Easter is the annual feast of Christ’s resurrection* from the dead – an event that is celebrated on a weekly basis every Sunday, “the first day of the week”, when the women discovered the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1) and the risen Lord appeared to them and to others (also Luke 24:13,36; John 20:19). The annual celebration was at first a unitary celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, a Christian passover, or pasch, corresponding to the fact that Christ’s “exodus” (the Greek word in Luke 9:31) for the salvation* of the world had taken place at the time when the Jewish people commemorated their liberation from Egypt . The 4th century saw the development of “Good Friday” as a commemoration of Christ’s passion and crucifixion, leaving Easter Sunday and the ensuing 50 days (see Pentecost ) as the feast of Christ’s victory over death. Liturgical and sacramental theology in the 20th century re-discovered the unitary character of the “paschal mystery” of Christ’s death and resurrection, celebrated pre-eminently in the paschal vigil during the night from Saturday to Easter Sunday.

The dating of Easter has been the object of several controversies during Christian history. The serious remaining difference separates the Eastern and the Western churches. While both sides agree to the principle laid down in 325 by the council of Nicea* (Easter falls on the annually variable date of the first Sunday following the full moon after the northern spring equinox), the dates in practice differ because the East dates the equinox by the Julian calendar and the West by the Gregorian calendar (see church calendar ). (Exceptions occur in Finland, where the Orthodox keep the Western date, and in parts of the Middle East, where some churches of Western origin have lately agreed to observe the Eastern date.)

The modern ecumenical movement has seen some modest efforts to consider and achieve the practice of a common date for Easter. An early stimulus came from the League of Nations, which in the 1920s proposed the fixed date of the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. This met with some support in the Life and Work* movement, but the Roman Catholic Church was wary of any semblance of secular control over a religious matter. At Vatican II,* however, encouragement was given to the search for an agreed date for Easter, whether annually variable because dependent on the moon (as at present) or fixed (by the civil, solar calendar); but no change was to be made until the churches reached a common mind. The WCC pursued the matter through a questionnaire to its member churches (1965-67), a Faith and Order* consultation (1970), and a report to the Nairobi assembly (1975). The subject was brought back to the agenda of Faith and Order in 1995-96.

While some churches, particularly Western, would be happy with a fixed date (the most favoured being the one originally proposed by the League of Nations), the Orthodox churches stand by the Nicene principle that makes a variable date dependent on the moon. Ecclesiastically, the best hope for a common date appears to reside in continuing to keep an annually variable date while respecting astronomical exactitude for the equinox, from which the first full moon and the ensuing Sunday are counted. This – with the precision that the basis for reckoning be “the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection” – was the recommendation made by a consultation of the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches held at Aleppo, Syria, in 1997 under the title “Towards a Common Date for Easter”. There have been hints (documented by Heller) that, failing this solution, the church of Rome might move to a fixed Saturday in April.


n A.J. Chupungco, Shaping the Easter Feast , Washington DC, Pastoral, 1992 n D. Heller, “The Date of Easter: A Church-Dividing Issue?”, ER , 48, 3, 1996 n A.A. McArthur, The Evolution of the Christian Year , London, SCM Press, 1953 n D.M. Paton ed., Breaking Barriers: Nairobi 1975 , WCC, 1976, p.193 n “Report of the Consultation on a Fixed Date for Easter”, ER , 23, 1971 n T.J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year , Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1986.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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