A Rarity: The Two Churches Share One Easter Date

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — There's something different about this year's celebration of Easter.

Christians all over the world will be celebrating the feast on the same day.

In a typical year, most Christians of the various eastern rites celebrate Easter 1 to 5 weeks later than Christians in the Western traditions.

That's because most Orthodox and some Catholic Eastern-rite churches follow the “old” or Julian calendar that was in effect when the Council of Nicea established the formula for determining Easter in the year 325. At present, the Julian calendar lags 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar followed by civil authorities worldwide and the churches of the west.

Every once in a while, though, the two calendars yield the same date for the celebration of Easter. They can do that in spite of the 13-day lag because the date of Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.

The joint celebration of Easter this year has inspired those in the ecumenical movement to propose that all churches celebrate Easter together in the future.

In a meeting in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, representatives of many Christian churches agreed that working towards a common date for Easter should be a priority.

But acceptance of the Aleppo formula among most Orthodox churches seems like a long-shot proposition at best. That's because the Orthodox themselves are divided over whether to use the “old” or “new” calendars.

Some Orthodox churches use the old calendar only to figure the date of Easter and other feast days that depend on when Easter falls. They celebrate Christmas, for instance, with churches of the West. These churches include those of Constantinople, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Alexandria, Antioch, Cyprus and the Orthodox Church in America.

But large sections of the Orthodox world use the old calendar to figure all feast days. Thus, the Russian, Serbian, Georgian and Polish orthodox churches, along with the Jerusalem patriarchate and the monks of Mt. Athos, all celebrate their Christmas on what the new calendar calls Jan. 7.

Christians in the Middle East most acutely feel the need for a common date, said Professor John Erickson, professor of canon law and church history at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York, under the Orthodox Church in America. Christians in the Middle East are a minority divided among themselves.

Divided Christendom

“Their divided celebration in this Muslim world sends the worst message of division, a counter-witness to a faith that they all profess in common,” Erickson said. “The Muslims might say, ‘Is Christ going to rise twice this year?’”

In some parts of the world — notably, Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union — the keeping of the old calendar became a symbol of the sacrifice that believers had to undertake to maintain their faith in the face of a hostile and intensely secular regime.

“It would be difficult to change the calendar without this being perceived as a capitulation,” Erickson said.

Unilateral Change?

The proposed new method of calculating Easter would be little noticed in the West, since the date would usually remain unchanged from the one set by the present method.

“It would mean more changes for the Orthodox than for the west,” said Father Ron Roberson. Roberson is the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In America, Orthodox-Catholic and Orthodox-Lutheran dialogues have reached agreement that a common date for Easter on the Aleppo formula should be studied. But Roberson thinks the Orthodox will not be able to reach agreement among themselves.

The common celebration of Easter in 2001 comes after an 11-year interval from the last time East and West met. In the coming decades, however, East and West will celebrate Easter many times together even if they don't adopt a common date of celebration.

Using their separate methods of calculation, East and West will celebrate Easter together in 2004, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2017. Common dates will recur until 2698, when the Julian and Gregorian calendars will have grown too far apart to make a common celebration possible.

Wesley Young writes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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