Due to inclement weather, the 9 a.m. service for Sunday, Jan. 20 has been cancelled. We will have one morning service at 10:45 a.m. as road conditions improve.

The Date of Easter

by Jeremy Shaffer

Why is the day we celebrate Easter different each year? Have you ever asked that question? When I was younger, the holidays that did not change were always easy to remember, mainly because we would be off from school, which is always a big deal! Of course, even as an adult, days off from “school” (a.k.a. “work”) are always nice too! If you’ve never taken a deep dive into why the Easter date changes, keep reading, especially you church history academics.

From the earliest days of church history, the celebration of Easter was often called the Christian Passover. Most churches held the festival on Sunday closest to the Jewish Passover, but sometimes there was doubt over which Sunday should be observed, the earlier one or the later one. By the second century, a debate arose over when to celebrate the Resurrection. The churches in the East (Asia Minor) celebrated Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover, even if that day was not Sunday. It was hard for the early church to standardize any of its festivals because it was under constant persecution; however, when Constantine became ruler of Rome and Christianity was legalized, he set out to fix this perennial problem.        

The famous Council of Nicaea (325 AD) is not only known for its decision on the doctrine of the trinity but did you know that this council also decided the Easter date-setting? The council of Nicaea brought together the entire Christian church of the East and the West, and we might say it was the first ecumenical council. It seems that before this time, the celebration of Easter was not uniform in all Christian churches. Three regulations were put forth. First, Easter must always be celebrated on Sunday. Christ rose on the first day of the week (the Sabbath was the last day of the week for the Jews, and Jesus rose the day after the Sabbath day), so these seem appropriate. However, as you will see in the subsequent regulations, the reason for Easter being celebrated on Sunday was not so “biblical.” The second regulation stated that Easter must never be celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover. Now that seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? Listen to the words of Constantine, “It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom [the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded...” If you have a moment, check out Constantine I: On the Keeping of Easter (public domain sources), to read the rest of his letter, which is fairly heated.  

Third, Easter must never be celebrated on or before the vernal equinox of any year. This third regulation has been added to: “the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If the full Moon falls on a Sunday, then Easter is the next Sunday.” It seems that the reason for this calculation was, once again, to ensure that the celebration of Easter had nothing to do with the Jewish Passover. The calculation of the Easter date was put into the hands of the Church of Alexandria, which was the center of astronomy, science, and learning for the Roman world.  Of course, just because the Council of Nicea “settled” the Easter date debate doesn’t mean that all the churches followed through. Roughly 300 more years of debate over the Easter date ensued; even the hour at which Easter Sunday should start was also debated. It wasn’t until the British-led Synod of Whitby (664 AD) that all sides agreed to a unified Easter-date observance. So, it’s unfortunate, but not uncommon, that the decision for such an important date in the life of the church had become so politicized and debated. It sounds like the early church had it right – the Christian Passover. After all, Jesus is our Passover lamb!

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