April 15, 2016

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Uniting around paschal mystery could be a step toward unity

This column started out with a simple premise: tell folks that a common date of Easter Sunday would be a wonderful step toward Christian unity. But the present reality is not simple!

A common date of Easter would end the scandal of our division over the annual celebration of the center of our faith. Not only are Christians and former Christians taken aback by this “division”—people of other faiths point to this most basic divide as a clear reason to question the truth of what we believe. And that is a scandal.

This year, Easter Sunday for some Orthodox will be on May 1. For Roman Catholics and most other Christians, it fell on March 27.

As has been the custom since the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the date for Easter was calculated with a simple formula: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (on March 21 this year).

And this works—if all are using the same calendar!

The current solar calendar system used by most of the world was created by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582. By that time, the solar Julian calendar, created by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C., was shown to be 11 days wrong. Thus, in 1582, Oct. 4 was followed by Oct. 15.

But not all Christians agreed to use the Gregorian calendar to date their religious feasts. A number of Eastern Orthodox continued to use the Julian calendar.

The current controversy of varied calendars is not new to the Church.

In the first three centuries of the life of the Church, a controversy arose across the Christian world.

Some demanded that the date of Easter remain in line with the Jewish Feast of Passover (14-15 Nissan, as prescribed in Mosaic Law). Such Christians were—and are yet today—known as Quatrodecimans (i.e, “fourteenth” day adherents). For them, Easter falls on whatever day of the week 14-15 Nissan occurs.

Others, including Pope Victor (190 A.D.), insisted that Easter be celebrated on the Lord’s day (Sunday), the day of the resurrection as noted by the synoptic Gospels—the first day of the week following the Sabbath (Saturday).

The Council of Nicea ultimately declared that Easter would be celebrated on Sunday, and gave the basic calculation formula noted earlier as the norm. And that could have been the end of it. But the Julian calendar was reformed.

At the end of the 20th century, a revision of the formula was proposed. It was a joint effort by the World Council of Churches and representatives of the Eastern Churches in Aleppo, Syria (March 1997). The revision was based in the current formula, but not tied to Julian or Gregorian calendars.

Three principals were stated. First, honor the basic wisdom of Nicea’s formula. Second, calculate the astronomical data (spring equinox and the full moon) based on today’s most accurate astronomical science. Third, use as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Though received by many, including the Roman Catholic Church, as an excellent reformulation for unity, this proposal has yet to find universal acceptance. The politics of tradition remain stronger for some in the East than the drive toward unity.

The celebration of Easter is the central pillar of Christianity’s expression of our faith. I pray that one day all will stand and praise God for the paschal mystery on the same day each year.

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism. He is also dean of the Terre Haute deanery and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes, both in Terre Haute.)

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