We were enjoying our first spring after moving to Illinois, and I was talking with a friend about our upcoming spring break plans.
“We usually wait and take vacation for Holy Week,” my friend said.
I’m sure I looked confused, because she added, “Then I’m able to participate in all of our church’s services.”
But it wasn’t her church’s service schedule that confused me—it was the calendar. Our church had celebrated Easter at the end of March. Her church would observe Easter the first of May. She explained that she was Orthodox, and that their date for Easter was usually different from the other churches.
She was the first Orthodox person I’d met, and this conversation was the first time I’d heard about a “controversy” almost as old as the church herself. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s a brief account of how my friend and I ended up celebrating Easter a month apart.
Seeds of a Controversy
During the first few centuries A.D., no one argued that the Church shouldn’t observe the Resurrection. Jesus’ victory over death—in historical fact and theological significance—lies at the heart of the Christian religion. But the question of when the feast should be observed became a significant issue by the middle of the second century.
Melito, bishop of Sardis (in modern-day Turkey), provides one of the earliest references to this dating dispute. Writing in 170 A.D., Melito writes of a “great controversy at Laodicea concerning the date of pascha [Passover].”
Melito and other Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on Passover (14 Nisan), believing that Jesus was crucified as the Passover meal was being prepared. Easter, they contended, was the Christian Passover and should be celebrated on the prescribed day. As further evidence, these Christians (called Quartodecimans) cited the testimony of the apostle John and his disciple, Polycarp.
Christians from most of the rest of the world celebrated Easter on the Sunday following 14 Nisan. After all, Jesus rose on “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). They also contended that observing the Jewish feast day would be like putting faith in Judaism.
The controversy came to a head near the end of the second century, when Victor I of Rome, tried unsuccessfully to excommunicate the Quartodecimans. Other bishops rebuked Victor for his lack of love. According to the church historian Eusebius, Irenaeus of Lyons joined other bishops to admonish Victor “that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition” (even if the Quartodecimans should have celebrated on “the Lord’s day,” Sunday).1
Though the controversy diminished somewhat, the first ecumenical council at Nicaea determined to bring all the churches into a unified practice, and to separate Easter’s computation from the Jewish calendar.
An Incomplete Solution
Though the First Council of Nicaea might have had its hands full with the Arian heresy, they also took in hand the dating of Easter. One of the bishops’ chief concerns had to do with the spring equinox. Many Christians felt that the equinox, when days begin to be longer than nights, was a real and important illustration of the spiritual reality of Christ’s resurrection. Celebrating Easter before the equinox (as sometimes happened in Asia) thus made little sense to them.
The bishops also believed the church would benefit from a fixed date for Easter, one that would allow churches throughout the Christian world to illustrate their theological unity in the feast’s celebration. In addition, several moveable feasts are dated from Easter—Ascension (forty days after Easter) and Pentecost (fifty days after Easter), so one date would make observing these later festivals uniform as well.
In the end, the Council’s bishops did not establish a formula (that would come several hundred years later), but they encouraged the Asian Christians to come around to Rome’s way of thinking (and the formulations that would eventually develop into “the Alexandrian computus”), which determined Easter’s date independently of the Jewish calendar.
The problem had been addressed but not solved. Pro-Passover sermons and treatises exist from the centuries following Nicaea, though the church eventually settled into the fairly common practice of celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox (which was determined to be March 21).
This “solution” lasted until the first century of the second millennium, when cultural, political and theological differences between the Eastern and Western churches culminated in the Great Schism of 1054. While the separation did not lead directly to two dates for Easter, it paved the way. The Western church adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but the Eastern churches continued using the older Julian calendar, dividing their respective calendars by ten days. As a result, though both churches continued to use a similar formula to date Easter, the base date of the spring equinox had shifted.
A Symbol of Hope?
Today, Orthodox Easter (sometimes called Pascha) falls after Easter in Western churches in most years. Every few years, the dates coincide. (The last time was in 2017.) This year, 2021, the Orthodox will celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection in May, nearly a month after Catholics and Protestants celebrate the feast. We will not celebrate together again until April 20, 2025.
While this difference might be frustrating—another example of division in the church of Christ!—we can also consider it a sign of a broken world in desperate need of mending. We can, however, take some comfort that the church of Christ continues to celebrate the Resurrection as historical fact and spiritual reality. It is the Resurrection, after all, which is the cornerstone of our hope in Christ. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
Because Christ has been raised, we can live with hope, even in the midst of a broken world. We can love with hope, despite disagreements with our Christian brothers and sisters. And we can look with hope toward the day when our divided church will be reunited around our Risen Savior.