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Why do Catholics and Greek Orthodox celebrate Easter on different Sundays?

The eternal question: Why do Christians celebrate Easter on two different dates? This year Catholics, the Western Church, celebrate Jesus Resurrection on April 1st, while members of the Greek Orthodox and the East Church on  April 8th. Easter is a moveable feast, that does not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars. Both calendars follow the astronomic cycle of the sun.

The Easter date is determined on a lunisolar calendar.

The main issue lies in the spring equinox and the different calendars used by both churches to determine the months, but also on ecclesiastic differences.

  • West Church (Gregorian Calendar): Easter must always fall on a Sunday, within a range of seven days after the first full moon following the spring equinox
  • East Church (Julian Calendar): the Julian “full moon” after the spring equinox is always several days after the astronomical full moon, the eastern Easter is often later, relative to the visible moon’s phases, than western Easter.

Historical background

The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules: independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the council.

Easter has to be the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March. However, calculations vary.

Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover, the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, as much a.  by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar.

The first Christians, Jewish and Gentile, were certainly aware of the Hebrew calendar. Jewish Christians, the first to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, timed the observance in relation to Passover.

In Western Christianity, using the Gregorian calendar, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April inclusive, within about seven days after the astronomical full moon.

Eastern Christianity bases its calculations on the Julian Calendar. Because of the 13-day difference between the calendars between 1900 and 2099, 21 March corresponds, during the 21st century, to 3 April in the Gregorian Calendar. Easter therefore varies between 4 April and 8 May in the Gregorian calendar (the Julian calendar is no longer used as the civil calendar of the countries where Eastern Christian traditions predominate). Also, because the Julian “full moon” is always several days after the astronomical full moon, the eastern Easter is often later, relative to the visible moon’s phases, than western Easter.

Gregorian vs Julian Calendar

  • The Gregorian Calendar was first introduced by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585).
  • The Julian Calendar assumes a full year is 365.25 days whereas it is actually 11 minutes less.

The Gregorian calendar was able to make up for this 11 minute difference by not making years divisible by 100 to be a leap year. This means that the year 2,100, for example wouldn’t be a leap year whereas in the Julian calendar format – it would be.

Greece was using the Julian Calendar until 1922. Τhere is still the Old Calendarian community (Παλαιοημερολογίτες) that celebrates Christmas according to the Julian Calendar, though.

Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1918. However, while Russia celebrates Easter together with the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, according to the Julian Calendar. The Church of Russia is insistent to strictly use the Julian Calendar for religious  holidays because the Gregorian calendar was introduced by a Roman Catholic pope.

The Gregorian calendar was able to make up for this 11 minute difference by not making years divisible by 100 to be a leap year. This means that the year 2,100, for example wouldn’t be a leap year whereas in the Julian calendar format – it would be.

Among the Oriental Orthodox some churches have changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and the date for Easter as for other fixed and moveable feasts is the same as in the Western church.

Controversy

The precise date of Easter has at times been a matter of contention. By the later 2nd century, it was widely accepted that the celebration of the holiday was a practice of the disciples and an undisputed tradition. The Quartodeciman controversy, the first of several Easter controversies, arose concerning the date on which the holiday should be celebrated.

The term “Quartodeciman” refers to the practice of celebrating Easter on Nisan 14 of the Hebrew calendar, “the LORD‘s passover” (Leviticus 23:5). According to the church historian Eusebius, the Quartodeciman Polycarp,bishop of Smyrna, debated the question with Anicetu, bishop of Rome.

Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus persuaded the other, but they did not consider the matter schismatic either, parting in peace and leaving the question unsettled.

It is not known how long the Nisan 14 practice continued. But both those who followed the Nisan 14 custom, and those who set Easter to the following Sunday had in common the custom of consulting their Jewish neighbors to learn when the month of Nisan would fall, and setting their festival accordingly.

By the later 3rd century, however, some Christians began to express dissatisfaction with the custom of relying on the Jewish community to determine the date of Easter. The chief complaint was that the Jewish communities sometimes erred in setting Passover to fall before the Northern Hemisphere spring equinox. Jews of some eastern Mediterranean city fixed Nisan 14 on dates well before the spring equinox on multiple occasions.

Because of this dissatisfaction with reliance on the Jewish calendar, some Christians began to experiment with independent computations. Others, however, believed that the customary practice of consulting Jews should continue, even if the Jewish computations were in error.

In the 20th century, some individuals and institutions have propounded a fixed date for Easter, the most prominent proposal being the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. Despite having some support, proposals to reform the date have not been implemented.

In January 2016, Christian churches again considered the idea of a fixed and unified date of Easter, probably either the second or third Sunday in April.

  • In some years, West and East Easter fall even a month apart. Sometimes both communities celebrate Easter on the same Sunday.
  • Greek Orthodoxs and Catholics celebrated Easter together in 2017. Next time it will happen again will in in 2025.

Is the question answered?

Historically yes, but the question remains: if now all Christian communities use the Gregorian calendar, why don’t the Holy fathers agree on a fixed Easter Sunday – how much more that the lunirsolar calendar is determined by the well-known space forces and the spring equinox occurs on the same time plus/minus a day of difference? That’s certainly an Easter Miracle!

Full moon here and full moon there, fact is that on Catholic Easter Saturday, March 31st 2018, there is a full moon, the second within a month. Therefore they call it Blue Moon.

Happy Easter!

PS I personally prefer when Easter falls in the last week of April or the first week of May. The weather is much more stable then, nature is in full blooming power, and … there must always be sunshine on Easter 🙂

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One comment

  1. Like most journalists, You are either omitting key information either out of ignorance or intentionally.
    Although you hint at the reason, you do not fully explain the difference.

    1) Passover is always after the first full moon after Spring Equinox.
    2) Christ was not crucified until after Passover.
    3) Passover – or Pesach is not Easter
    3) Ergo – you cannot have Easter until after Passover
    4) Read your Bible.

    In addition, why not mention why Pope Gregory changed the calendar by 13 days?
    Hint: something about a hole in the roof on the Tower of the Winds at the Vatican and when the sunlight shown on a calendar wheel on the floor. Study it and be enlightened. (prophesy on “changing the times”)

    Now, in actuality, time and calendars are man’s invention, not God’s. The exact time of Passover and Christ’s resurrection cannot be duplicated but only approximated. In this case there is more than just a difference of 13 days, and leap years, and lunar vs solar calendars, ego, complication, misinformation, obfuscation.

    Personally, every religion, sect, splinter has gone further and further from the truth. The Orthodox Church is the only one closest to the origin, which is probably why more and more people find their way back home each year.