The Dating of Easter
This year Easter falls on my birthday. Not that it means anything, but the coincidence has caused me to do some thinking about Easter and what that day means to me. Dates hold a particular significance for us all. We look ahead on our calendars and mark the important days — vacations, dentist appointments, birthdays. But sometimes we get the wrong idea about dates. I have the same birthday as Adolph Hitler. That makes me living proof that astrology is bunk. Being born on a particular date doesn’t make me who I am. So, let’s not be so set about the date something happens that we lose our sense of responsibility for how we respond to it.
This year, on April 20th Christians will celebrate Easter — that is, in most Western churches. In 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine assembled the First Council of Nicaea, consisting of approximately 318 bishops, each of whom was allowed to bring two priests and three deacons with him, making the total number in attendance perhaps 1800 or more. One of the items on their agenda was to agree on when to celebrate Easter.
A problem existed because originally the date of Christ’s resurrection was marked according to Passover, as set by the Jewish calendar. Scripture instructs the Passover lamb to be slaughtered, roasted and eaten on the 14th day (beginning at twilight) of the first lunar month (Nisan) of the Jewish religious year. (The Jewish civil year begins in the month of Tishri, but that’s another story.) By the fourth century, the Christian church no longer identified itself as a Jewish sect. It sought to establish a distinctive Christian church calendar with its own non-Jewish time of year, in place of Nisan.
Calendar problems like this can seem pretty esoteric and confusing. A wide variety of civilizations and cultures have produced diverse calendars — none of them without flaws, including the now popularly standard Gregorian calendar. In 46 BC Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, introducing the Julian calendar. That was the calendar in use by the Roman empire in 325. The First Council of Nicaea came up with its own method for setting the date for Easter. They decided Easter should fall “on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring (Vernal) Equinox.” http://www3.nd.edu/~pantsakl/Archive/dateofeaster.pdf
The decision to separate Easter from the Jewish calendar was not without controversy. But the majority ruled and a new tradition began. I do not pretend to understand the formula set forth by the First Council of Nicaea, but apparently, tying the celebration of Easter to the vernal Equinox had the effect of causing the date to gradually “drift” away from the time of year set by the Council. So, in 1582 Pope Gregory upgraded the Julian calendar, giving us what is known as the Gregorian calendar, solving the problem of the drifting date. I use the term, “solving” advisedly. From The Dates Of Easter Sunday (linked above), Panos Antsaklis writes,
The Eastern Churches have fixed the above “Vernal Equinox” to be March 21 of the Julian calendar, which currently is April 3 in the Gregorian calendar. So, in Eastern churches, Easter falls between April 4 and May 8, while in Western churches Easter falls between March 22 and April 25.
The above “first full moon after the Vernal Equinox” is not the actual full moon, but it is a calculated, ecclesiastical full moon called the Paschal Full Moon.
If you’re anything like me, all this seems so unnecessary. The Jews still have their calendar and they still celebrate Passover according to the Biblical date. My opinion is that as long as we have Scripture that links the Resurrection to Passover events, why shouldn’t Christians celebrate it according to the timing of the Jewish (Biblical) feast of Passover?
Those 318 bishops back in 325 decided to set the date of celebration to a time of year, and chose the vernal equinox as their standard reference. But there is absolutely nothing in Scripture that ties either Passover or the Resurrection to the vernal equinox. The Council’s decision was strictly pragmatic, and strictly for the purpose of separating Christianity from the Jewish calendar, which as it turns out is the most reliable and accurate method for dating the Resurrection. Was this decision a mistake? I strongly believe so.
For one reason, Christians have largely lost the significance of Passover, particularly the fact that Jesus Christ fulfilled that Biblical feast. In fact, so far, Jesus has fulfilled four Biblical feasts. For Pesach, he was our Passover Lamb; for Unleavened Bread, he was our sinless Messiah; for First Fruits, he was the first to be raised from the dead; for Shavuot (Pentecost), his Holy Spirit was given. Three Biblical feasts yet remain to be fulfilled: Rosh Hoshanah, the announcement of Jesus’ second coming; Yom Kippur, the day of his judgement; and Succot, his kingdom banquet. Christians should not miss the fundamental and meaningful prophetic connection our faith has with the Old Testament.
Another reason is that by using the vernal equinox to determine the timing of Easter, an association was made with pagan fertility celebrations that has continued to this very day. Most Christians are not offended in the least by the supposedly “secular” aspects of Easter, such as the Easter Bunny or Easter Eggs. But traditions like these have their origin and find their meaning in ancient pagan religions, which celebrated goddesses of fertility: Eostre, Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Astarte and many others. The ancients celebrated “new life” in the Spring, but it was sexual fertility that they celebrated, not new life in Christ. These Easter traditions persist in the church. Yet nowhere in Scripture are we directed to participate in them.
The Meaning of Resurrection Day
When I was growing up, my family rarely went to church, and those few times we did go were on Christmas or Easter. I think that describes a lot of families. They aren’t that familiar with the Bible, but they’ve heard that the gospel is important. When I was in the 3rd grade, my mother sent me and my sister off to Sunday School at the neighborhood Methodist church, in order to “expose” us to religion. My mother went to the church for a while, but stopped attending after they transferred the Pastor who had made her laugh. After that one year of Sunday School, she no longer made me go. I had been “exposed”.
What I didn’t like about my brief exposure to church was that while my parents and older brother lounged around, reading the Sunday paper, I had to polish my shoes and put on a suit. In those days, going to church meant getting dressed up. And Easter was like that on steroids. My mother would buy new dresses for herself and my sister, and a new suit for me. Then, we’d have to pose for a photograph, documenting both our Easter outfits and Easter baskets. It was a kind of ambivalent ritual — having to dress up, when I would have preferred to don my knee-worn Levis, but enjoying the fun of dying Easter eggs and eating chocolate rabbits.
The fact that Jesus rose from the grave and ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father (Mark 16:6; John 3:13; Luke 22:69) never really made that big of an impression on me. I didn’t really understand it. I believed in God, but I didn’t understand why Christ had to die on the cross. So, of course I missed the whole purpose of his resurrection. The only religious thing I took away from my Easter experiences was that God makes things grow. Seeds, plants, flowers, baby animals, and even people. But I didn’t understand the resurrection. That’s most likely because neither of my parents did, either.
Thinking about that makes me sad. My parents grew up during a time when church-going was commonplace and very much a part of one’s sense of identity in the community . Born in 1909 and 1910, they were young adults from the depression through WWII, an era marked by a predominant appeal to Christian values and Biblical authority. My father considered himself a Christian by association. He felt that since America was a Christian nation, that made us Christians — sort of like a social distinction, without much of a theological distinction.
Fortunately that changed, and by the time he was in his eighties, he did make a personal profession of faith. When I became a believer, I learned that God forgave my sins because Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid for them, and that when I received him as my Lord and Savior, not only were my sins forgiven, but because Christ rose from the grave, he made it possible that when I die, I will live again, forever.
1 Corinthians 15:14 says, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” That means understanding the resurrection of Christ is vital to our faith. Being raised is all about who Christ is and what Christ has done. It’s not about being a religious person, or even a good person.
That is the message of Easter. Christ has conquered sin and death, not just for himself, but for everyone who believes. The Bible says it so many ways, but let me cite the verse that is probably best known. I don’t think it can be overused:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16
The Christian faith is about eternal life in God’s presence, and the resurrection of Christ is key to understanding the gospel. Jesus was the Passover Lamb, sacrificed for the sins of the world (John 1:29), he conquered death (1 Corinthians 15:55) and he went before us to prepare a dwelling place for us in glory (John 14:2). That is what Christians should celebrate on Resurrection Day — nothing more, nothing less.