Syncing Up Easter

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In 2014, the date for Easter for all Christian churches is synced together on the same date: Sunday, April 20. Have you ever wondered how we got the date for Easter?

The Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. is most famous for giving us the first formulation of the Nicene Creed, which confirms in Christian teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation of God in the Jesus Christ. But it also served to resolve a dispute within the church as to when the Resurrection should be celebrated on a yearly basis. Different communities within the early church celebrated the Empty Tomb on different days, which tended to be a bit confusing within the Roman empire. The church leaders meeting at Nicea settled on a system that unified the celebration to be held on the first Sunday after the “Paschal Full Moon.”

The problem is that exact determination of the “Paschal Full Moon” was not always strictly tied to the astronomical full moon, but rather to different sets of tables used to compensate for dissatisfactions with the Jewish lunar calendar. The Christian system relied originally on the early Roman Julian calendar, which is still used by much of the Eastern Orthodox church. By the later medieval period, errors in the Julian calendar were becoming noticeably undesirable, so an effort to create a new calendar was put together. The most famous contributor to this effort was Nicolaus Copernicus, who in doing research for the new calendar derived the new 16th century theory of heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around as in the geocentric system. Our modern Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in the Christian West in the late 16th century, but it was not fully adopted in Protestant countries for several centuries later as it was perceived to be a “paganized” Catholic idea by many Bible purists.

Speaking of that, the Eastern Orthodox church holds to the name Pascha, derived from the idea of Passover, for the description of the Resurrection celebration. In contrast, the word Easter might have some pagan origin in that it could be derived from “Eostra” or “Ostara”, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring. But as the use of this term comes hundreds of years after Christians started to celebrate the Resurrection, it would be completely anachronistic to claim (as some do) that Easter is merely a pagan corruption of Christian faith. Even in the Western church, the Latin name for the Resurrection celebration is still Pascha. The Empty Tomb predates the whole bunny and eggs traditions by centuries, though I must confess I love the chocolate versions of these other traditions.

So this coming Easter or Pascha Sunday is a great opportunity to worship the celebration of the Resurrection with nearly all Christians throughout the whole world on the same day. It does not always happen.

Additional Resources:

Look here for an easy way to calculate the date of Easter, and more background on the calculation process.

For a further defense against the idea of the pagan origins of Easter, consult here, as well this article from the Christian History magazine.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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