Christos Aneste! Alithos Aneste!!
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!!
We Wish You a Very Blessed and Joyful Pascha!
As we enter this Paschal Season of 2016, we intend to take the attention of our readers not to the most mystifying historical and theological truth of the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead as we used to do in the past, but to the controversy of the actual date of the Easter/ Pascha. Very often the average Christian does not worry about the date of Pascha nor is he exposed to the different approaches to decide the date of Pascha. Even if the topic is brought for discussion our Orthodox Christians react indifferently. “It does not matter; the most important concern is that the Pascha is celebrated regardless of the date”, is the general attitude towards the issue.
Can we Orthodox approach this issue without regard to the historical and biblical implications behind this issue? It is crucial that every Orthodox should have a basic idea of the criteria that determine the date of Easter/ Pascha. This awareness would deepen the true mystery of the Resurrection of Christ, who is the true Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of God prefigured by the Paschal Lamb of the Old Covenant.
Although occasionally both East and West celebrate Pascha on the same day, usually the Eastern churches celebrate Pascha one to five weeks later than the feast observed by the Western Church.
The Celebration of Pascha in the Post-Apostolic Period
The Church saw the Resurrection of our Lord as the most important event in the life of her Lord and God on earth; hence that was the only feast the Church celebrated during her post-apostolic period. Tradition says that it was celebrated in conjunction with the Jewish Passover observed in Jerusalem. However, Christian communities had different dates to observe the Resurrection of the Lord from the very beginning of Christian history. The reasons rested on the complex nature of calendars and the astronomical data available. Moreover, the biblical accounts related to Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection were somewhat confusing, which made a decision on the exact date of Pascha somewhat perplexing, because the details relating Christ’s death and resurrection to the Jewish Passover are not entirely clear. For example, Mathew, Mark and Luke identify our Lord’s Last Supper as a Jewish Passover meal. This would imply that His death on the cross took place the next day. But the Gospel of John emphasizes that Jesus became a sacrifice on the cross exactly at the same hour the paschal lambs were sacrificed on the day of the Passover. The Syriac Orthodox liturgical tradition does underscore this truth in her prayers on Great Friday to identify Christ as the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant who replaced the Jewish Passover.
These two perceptions of the biblical accounts paved way for two different practices; one group celebrated Pascha on the Jewish Passover on any day the Passover takes place, and the other group observed it on the Sunday following the Passover. By the 4th century the latter became a common practice. However, you could expect some variations in some remote pockets of Christian communities which were far away from metropolitan centers at a time when such communities existed without sufficient channels of communication.
What Did the First Ecumenical Council Held at Nicaea Decide?
Obviously the Church as a whole detected some problems on this practice and wanted to settle it universally, and the topic was brought under the agenda of the First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 325 A.D. This council decided that Holy Pascha should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Actually the vernal equinox is the starting point of spring. In case the full moon is on a Sunday, Pascha should be observed on the following Sunday. March 21 is the astronomically accepted date as the beginning date of spring. Passover was celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Thus naturally Pascha was celebrated on the first Sunday after the Jewish Passover.
Why there is a correlation between Pascha and the Jewish Passover.
Historically, the arrest and trial of Our Lord and His salvific sacrificial death on the cross occurred in connection with the Jewish Passover. For the Aramaic-based Semitic Christians it has more significance as a theological and soteriological requirement. The Passover of the Old Testament was the commemoration of the emancipation of a nation under bondage; the bible is clear that it was symbolic, not only of a political struggle and liberation of a people, but also of their spiritual and ethical freedom which was realized on the day of Pentecost on Mount Sinai when they were brought under the discipline of God through the instrumentality of the Ten Commandments written by God’s own hand and inscribed on their hearts. Pascha is the event that comprises not only the resurrection of the Lord, but also of His Sacrificial death on the cross, and it is culminated and perfected with the descent of the His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; rather than binding the hearts of men with the uncompromising binding power of a set of Laws given on the first Pentecost, the second Pentecost, as a new Pentecost, bound them with the forgiving and gracious power of the Holy Spirit Who grants them ultimate freedom from their inner enemies of pride, lust, covetousness, gluttony, thievery, sensuality and all other vices through the acceptance of the Redeemer realized in the Risen Christ and through repentance and grace. In Christian East this connection is crucial.
The Passover of the Old Covenant was only a shadow of the real Passover, a prefiguration of the Eternal Passover which is Christ Himself as the Passover victim, as the Offeror of the Passover victim, and as the Passover meal which was divided among His redeemed for eternal life. The First Ecumenical Council must have absorbed this truth, and demanded that the real Passover, the Pascha, should take place only after its prefiguration, which is the Jewish Passover. In other words, the Christian Passover or Pascha can be observed only after the Jewish Passover which prefigured the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lamb of God. Again the Eternal Passover must never precede its symbolic prefiguration; the true Passover, the death and resurrection of Lamb of God should be observed only after its symbolic representation prior to the reality. Hence the Council of Nicaea stipulated that the Christian Pascha should be observed only after the Jewish Passover.
The Church had encountered some problems in this area. The Jews who were scattered as a result of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and were living in Diaspora away from their ancestral cultural background began to observe their Passover at different dates, particularly on a date before the vernal equinox. This is the result of changes in the calendars they followed. This definitely affected the Christian observance of the Pascha. In order to correct this condition, the Council stipulated that the Pascha should be observed based on the Passover and calendar in force during the time of Christ in Jerusalem, and not any other calendar. In one of the later regional councils (for example, the Council of Antioch) we see that Christians, who celebrated Pascha with the Jews were anathematized. Traditionally the Church always wanted the Pascha to be celebrated on a Sunday after the Jewish Passover observed in Jerusalem according to the calendar followed at the time of Jesus. In other words, in order to set a date for Pascha the Church had always wanted to link the criteria with the norms for observing Jewish Passover during the time of our Lord.
How did the East and the West Go into two different directions?
Currently both East and West recognize that Pasha should be celebrated after the full moon following the vernal equinox. But the problem really rests somewhere else, i.e. on the different calendars the East and West began to follow since the 16th century. Rome developed a new calendar under Pope Gregory (hence it is called the Gregorian calendar) and began to calculate the date of Easter based on this calendar.
When Pope Gregory set the date of vernal equinox it was a fixed date, which has its practical convenience. However the East always followed the astronomical path to decide on vernal equinox, in other words the science of astronomy determines the date of vernal equinox. Thus fixing the date of Pascha on a particular date has become a complex issue. Thus defining vernal equinox has become two processes which led to different dates for full moons. The Eastern churches followed the actual vernal equinox and full moon based on the science of astronomy as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem, the location of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In addition, the East particularly emphasized the connection between Jewish Passover and the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and His passion, death and resurrection; hence the commemoration of the resurrection should take place only after the Jewish Passover. The West has no such regard for this intrinsic mystical affinity between them, which itself is a point of serious deviation.
Moreover, the West just fixed vernal equinox on a fixed date, which is on March 21, and a date for full moon which does not have to be on the day of the astronomical full moon. This date of the full moon is determined based on “ecclesiastical full moon cycles” created by the Roman Church, and is more predictable in advance, because it has been programmed for that kind of convenience.
To make it further simple for our understanding, the difference in dates to observe the Pascha rises from different vernal equinox days in both Gregorian and Julian calendars and from the unwillingness of the Roman Catholic Church to take the Jewish Passover date into consideration for determining the date of Pascha as stipulated by the Council of Nicaea.
Is Reconciliation Possible?
Can we reconcile both East and West on this important issue of the date of Pascha without compromising fundamental issues which are basic to its calculation? The honest opinion of this writer is that it is not possible. The West, if it is led by Rome, will enter into negotiations, but it is for converting the other side into its side; it will never give up what it has been practicing although it was only for less than five centuries. This is the Roman megalomania to assert that Rome was, is, and will be always right, and will never change!
Recent Efforts of Reconciliation
It was a serious concern among all Christians that they lose witness for what they preach and stand for among the pagans and heathens and among the Moslems. When the Roman Catholic Christ died and rose from the dead, the Christ of the Eastern churches was still preaching in their churches! These Christians did not have a convincing answer to a Hindu or Muslim if they were confronted with a question regarding the different dates of the celebration of Pascha in the same region. Christians in the Middle East and India faced this situation regularly as Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians and the Orthodox celebrated Easter on different dates. To do away with the confusion among non-Christians one group within the Church of the East (who follow the Nestorian doctrine on the personhood of Christ) adopted the Western Easter calculations, which divided that Church as Old-Calendarists and New-Calendarists. In India in the 1950’s the Orthodox Church of India (also called the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East in Malankara) similarly accepted the Western calendar through a Synodal decision to avoid a scandal among the larger population of Hindus. It is to be observed that the Finnish Orthodox Church (a Church in the Byzantine tradition) also follows the Western Gregorian Calendar to celebrate its Pascha.
In the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church thought about a common date and proposed the second Sunday in April to be a permanent day of Pascha, but it never received acceptance especially among the Eastern Churches.
A few years ago under the efforts of the World Council of Churches there was an attempt to set a common date for Easter (Pascha). There was a meeting of representatives from East and West in Aleppo, Syria (March 5-10, 1997), which proposed a solution believed to be favorable to both East and West. The proposal suggested to replace the old methods of calculating vernal equinox and full moon, and to use a more scientifically accurate and advanced astronomical method to calculate the vernal equinox and full moon which was accepted by the participants. Since then no progress was made on this accepted proposal.
The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches discussed the possibility of celebrating Easter on several occasions, but the idea was never materialized.
Pope John Paul II came up with his proposal for a fixed single date for Pascha, but was not agreeable to the Orthodox.
More recently Pope Francis has shown openness for greater ecumenical cooperation in this matter and renewed discussions on this topic. He also suggested that he would change the date of Easter in the West to accommodate the wishes of other Christians, so that a common date for Pascha could be fixed. Speaking at the World Retreat of Priests at his official Cathedral of St. John Lateran in Rome on June 12, 2015 he said: “We have to come to an agreement “for a common date for Easter, and he said this disunity is a scandal. Of course it is a scandal; but who deviated from the original norms set by the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea required for the calculation of the date of Pascha?
Having been pastorally sensitive to a global issue such as this, some Orthodox leaders also had come forward with their reflections. In May 2015 Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria wrote to the Papal Nuncio in Egypt suggesting a common date for Pascha. A week after the Retreat of Priests at the Lateran in Rome, The Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Ephraim II, of the Syrian Orthodox Church met with Pope Francis and discussed the possibility of having a single date for Easter for all Christians. He noted that motivated by the Second Vatican Council the Holy Synod of Antioch adopted a resolution in 1981 expressing the “eagerness” of his Church to observe Pascha on a fixed Sunday in April which would be agreed upon by all Christians. He also thanked the Pope for his latest initiative to reopen discussion on this matter.
Historian Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in L’Osservatore Romano that the Pope is offering a “gift of unity” to the rest of Christendom with his willingness to change the date of Easter. She also observed that this would encourage “reconciliation between Christian Churches and … a sort of making sense out of the calendar”. She wrote that a common date would magnify “the importance of the central feast of the faith in a moment when changes seems to be suddenly coming throughout the world” (Sophia, Fall 2015).
But the reaction from the Russian Orthodox Church was negative. The criteria for determining the date of Pasha were set at a time when the Church was one, and setting a common date should follow the norms set by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. In other words, Moscow would stick with the traditional norms followed by the Orthodox churches. Father Nikolai Balashov, Deputy Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, did not make any direct comment on the Pope’s proposal, but warned against “any radical change of our common traditions from the first millennium of Christianity” (Sophia, Fall 20115).
Fr. Balashov further observed: “If the Church of Rome intends to celebrate Easter as calculated when the Church of the East and West were united… then this intention is welcome”. On the other hand if the agendum is to “have a fixed date for Easter and not tie it to the first full moon after the spring equinox, as established in the East and in the West by the Council of Nicaea in 325, then this proposal is totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church” (Sophia Fall 2015).
Another famous Russian theologian, Protodeacon Andrey Kurayev, according to Interfax, called the Pope’s proposal “unrealistic and prospectless”. He reiterated that the Orthodox Christians are tied to the decision of the First Ecumenical Council and establishing a permanent fixed date is contrary to the mind of Nicaea.
Rome, Go Back to the Nicaean Canon and Tradition!
This writer has a question to the Pope of Rome: Why don’t go back to the canons of the Council of Nicaea and stick with them, like the Eastern churches? If you do so the problem is over. We are sure the entire West including the Protestants will be responsive to the call of the Bishop of Rome if it is according to the stipulation of the First Ecumenical Council, although they do not attach sacredness or canonicity to any Council; however they might absorb its historical credibility. Thus the entire Christendom will have a common date as it had been before the innovation on this matter was introduced by your predecessor Pope Gregory in the 16th century. Would it be suggestive of the Papal megalomania that the Pope is above an Ecumenical Council that he does not have to observe the canons of any Councils or that the practice of the East is simply unfounded, without canonical foundation or theological justification? Why is the Pope showing particular interest for a fixed date now? Again, we feel that the Church of Rome has to show the world that it is under its initiative that a new Easter date is fixed, which is to show that the Pope has certain prerogative and universal jurisdictional role in settling a current dispute. Do not forget that this dispute was created by Rome in the 16th century.
Rome is the most cunning institution, excelling even the Soviet Communist regime, in its tactics. A few years ago, parenthetically, Pope Benedict XVI, whom this writer highly regards as a towering intellect, committed a most audacious fallibility by denouncing his own title “the Patriarch of Rome”! Why? Every Christian thought that it was because he was very humble and he was not interested in any ornamental or honorific title. No, that was not the reason. He cannot strip himself off an ancient ecclesiastical rank, as it was conferred on the Bishop of Rome by an ecumenically convened conciliar action. If he ever wanted to remain as the Bishop of Rome, this rank of “patriarch” is intrinsic to his pastoral role, as determined by the First Ecumenical Council. If he did not want to carry this rank with other patriarchs of the East, he should have petitioned to an Ecumenical Council to take it away from him. Then again, the motives were ulterior: It was to show that the Pope is above any ecumenical council and to show that he is not one among the patriarchs, but above them as the Papa! Smart! Did any Eastern patriarchs question Benedict’s action, did any of them consider to enthrone a Patriarch of Rome to continue the Patriarchate of the West to honor the decision of the First Ecumenical Council since Benedict denounced it? No! The Orthodox were not courageous or were not concerned about it.
Similarly the actions of Pope Francis seem to be very popular, but they are insidious. The Left love him because his actions and teachings support their master plan; they just got an advocate promoting their agenda. How many Orthodox prelates have detected the dangers hidden in his writing? A true scientist cannot relate to his latest encyclical Laudato Si (On Care of our Common Home). He was supporting a leftist agendum behind the Global Warming campaign which many famous scientists consider as not scientifically founded. Global Warming is a recent theory to explain the phenomenon of climate changes around the globe. It is the discovery of some politically motivated scientists who are said to be leading the researches according to the wishes of some political moguls who reap millions for them and for their researchers in the guise of advanced studies on climate change. The Pope has touched on topics like Economics and Climate Science, in which he has no expertise, in order to unveil a “thinly veiled political manifesto” and stamped it with the seal of the Roman Catholic Church (Dr. Michael Savage: Government Zero, New York: Center Street, 2015; p. 219). Again to become a leader of the profane world!
Recently Popes and their local representatives even have become champions of the Ecumenical Movement started by the Protestants, and later accompanied by the Orthodox Churches! Make no mistake; Rome has not changed an iota of their teachings against other Christians while being so ecumenically-minded. But our patriarchs, our bishops and priests with their laity are slowly moving towards validating the hegemony of papacy in the world by sharing stage with the Pope and his soldiers and by being part of their audience!
Why did this writer bring in these overtures from the Roman Catholic side? To prove that one fixed Easter/ Pascha date championed by Pope Francis is another such attempt to underscore the Papal role again for a decision affecting entire Christendom! We know that some Orthodox patriarchs also have caught up with this mess; but unfortunately they do not really comprehend the snares behind this new proposal by the Pope. The purpose of the Roman Church is to basically impose its will on the rest of the Christendom and to dismantle a decision of an Ecumenical Council. Thus Rome would be the ultimate winner again. The heads of other churches may have some role in the deliberation process, but it would be the Roman Catholic periti (experts) who are going to lead the discussions and lead to a decision. The participants from other churches will affirm that decision and would not oppose it for many reasons.
What is the solutions now?
Let all Christians follow the decision on a movable Easter date as stipulated by the First Ecumenical Council. In the earlier part of this editorial this writer has clearly exposed the criteria recognized by the Council. Accept the authority of the Council and we will have no issues on the date of Pascha; there is nothing wrong with a movable date for Pascha. We lived with it for two millennia, and can still move forward with it for many millennia to come. Let the secular world follow the Gregorian calendar for its convenience.
This writer makes an earnest plea to those Eastern Churches that have recently adopted the western calendar for reasons which are uncanonical. We urge them to reinstate the Julian calendar in their churches at least for the observance of their Pascha and join the fellowship of their brethren in the larger Orthodox world.
We wish you a blessed Pascha and the Paschal Season!
+Chor-Episcopos Kuriakos Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D., Chief Editor