The Future of Easter

If the Pope aims to fix a 'common' Easter with the Orthodox, then discussion is long overdue

This past Sunday, May 5, was Easter in various parts of the Orthodox Church which still use the Julian Calendar for liturgical purposes. To these Orthodox: Christos voskrese! Voistinnu voskrese! (Christ is risen! He is truly risen!)

I mention Orthodox Easter because while this year (as is typical) it falls on a separate date from Catholic Easter, next year both coincide on April 20. Next year is also the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea which, among other things, set the formula for when Easter falls.

There have been noises from the Vatican about using the coincidence and anniversary as an occasion to fix a “common” Easter. Ecumenical types consider it a “scandal” that Catholics and Orthodox observe the Solemnity on different days. (I guess it’s not a scandal that later this week Catholics themselves in New Jersey and Pennsylvania will mark the Ascension three days apart). In search of a “deliverable” for the conciliar anniversary, there may very well be efforts to change the formula for pegging Easter. After all, ours is still the pope of the “motu-proprio-of-the-day” club.

The fact that we are less than a year away from Easter 2025 concerns me. If there was to be change, discussion is long overdue. In theory we have a “synodal process” that is conducting multiple “conversations” (some even imagined “in the Spirit”). Changing how we have observed Easter for seventeen centuries would seem to be a potential conversation topic.

What raises my suspicions is that we have a pope who has surrounded himself with sycophants who apparently believe that anything of tradition needs to “develop,” irrespective of whether that development is organic or only pretended to be. Francis has shown himself in matters liturgical ready to act unilaterally. The churches of the Germanic world’s influence in Rome is vocal and their readiness to compromise even in doctrine in the name of ecumenism has a long record. The fact we are not hearing anything except occasional hints does not mean the idea is shelved.

I fear a repeat of 1969-70. Our “anti-clerical” clericalists in Rome did not learn the lesson of the post-Conciliar liturgical reforms. From what the Council prescribed to what Annibale Bugnini and his collaborators forced through was, to put it charitably, tenuously related. All of a sudden we had a “new Mass” that in many respects did not look like the “old” one, and were told by exercise of raw clerical power to “pray and obey” starting the first Sunday of Advent 1969. That there was minimal catechetical preparation explaining the reasons for the changes should not be surprising; the revised Roman Missal itself was not published before the official “start date.”

(Please note that I am generally supportive of the reforms of the Novus Ordo, but that makes me blind neither to some of its defects nor the flaws in its introduction and implementation. We’ve seen liturgical bait-and-switch — fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.)

Vatican types have revived a long-forgotten “addendum” to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) in which the Council Fathers said they “would not object if the feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.” That provision had long been considered dormant because the Orthodox have no mechanism by which their various “autocephalous churches” can reach a common, binding conclusion. Most commentators also understood that moving forward with this idea would require Catholic/pan-Orthodox consensus. The fact that the Orthodox can’t even agree among themselves what calendar to use suggested that consensus was remote.

The more I read that text, the more I am concerned about two possible ways some Vatican types might want to get around it. First, does Orthodox “assent” mean that all Orthodox churches will likewise do what the Catholic Church does? Or does it mean some? Consensus traditionally has meant practical unanimity and it is difficult to image the Russian Orthodox Church — which is by far the largest national church in the Orthodox world — going along. (I won’t even get into the bloodshed this may unleash in Ukraine, where the ROC refuses to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, or for the guerilla warfare against Catholicism under the rubric of fighting the West). Will the “consensus” of the Patriarch of Constantinople be taken as the “assent” of Orthodoxy, something which alone Catholics hitherto would not have deemed sufficient? Second, what are the Orthodox “assenting” to? A common celebration of Easter or to Catholics pegging Easter to a certain day (the second or third Sundays of April being the favorite candidates)? Will it mean unilateral Catholic action (in which case, why do we need Orthodox approval?) or Catholic action that then triggers some action in (some? all?) Orthodox churches?

Theologically, I would argue this discussion is much ado about nothing. The problem is not Easter. The Nicaean formula that pegged Easter to the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring has served nicely for 1,700 years. The problem is the Orthodox refusal to adopt the Gregorian calendar which, in my mind, speaks to a far larger problem: the relationship of faith and science.

The divergence in the dates for Easter between Catholics and Orthodox is, in large measure, the refusal of some of the latter to adopt the Gregorian calendar for liturgical purposes. All Orthodox countries finally adopted the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes, albeit many did only a century or so ago, 350 years after the Gregorian calendar was devised and when their Julian calendars were 12 days out-of-step with the sun. (Another factor accounting for divergent dates of Easter is that some Orthodox also insist that Easter follow Passover, irrespective of the first Paschal Moon. It should be noted that there are churches within Orthodoxy where some parts follow the Gregorian, others the Julian calendar — so, the great “scandal” some Roman ecumenists see apparently is not so scandalous to our Eastern brethren.)

Is “spring” — the determinative factor of when the first full moon of “spring” occurs — primarily a calendrical or an astronomical fact? I would argue the latter: spring is when the vernal equinox occurs, which is determined not by the calendar but the earth’s position on its annual orbit of the sun. That ought to decide when spring sprang — and, by extension, what calendar to use. Clinging to the Julian calendar because it was the calendar in force at Nicaea makes no sense. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I even challenge whether the Orthodox in Australia and elsewhere in the antipodes are heretics because, if they are observing Easter now, they are observing it in autumn. Nicaea said “spring,” not “spring in the northern hemisphere” (given they didn’t know much about a southern one). Of course they’re not heretics, but it speaks to the problem of selective calendar literalism. So, if you can adapt here, why is calendar adaptation the gnat at which one strains?

I have repeatedly criticized the idea of tampering with Easter (see here and here). One year out from 2025, the quiet with which that idea is now surrounded is more concerning than reassuring to me. So, I repeat: hands off Easter!

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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