Monday, 1 April 2013

The Date of Pascha...
(Confused? You will be!)

As this newsletter is being hurriedly compiled (on 30th March and at the last
minute as usual) the editor’s wife is commemorating Holy Saturday
following the Western tradition, and tomorrow is
Easter Day. Our Pascha doesn’t even fall in the next
month, but in May this year. I thought, because there
is such a disparity of dates this year, I would include
an explanation taken from the Antiochian
Archdiocese in the US as to why this is so.

In brief
Our observance of the Resurrection is related to the “Passover of the Jews”
in a historical and theological way, but our calculation does not depend on
when the modern-day Jews celebrate. The reason why Orthodox and
Western Christians celebrate at different times is because we still go by the
old Julian calendar in calculating the date of Pascha, even though we go by
the new calendar for all the fixed feasts (like Christmas and so on).
Protestants and Roman Catholics use the Gregorian Calendar for

Pascha in the Old and New Testaments
The Old Testament specifies that the Passover/Pascha is to be observed on
the 14th day of the first month (alternately known as Abib or Nisan; see
Deuteronomy 16.1-7). Being a fixed day on the old Hebrew
calendar, it could fall on any day of the
According to the Gospel of John, Pascha
just happened to fall on a Saturday the
year that Jesus was crucified. It is
important to note that Christ died on the
Cross at the very hour the paschal lambs
were being slaughtered for the Feast;
thus Christ is our Pascha, our Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us. Strictly
speaking, then, we must distinguish between the Feast of Pascha (on Holy
Friday) and the Feast of the Resurrection (on Sunday); the two are
inseparable though distinct.

The date of Pascha in the Early Church
The early Church in the East continued to observe Pascha on the eve of the
14th of Nisan, according the Jewish Calendar, with the Resurrection on the
third day, that is on the 15th. That meant that the Resurrection could fall
on any day of the week. In Rome and Alexandria, however, the early
Christians always kept the Resurrection on a Sunday.

A Problem Situation
In the second century, St. Polycarp, Bishop of
Smyrna in Asia Minor, journeyed to Rome to
confer with Pope Anicetus regarding the
disagreement over the proper date for the
celebration of Pascha. Neither was able to
convince the other, and they decided that
the two practices could coexist.
The situation was actually messier yet. There
existed in practice, because of the way the
Hebrew calendar worked, not two but a
multitude of dates for the celebration
Pascha. Jews and others in the ancient Near
East followed a lunar calendar in which each
month averaged 29½ days in length. They
had twelve months in most years, each  month beginning with a new moon. This made the year too short, so an
extra, thirteenth month was inserted every two or three years to keep the
months in step with the seasons (which depend on the sun rather than the
There were no printed calendars at that time, and no one ever knew
exactly how many days there would be in a given month or year. The
beginning of a new month was declared when the first sliver of a new
moon was sighted in the sky. Of course, observation of the new moon
depended on location and weather conditions, thus people in different
places often did not start a new month at the same time. Since Pascha was
observed on the 14th of the month — and that depended on local sighting
of the new moon — there was no way for Christians (or Jews, for that
matter) to plan a united observance of Pascha.
In the fourth century the Emperor Constantine espoused Christianity and
made it not only legal but the favoured religion of the Empire. The Church
suddenly started growing by leaps and bounds, and he gave public
buildings for the Church’s use, but he was perturbed to find out about the
different practices regarding the date of Pascha.

The council of Nicæa
Constantine convened the First Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicæa in
325 to unify the date of the observance
throughout the newly Christian
Empire. Unanimously, the bishops
gathered at the Council decided to keep
the feast on a Sunday. They wanted to
retain the symbolism of the Resurrection
falling on the day which is both the first
day of the week and the eighth day, the
Day of the Lord. They agreed that the
most important thing was for the Church
to demonstrate her unity by
celebrating together, whenever she
chose to celebrate, without regard to the
Jews’ plans. The bishops saw the
Christian observance of the Pascha of the
Lord on Holy Friday as connected to and in continuity with the Passover of

the Old Testament, and they understood that the Resurrection, by
definition, follows the Passover. After all, the Church saw herself as the true
heir of the Old Testament. She was comprised of both Jews and gentiles, all
those who responded to the God of the Old Testament when He came in
the flesh.
Following the Council, Constantine sent a letter to all the bishops who were
absent to report to them the decisions of the council. The following excerpt
of that letter explains some crucial points:
When the question relative to the sacred festival of Pascha arose, it was
universally thought that all should keep the feast on one day; for what
could be more beautiful and more desirable than to see this festival,
through which we receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with
one accord and in the same manner? It was declared to be particularly
unworthy for this, the holiest of festivals, to follow the calculation of the

The Nicene Formula
The fathers gathered at the First Ecumenical Council decided that the
Hebrew calendar had to go. They had to be
able to plan ahead and not have to depend on
when the local Jewish Rabbi would spot the
new moon. They adopted therefore, a solar
calendar based upon the best scientific and
astronomical data of the time. In fact they adopted the civil calendar of the
Roman Empire which had been promulgated under Julius Cæsar (hence the
name Julian Calendar), as refined under Augustus Cæsar.
The Council decreed that the Resurrection would be observed on the first
Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March
21). Furthermore, since the best scientific observatories were located in
Alexandria at that time, the Council assigned the bishop of Alexandria the
responsibility of sending out a letter to all the Church, year by year,
announcing in advance when the Resurrection would be celebrated that
year. This way, the whole of Christendom was sure to celebrate together a
glorious Pascha/Resurrection.

The Current Situation
After a while, it got tedious to send out letters year by year. Instead of
making fresh astronomical observations, people just started calculating
when the full moon would occur for many years into the future. This actually worked out rather well for a while; small errors in the calculation
only showed up when extrapolating for hundreds or thousands of years
ahead. In fact the ancients were aware of the imprecision, but they devised
a nineteen-year cycle based on the Julian Calendar which they considered
sufficiently accurate for their purposes, over the time period of 50-100
years with which they were concerned.
Unfortunately, we have been using the 19-year cycle in calculating the date
of the Resurrection ever since the fourth century without actually checking
to see what the sun and moon are doing. In fact, besides the imprecision of
the 19-year cycle, the Julian calendar itself is off by one day in every 133
years. In 1582, therefore, under Pope Gregory of Rome, the Julian Calendar
was revised to minimize this error. His “Gregorian” calendar is now the
standard civil calendar throughout the world, and this is the reason why
those who follow the Julian Calendar are thirteen days behind. Thus the
first day of spring, a key element in calculating the date of Pascha, falls on
April 3 instead of March 21.
The Orthodox Church held an important council in 1923. The Churches that
were represented at the council, including Constantinople, Alexandria and
Antioch, decided to adopt the Gregorian Calendar for all fixed feasts and to
continue to use the Julian Calendar for the date of the Resurrection.

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and on those in the grave bestowing life.