Okay, I’ve heard more wacked out reasons why Easter is early than I care to have listened to so I went to Yahoo.com and did a search and this post is the most lucid and easy to understand explanation I found. Now, those who know me that while I was baptized and loosely raised Roman Catholic and made my holy communion and confirmation, my relationship with the Catholic church was never the same once I accepted Jesus as my personal savior so don’t read too much into my using a Catholic website for info – it is what it is, information…
By Patricia Kasten | Special to the Herald
Why is Easter (March 23) so early this year? Blame it on the moon. Specifically, blame it on the Paschal moon.
Last year, Easter was April 8. Next year, it will be April 12.
Why? Is there really a formula to deciding the date of Easter?
As a matter of fact, there is, but it’s complicated. And it means Easter can come as early as March 22 – which it hasn’t since 1818 – or as late as April 25 – which it won’t again until 2038.
Here’s the simplified formula: Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. This year, the spring equinox falls on March 20, one day before the full moon of March, which falls on Friday.
Confused yet? Well, there was once so much confusion about it that things have come close to schism a few times.
Easter is the most important church feast, marking the Lord’s resurrection. In the earliest days, every Sunday was celebrated as if it were Easter. Christ’s followers gathered that day to commemorate his passion, death and resurrection. In fact, to this day, every Sunday remains a celebration of Easter.
However, as time went on, Christians began to mark a special annual celebration of the Resurrection, first called the “Pascha,” after the Jewish word for “Passover.” Not everyone could agree on the proper date, however. Some wanted it to be celebrated on the actual Jewish Passover, which can fall on any day of the week. Others wanted it to be on Sunday, since that was the day of the Lord’s resurrection.
The Jewish Passover falls on the 14th day of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar. (This year, Passover begins at sunset on April 19.) Those Christians who adhered to celebrating Easter on that day — no matter which day of the week — were known as “Quartodecimans” (based on the Latin for 14). They were led by Polycarp of Smryna who claimed to be following the tradition of St. John the Evangelist. (Polycarp was a disciple of John.) However, most Christians, following what was believed to be the tradition of the other Apostles, chose Sunday for the Paschal feast. However, this was not completely settled until the fourth century.
The ‘Easter Controversy’
The “Easter controversy,” as it became known, really got heated over which Sunday. By the second century, the churches in Antioch and Syria based their Paschal feast on the Jewish calendar — which is based on the Paschal full moon, a liturgical, not necessarily an astronomical, event. (This year, that Paschal full moon is April 20.) Alexandria, and most of the churches of the western Roman empire, chose their Easter date independent of the Jewish calendar and tied it, in some way, to the spring equinox.
To show how heated the debate was, Pope Victor I, in 190, decreed Easter would be on the Sunday following the 14th day of the full moon of the spring equinox. And, to avert a schism, he threatened to excommunicate anyone who didn’t agree.
However, Easter’s date (more correctly, its full moon) still became tied to various calendars — solar, lunar, Babylonian — and confusion continued.
The Council of Nicea in 325 took on the challenge, but really only decided definitively that Easter must be on a Sunday and it must be tied the Paschal moon. Generally, the Easter date followed the pattern set by the Alexandrian church, since Alexandria was the ancient world’s center of learning. Their date for Easter had the feast falling on the Sunday two weeks after the Paschal moon, which brought it fairly close to the Jewish Passover date.
However, the break between the Eastern and Western churches in the 11th century, again muddied the waters.
The western church began to rely on astronomical full moons, while the Eastern church continued to follow the liturgical Paschal moon, which is not always the same as the vernal equinox’s first full moon. Finally, around the Middle Ages, the formula in the West had settled into the one we are most familiar with today: Easter falls on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.
Julian vs. Gregorian
The last major problem arose in the 16th century and you can still see it when you look at a calendar this year: The Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter later than the Latin-rite churches on most years. This year it’s April 27. Occasionally, we mark the feast on the same day, as we did last year on April 8.
This is because the Eastern churches use the Julian calendar for calculating Easter, while we in the West use the Gregorian calendar.
In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar devised the calendar that bears his name, but it was flawed. Julius’ calendar was 365 1/4 days long, about 11 minutes longer than a true solar year. Eleven minutes doesn’t seem like much but, by the 16th century, it had added up to meaning that the Julian calendar’s spring equinox fell 10 days earlier than it astronomically was. So Pope Gregory VIII ordered a more accurate calendar and, to clear up the errors, eliminated 10 days during the month of October in 1582. The Gregorian calendar has 365 days, adding an extra day every fourth year, as we do this year.
So the date of Easter still seems confusing. Yet the most important thing to remember is not the date of Easter, but what we have celebrated from the first days of the church: that the eternal God entered into human time through the incarnation so that, through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, God could draw all of us into eternity with him.
Kasten has been a Catholic journalist since 1985 and is currently associate editor of The Compass in Green Bay, Wis. She has a master’s of theological studies degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, and advanced catechist standing with the Green Bay Diocese. She is also author of the Scripture Search puzzles, published in the Hawaii Catholic Herald and other Catholic papers and many parish bulletins. She can be reached through http://www.tri-c-a-publications.com.