We are near the end of the Easter season, in which Christians around the world have celebrated the resurrection of our Lord. For those of us in the West (i.e. Catholics and Protestants), the Easter season ends this Sunday, May 31st with the Feast of Pentecost. In the East, however, Easter season is a week later due to a different calendar in use by the Orthodox. So they do not celebrate Pentecost until June 7th this year.
But due to a coincidence in the calendars, we are fortunate that all Christians will celebrate a shared Easter for the next two years – 2010 and 2011. But after that we only have two shared Easters over the following 12 years.
The dispute over the dating of Easter goes back to the earliest days of the Church, and is related to how one dates the Passover, which is itself based on the lunar calendar. In 325, the Council of Nicea decreed that the date of Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. However, how the equinox is calculated has differed in the East and the West.
I have always thought this is a problem waiting to be solved. It is not doctrinal in nature and does not touch on the issues that still divide Eastern and Western Christians. Yet it is difficult to change traditions (see: Vatican II and its aftermath) and many would rather stick to “their way” of doing things than see unity on such an issue.
Recently, however, an ecumenical group came up with a plan to unite our Easters:
The problem before the advent of modern astronomy was calculating the equinox. Orthodox churches use March 21 in the Julian calendar, but since the 16th century the Western date has been derived in the Gregorian calendar. The resulting difference can be up to five weeks apart.
The council said theologians from the Vatican and various Orthodox and Protestant churches endorsed a compromise on May 15 that Easter should be held for all Christians using an equinox based on accurate astronomical data.
Under the plan the unified Easter usually falls as it would under the Gregorian calendar used by Catholics and Protestants, said Dagmar Heller, an ecumenical professor in Switzerland heading the council’s faith and order commission.
In the next 15 years, the only time Western churches would have to change Easter is in 2019 from April 21 to March 24. The bigger adjustment would be for the Orthodox Church, which has experienced several schisms in its history over the question of dates.
I sincerely hope and pray that this proposal gains traction, but the last sentence I highlighted touches on the problem of any unified plan. As it mentions, there have been schisms in the Orthodox Church in the past over dating issues, and there is no reason to think that wouldn’t happen again today. It would be highly ironic (and yet very typical) if a plan for a more unified Church led to more schisms.
Personally, I propose that the Catholic Church simply adopt the Eastern method – it doesn’t require any concession on doctrinal issues and I don’t think there would be as much of a fuss about it in our Church. Of course, it might also mean that the Protestants would not go along and then we would celebrate Easter separately from them. Sigh…