Before we bid Eastertide farewell, it’s worth reflecting on the effort, being pushed in Rome (including by Pope Francis) to adopt a “common” date for Easter for the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea by 2025, a year in which Catholic and Orthodox Easter will coincide.
I’ve previously criticized this idea because I am convinced there are deeper issues at stake that should not be glossed over in the rush to “do something” to mark Nicaea’s anniversary or advance ecumenism. These problems are not just liturgical; they involve our understanding of the relationship between faith and reason.
Catholics and Protestants currently observe the same date of Easter because Protestantism was largely a Western phenomenon. And by the mid-18th century, even recalcitrant Protestants conceded the then almost 200-year-old Gregorian Calendar had something important going for it: reality.
Its dates aligned with astronomical facts like the vernal equinox. The Julian Calendar didn’t. By the 1750s, when the officially Protestant Anglo-American world adopted the Gregorian Calendar, Protestant hostility to “the devil’s whore, reason” (the position of several Protestant groups in the reason/faith debate) was yielding to Enlightenment rationalism. (That the Enlightenment blamed Catholicism for being opposed to reason is a story for another day).
The Orthodox world stuck with the Julian Calendar well into the 20th century. Eventually, Orthodox-majority states adopted the Gregorian calendar.
Orthodox churches, however, were another story. The international federation of autocephalous national churches, which we call “Orthodoxy,” split: some adopted the Gregorian Calendar for ecclesiastical purposes (which they call the “New” Calendar), others (most prominently, the Russians) did not.
The background to all this needs retelling. Among the Council of Nicaea’s achievements was settling when to celebrate Easter, the central feast of the Church’s liturgical calendar. The main debate was whether to follow Jewish practice, linked to Passover, which meant Easter could fall on any day of the week, or to keep it on a Sunday. Nicaea decided on the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.
The Council appears to have stopped there. It then assigned the practical calculations to astronomical experts in Alexandria. They determined (rightly) that the first day of Spring is March 21, so the first full moon of spring would appear between March 21 and April 25.
But “Spring” is an astronomical fact, dates are calendar designations. Spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere for everybody – Catholic, Orthodox, and atheist – at the same time. But March 21 in the “Old” (i.e., Julian) Calendar is April 4 in the “New” (Gregorian) and April 25 is May 8.
Continue reading at The Catholic Thing.