Getting radical on the dating of Easter

Yesterday I had the rare privilege of celebrating conventual Mass in the abbey church for the Annunciation (transferred from 25 March, of course, since it fell in Holy Week this year). It is normally the prior’s day, but the prior is ill, so muggins was on deck in loco prioris.

In thinking about what to say I was struck by the fact that this year the Annunciation fell on Good Friday. This last happened in 2005, but will not happen again for another 141 years. So we will never live to see this liturgical collision again. Or will we?

There have been calls, from the Anglican Primate and the Coptic pope, with some less than pontifical banter in support from Pope Francis, for the date of Easter to be fixed and universally observed. It has a lovely ecumenical ambience about it. But alarm bells are ringing all over the place.

The date of Easter is calculated according to a lunar calendar, specifically the Sunday after the first full moon to fall after 21 March. That computation derives from the Jewish computation of their festival of Passover. It need hardly be said that the link between the Paschal mysteries and the Jewish Passover are rich and manifold. For Christians Christ is the new Passover that fulfils and supersedes the Jewish festival.

So, for me at least, there was just the whiff of anti-semitism in wanting to cut the reckoning of Easter from its Jewish roots, which are more biblical and theological than they are merely temporal. It was all the more alarming in the wake of recent assertions that the Church does not have a mission to evangelise the Jews. That assertion too has the whiff of anti-semitism about it, despite the appearances of respect for the Jews. If Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and Life, the Messiah of God, by whose name and no one else’s we can be saved, why all of a sudden can we maintain that we need not share the Good News that the Jews’ Messiah has come. The Old Covenant has given way to the New; why should we not find it an urgent mission to tell the Jews that God’s promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Christ, who has constituted a new Israel based on faith in Him, not on race or circumcision?

But I digress. There are also strong secular forces supporting a fixed and universally-observed date for Easter. Schools would find it very convenient, so would the travel industry. And no doubt the retailers could plan their sales better and make more money.

Convenience is the worst reason to adduce in support of such a radical change. Convenience, pragmatism and rationalisation have ravaged the liturgy; are they now to take Easter down too?

However, as I re-discovered and investigated a little more than I ever had, there is ancient tradition, discussed by such eminent Western Fathers as St Irenaeus, Tertullian and St Augustine, that the day we call 25 March – the eighth day before the kalends of April, or the 14th day of Nisan – was not only the date of the Annunciation (and thus Christ’s human conception, but was also held to be the date on which Christ was crucified.

In Augustine’s De Trinitate (IV; 5) the great Doctor notes that the Annunciation is believed to have occurred on 25 March, the same day that Jesus died (nb the date for Christ’s death is taken as given). This allows him to elaborate a parallelism that works very well in English — on the same date Christ entered into a womb in which no man had ever lain, and entered into a tomb in which no man had ever lain. Fulton Sheen’s mantra that “Christ was born to die” rings clearly in my head. The womb was the doorway for Christ’s journey to death in his body; the tomb was doorway for Christ’s journey to resurrected life in his body.

Thus, in this tradition, the same date covers both Christ’s human conception and human death, and so the Incarnation completes a full circle.

Also of note is that the feast of St Dismas, the Good Thief who died with Christ, is kept on 25 March. Just as intriguing is that in the eastern churches, if the Annunciation falls on Good Friday it is kept in full, even with Mass, though Good Friday is the only day that Mass can never be celebrated in the Roman rite.

So what? Well it seems that in this tradition, the date of Christ’s death as it fell that year in the jewish calendar coincided with what we now term 25 March according to the Roman calendar, and that they decided to fix that date. Perhaps they felt that the new Passover need not be calculated in conjunction with the Jewish passover every year, but kept to the date on which it fell in that year of salvation. That as the new covenant fulfilled and superseded the old, the old reckonings need not be kept.

And if the Lord’s crucifixion and entombment happened to fall on the same date as the Lord’s conception and enwombment, what more fitting and providential coincidence could be found in all salvation history?

Mb-Crucifixion
In this early 16th century tapestry from Flanders, the crucifixion is depicted together with the Annunciation. (Vatican Museum)

All sorts of dates are being suggested at the moment in this campaign to fix Easter’s date, most of them in April. But if we must fix the date (and I am not yet convinced we must), the only date that seems to pass muster is 27 March, reckoned from a Good Friday fixed to 25 March. It is free, from what I can tell, from the conflicts between the Julian and Gregorian calendars (correct me if I am wrong), which makes it a remarkably promising target for ecumenical agreement.

In 1608 the Annunciation coincided with Good Friday, and it moved the poet John Donne to pen Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608. In this poem Donne notes the discomfort the coincidence causes, “this doubtful day of feast or fast, [when] Christ came and went away”. But he can approve it:

This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one;

Perhaps this ancient tradition merits some further attention in the context of the current campaign for fixing Easter’s date. It has more weight than any of the other arguments currently being bandied about.

5 thoughts on “Getting radical on the dating of Easter

  1. The simplest and least overtly heretical solution would be to move the Incarnation to March 21, which is where the Fathers at Nicea thought they were putting it. (See below.) This would not reverse any canons or theological statements at the Council of Nicea. It would simply restore what the Founding Fathers intended. Moreover, it would mean that the Incarnation can never fall on the same date as the Crucifixion. And it would restore the proper respect to the Incarnation, which never should be moved for any other feast. After all without the Incarnation/ Annunciation, we would have neither Christmas nor Easter.

    The Fathers set the current date for Easter in opposition to Judaizing heretics who thought that it ought to always coincide with Passover. (For the Judaizing reasons you give.) In other words, you would be reversing the Nicean Council. The Orthodox have said that only an ecumenical council can reverse a council (cf the Filioque controversy). I believe they are correct.

    (By the way, there was no “Schism” in 1055 for the same reason; only a council of bishops can excommunicate a bishop. The Pope had no authority to excommunicate the Bishop of Istanbul on his own and vice versa, Moreover, the rather full records from the First Crusade and the crusade in 1101 show that neither Emperor Alexis nor his western allies had any idea there had been a “schism.”)

    An important point you miss is that cosmic symbolism of the date. The Resurrection was so ultimately ultimate that it transformed the universe, including the sun and the moon.

    An even more important point you miss is that the so-called Annunciation actually is the feast of the Incarnation. The date was set to coincide with the Vernal Equinox because Jesus is the new Sun of Righteousness rising in the East. (See Saint Paul.) This is the same reason for the rule that all churches should face East. In this way, Sunrise prayer takes place as the sun rises; sunset prayer takes place as the sun sets. (Cf the Orthodox hymn at Sunset services: “Now that we have come to the setting of the sun.”)

    Roman Catholics keep insisting that abortion is wrong because life begins at conception. Yet their clergy now has accepted the Dickensian heresy that life begins at birth on Christmas.

    The Founding Fathers set Christmas on December precisely because that was exactly nine months after the Conception. The Feast of the Conception was set on the 25th by mistake because the Fathers used the old pagan calender of Julius Caesar, which was 4 days off by 325.

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  2. Just like humankind to want to “fix’ something that doesn’t need fixing—all in order to make things more neat and convenient… as you say, which if the truth be told is indeed more truth than not—I for one have always savored our Jewish roots…isn’t that what it is for all Christians, our Jewish roots…and that our Eastertide is so in extricably linked to the Passover—that the Passover is such a pivotal time in Jesus’ life and death. And that that holy remembrance for both our faiths is so significant—as it is the bridge to our own “escape” as it were from death–for as in the Resurrection of Christ, the Spirit and shadow of death shall “passover” us now for we have been raised with Christ to eternal Glory—
    Oh I hate all this modernization of our ancient faith…..
    Blessings Father…as always
    Julie

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  3. I’m sorry, am I missing something? If Easter is fixed in date, then it will no longer relate to the days of the week, either. So, no ‘Good Friday’ or ‘Easter Sunday’. How does that square with Him rising on the first day, or dying just ahead of the Sabbath?

    I am also extremely opposed to detaching Easter from Passover. Goodness me, it even remains called Passover in many languages!

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    1. Some of the hornets are stirring after I poked the nest.

      As I said, I am yet to be sold on fixing the date of Easter. But the one argument that merits attention in my eyes is one that orients the Paschal mystery on the Incarnation.

      The change that really interests me, even as it shocks me, is to keep the Annunciation even when it falls on Good Friday.

      There. I have shown my hand.

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    2. johndelradice: Proponents of a fixed Easter usually suggest having it always fall on the 2nd Sunday in April, hence Good Friday, etc. would still fall on their proper weekdays.

      It’s similar to how Remembrance Sunday is fixed on the 2nd Sunday in November, or the feast of Christ the King always being on the last Sunday in October (in the 1962 Missal).

      For the record, I find the idea of a fixed Easter abominable, even apart from the secularising reasons usually given by its proponents!

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