Every year there are two Easters celebrations and they almost never occur on the same Sunday. One is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the other is celebrated by everyone else. This last Sunday was Orthodox Easter. So why do we have 2 Easters?
It goes back to a disagreement in the 2nd century C.E. The church in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, celebrated an annual Passover feast because the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) identify Jesus’ Last Supper as a Passover meal and in John’s Gospel Jesus gives up his life at the exact moment the Passover lamb was sacrificed. The bishop of Rome (today called the pope) argued that there was no need for special recognition and celebration of the resurrection and Passover sacrifice because Christ’s resurrection was commemorated and celebrated by the church every Sunday of the year. The church in Rome gave the eastern Christians a nickname, Quartodecimanii. It’s Latin for “Fourteeners” because they celebrated Christ’s resurrection on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, the first day of Passover.
Around the middle of the 2nd century the church in Rome did institute a feast celebrating Christ’s resurrection. But, rather than be like the Quartodecimanii, the Roman church decided Easter must always fall on a Sunday. Thus the Roman church celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan.
Now, this is not when either Easter is celebrated today. So what happened between the 2nd century and today?
Most of the church came into agreement on a date for Easter at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. All but a small minority who hung onto their Quartodecimanii roots elected to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after Passover and after the spring equinox.
So all was relatively peaceful until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII decided to reform the calendar. Until then the whole church had used the Julian and lunar calendars to calculate the days of the Christian feasts. Why reform the calendar? The Julian calendar was too long. After 16 centuries of use it was out of sync with the solar calendar. For example, in 325 C.E. at the council of Nicaea the spring equinox occurred on March 21st. By the end of the 16th century, this equinox came on March 11.
To resolve this Gregory XIII issued a papal bull forcing everyone who belonged to the Roman Catholic Church to immediately drop 10 days from the calendar to synchronize with the solar calendar. So in Western Europe, the day jumped from October 4, 1582 to October 15, 1582! If you were born in Asia Minor on October 10, 1582 then moved to Western Europe, would you still get to celebrate your birthday?
Not everyone was eager to accept Pope Gregory XIII’s reform. It was approximately 200 years until the Protestant church completely accepted it, and Greece, home of the Greek Orthodox Church, didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923. It was when Greece accepted the calendar reform that the Eastern Orthodox Church voted to use the Gregorian calendar to establish the fixed church feasts such as Christmas, but to continue calculating the moving feasts, like Easter, using the regulations agreed upon by the Council of Nicaea. This means Eastern Orthodox Easter is usually celebrated after the Easter of the Western church. The last time the two Easters were celebrated on the same Sunday was in 2001.
So when should we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection? I wish the church as a whole celebrated together and wasn’t divided by things like this. Regardless, the early bishop of Rome was right. No matter what kind of church you attend, Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, the reason we go to church, or rather, the reason we are the church is that Jesus Christ died and was raised on the 3rd day so that we could join in his eternal covenant with God the Father, beloved and accepted forever. That is definitely worth celebrating!