Christians work toward common Easter date

Published May 1, 1999

“If we time it right, we can usually get our children’s Easter eggs at half price,” jokes Peter Bouteneff, executive secretary with the Faith and Order team of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and member of the Orthodox Church in America. Like other Orthodox Christians around the world, the Bout-eneff family cele-brated Easter on April 11, a week later than most Western Christians. If Christians are united in their belief of the Resurrection, why then do we celebrate Easter on different dates? The reason is that we use two different calendars to calculate the date of Easter. One is the 16th-century Gregorian calendar used mainly by Western churches. The other is the much older Julian calendar used by most Orthodox churches. Dagmar Heller, an executive secretary with Faith and Order, explains: “This difference has existed since the 16th century when the Gregorian calendar was introduced to replace the Julian calendar. The difference between these two calendars arises from the fact that the astronomical year, the time it takes for the earth to move around the sun once, is not exactly 365 days. In order to divide the year into equal parts the calendar must find ways to correct the difference, which is normally done by means of leap years. Although not absolutely correct, the Gregorian calendar is astronomically more exact than the Julian: the year according to the Gregorian calendar is 26 seconds longer than the time the earth needs to go around the sun, while according to the Julian calendar there is a difference of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. At present the Julian calendar differs from the Gregorian by 13 days; in the year 2100 it will be 14 days.” Especially in regions where Christians of Western and Eastern traditions live closely together and may even constitute a minority, as for example in the Middle East, this situation is extremely painful. One milestone in the efforts to establish a common date for Easter was the March 1997 consultation held in Aleppo, Syria, and jointly sponsored by the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches. Of great importance was the recognition that differences in calculating the date of Easter do not depend on basic theological disagreements. The consultation recommended that the principle of calculation recognized by both Eastern and Western churches and established by the Council of Nicea in the year 325 should be retained. According to this principle, Easter falls on the Sunday which follows the first full moon of spring. The Aleppo participants also recommended that the spring equinox be calculated “by the most accurate possible scientific means.” Moreover, the basis for reckoning should be “the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection.” The Aleppo consultation also expressed the hope that the new method of calculation could be introduced in the year 2001, when the date of Easter according to both the Julian and Gregorian calendars falls on April 15. From then on, the “celebration of Easter/Pascha on the same date should not be the exception but the rule.” The eighth assembly of the WCC, held in Harare, Zimbabwe last December, also expressed the hope for a common celebration of Easter saying, “We have rejoiced in the developing koinonia (communion) between Christians in many parts of the world, and we affirm once again that God has called us to continue to grow in that communion together, that it may be truly visible. We rejoice in signs of this growth such as the hope for a common date of Easter.” The Lambeth Conference com-mended the Aleppo proposal for consideration by member churches. The Conference of European Churches plans to do the same, and other groups, including Baptists, Methodists, Old Catholics, Presbyterians, Societies of Friends and Free Churches, have reacted positively. Except for the Greek Orthodox Church, most Orthodox churches also welcome the initiative but won’t yet commit to action.


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