Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

An Early Easter - 2008

You have surely noticed that Easter comes very early this year- on 23rd March. Why so early? How is the date fixed from year to year? It’s a complicated system, but it throws up some interesting statistics.

The rules that determine the date of Easter trace back to the year 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. Since that time Easter has been celebrated “on the Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox”. The reason for this was to maintain the link between the death/resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish feast of Passover, and this was in touch with the manner in which the date of the Passover is determined, though it held to an earlier tradition of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday.

However, in later reforms of the method of calculating the date of Easter, the “spring equinox” was fixed to mean 21st March. Hence, on that reckoning, the earliest date possible for Easter is 22nd March. But if there has been a full moon just before 21st March then, on the same reckoning, the date can stretch back as far as 25th April.

These extreme dates are quite rare however. The last time Easter came on 22nd March was in 1818, and will not do so again until 2285 – a bit beyond most of us! For April 25th the last time was in 1943, and the next will be in 2038 – within reach of many, perhaps. The second earliest date 23rd March, that we have this year, will not come again until 2160 – again out of our time, but the second latest date, 24th April, will be coming up fairly soon, in 2011 – possibly in time for most.

Responding to the fluctuations of the date of Easter has given rise to questions about the possibility of having a fixed date every year. For many years there has been discussion about the possibility of a fixed date and, even further, for a new calendar (e.g. of thirteen months of 28 days with an uncounted day each year and two days in leap year). In the worlds of work, commerce and education there has been and is still a growing demand for a fixed calendar. The big question has been: would the churches agree to this?

Pope Pius XII, asked in the 1950’s if this would be possible, saw no objection. It would offer not only a fixed time for Easter but also for the other moveable feasts related to it. Then in 1963 the Second Vatican Council recognised the validity of these concerns and declared that the Catholic Church “is not opposed to assigning the feast of Easter to a fixed Sunday” provided other Christian communities gave it their assent. It also said that “it does not oppose efforts designed to introduce a perpetual calendar into civic society”.

The major Reformation Churches should have no difficulty with this position since Martin Luther himself had argued that Easer and its related feasts should have fixed dates, as opposed to what he called “wobbling festivals”. However, it has not proved so easy. At their 1975 General Assembly, most of the member churches of the World Council of Churches were of the same mind, voting in favour of a fixed, common date. But they were not able to establish total agreement and so they have not found it possible to give full assent. At present total agreement of the churches has not been achieved.