Letter from the Vicar (February 2008)
I am writing this letter the day after taking down the Christmas decorations but my thinking is already turning to Lent and even Easter!
Some of you have asked me why is Easter so early this year, in fact why does it vary so much year after year. Those brought up on the Book of Common Prayer may remember in moments (hours?!) of boredom looking at the wonderful ‘Tables to find Easter’ including the use of the wonderful ‘Golden Number’. This all used to seem very exciting and mysterious. In the early Church the date of Easter was hotly disputed. The Council of Nicea in 325 (which also formulated the Nicene Creed) addressed the question and gave the Church in Alexandria the job of sorting out when Easter should be. Crucially it was decided that Easter must be celebrated by everyone on the same Sunday; the Sunday following the fourteenth day of the paschal moon; and that this moon was to be accounted the paschal moon whose fourteenth day followed the spring equinox.
Even this decision was only implemented very slowly. It was as late as 664 at the Synod of Whitby that the Nicene system was adopted in this country and other parts of Europe continued with other systems until the reign of Charlemagne. Since the Middle Ages the rule has been that Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox.
However, this does not reflect the actual ecclesiastical rules precisely. The reason for this is that the full moon involved (called the Paschal full moon) is not an astronomical full moon, but an ecclesiastical moon. The difference is that the astronomical vernal equinox is a natural astronomical phenomenon, while the ecclesiastical vernal equinox is a fixed one! March 21. Easter is determined from tables which determine Easter based on the ecclesiastical rules, which approximate the astronomical full moon. In applying the ecclesiastical rules, the various Christian Churches use 21 March as their starting point from which they find the next full moon, etc. However, because the Eastern Orthodox Churches use the Julian Calendar as their starting point, while Western Christianity uses the Gregorian Calendar, the end point, the date for Easter, often diverges.
At this stage most of you will be justifiably thinking, so what and why is this important anyway! In many ways it is clearly unimportant. There was, however, something significant about our faith that was being sought after through the dating of Easter. To start with the early Christians who argued about this were trying to be faithful to the tradition of the apostles. We have a faith that has been handed down to us from our forebears and we want it to resemble what has gone before and not to diverge from it in essentials. Second, the dating of Easter links us to the Jewish roots of our religion. Our calendar is a purely solar one, but the Jewish one includes both solar and lunar elements. The early Church wanted to remain true to this inheritance, and it is important that we do not forget our Jewish roots. Third, whereas Christmas (an adopted pagan festival) can fall on any day of the week, Easter always falls on a Sunday and for the best of reasons. It marks the day of Our Lord’s resurrection.
Its date will therefore inevitably vary. Some have asked, not unreasonably, whether Easter could not be secured on a fixed Sunday. The overriding problem with that, of course, is that the Church wrangled long and hard to get to the date we now have and it would take a minor miracle to get ecumenical agreement to change it. So it seems that for the time being we will have to settle for the highly mobile date we have. We must overlook the inconvenience and look beyond to the inner meaning of this great day when we celebrate the rising of Jesus and our rising in Him!