time for Christians to proclaim: “Christ is risen! Indeed, he is risen!” and share their liturgical treasures and services might be nearer than we think, and the Church of the first millennium is coming to the rescue.