Now that we have come to the end of Great Lent, (tomorrow and Sunday are Feasts in the Church) it is a good time to remember sometimes our life includes mundane topics such as “Why Easter is not the same.” In the next week you are going to see many posts attempting to explain why Orthodox Easter (we prefer the term Pascha) is not the same date as Western Easter. You will read about calculations and calendars. Then you will most likely read “we have to wait for Passover before we can celebrate Pascha.” This is not true. It is an urban legend based upon a mistaken understanding of history. Here is the truth.
The Western Church and the Eastern Church use the SAME formula to determine the date for Pascha. The ancient formula established in 325 AD indicates that Pascha should be celebrated on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the spring equinox. There is a LOT of history behind the formula, too much for this post, but suffice it to say, the Church Father gathered at the First Ecumenical Council were addressing the issue that Christians were not celebrating Pascha at the same. In some cases, even in the same cities, Pascha was on different days, and not always Sunday.
Here is where it gets sticky. It wasn’t for another four hundred years that the Church universally celebrated Pascha on the same date. One reason was that some Churches preferred to “allow” the Jews to determine the equinox while others used their own calculations. Here is where the myth of waiting for Passover comes in. There was a general mistrust of the Jews based upon their lack of accepting Christ. In response, the Patriarch issued a letter which includes:
It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom (calculation) of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded. In rejecting their custom, we may transmit to our descendants the legitimate mode of celebrating Pascha; which we have observed from the time of the Savior's Passion to the present day. We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course; and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep the feast.
So what is the real difference if we don’t have to wait for the Jews Passover? It really is just a calendar thing. The Western Church uses the Gregorian Calendar and the Eastern Church uses what is known as the Modified Julian Calendar. Each calendar calculates the equinox differently. SINCE the Jews also use the Julian Calendar, by coincidence, it appears that we wait for the Jewish Passover. BUT if the Jews used the Gregorian Calendar, then the Western Church would appear to “wait” while the Eastern Church would continue on our path.
Why do East and West sometimes celebrate Pascha together? That’s an easy one. The two calendars sometimes coincide making the calculation the same.