Easter: A Movable Feast

HERE are two things about Easter that hop: the bunny and the date.

Unlike the fixed star of Christmas, Easter moves with the planets. It is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after March 21, the vernal equinox.

It was Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century monk who worked out the formula for the date. In so doing, he accomplished two things: he doused the flames of a controversy that had burned since the second century, and he created the B.C. - A.D. system for numbering years.

Arguments over when to celebrate Christianity’s most important feast day raged early, fiercely and often. In the first and second centuries after the death of Christ, Christianity was a highly diverse landscape of regional practices and beliefs. In Asia Minor, Christians, following the Gospel of St. John, celebrated Easter on Passover, the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. They came to be known as Quartodecimans, from the Latin for “14 days.”

The Roman practice, also followed in Egypt and North Africa, was based on the Julian calendar and on the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which present the Last Supper as the Passover meal. It placed Easter on a Sunday, the day of the Resurrection.

Eventually, with the rising power of the Roman church, Roman practice prevailed, and at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Quartodecimanism was specifically condemned and its practitioners denounced as “Judaizers.” But it lingered on in Asia Minor and far-flung outposts for centuries.

"This may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but calendars are an important issue, regardless of the faith," said Arthur Droge, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Chicago. "If you don’t have the calendar right, that means something has gone terribly wrong."

So true. The Easter problem did not end with the Council of Nicaea, because even those churches that followed the Roman practice had different systems for reconciling the Julian calendar (based on the solar year) and the date of Passover (derived from a lunar calendar). To predict the date of Easter in years to come, Rome used an 84-year cycle. In Alexandria, whose astronomers were renowned for their skill in performing calculations, a 19-year cycle was developed.

By the fourth century, Easter was being celebrated on different Sundays all over Christendom, with the Roman and Alexandrian cycles vying for the lead. Despite a bravura effort by Victorius of Aquitaine, who came up with a 532-year cycle in the fifth century, disorder reigned.

Read more HERE from the NYT.

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