The Significance Of Easter

One of the great sources of schism in the early Christian churches was argument over the calculation of the date of Easter. This is called the computus. In principle its statement in the present epoch is easy: in any year Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon occurring next after the spring equinox.

The much-misunderstood problem is that the full moon and the equinox referred to in that statement are not defined by the Moon and the Sun in the sky, but rather by theoretical constructs invented for ecclesiastical usage. The "equinox" for Church purposes is stipulated to be the whole of March 21, whereas the astronomically defined instant of the equinox—when the Sun crosses the celestial equator—varies over a 53-hour range from March 19

to 21. The "ecclesiastical moon" is an imaginary body that is assumed to follow the 19-year Metonic cycle containing 235 lunar months (as discussed in Chapter 2), but with eight separate corrections, each of a single day interposed over a 2,500-year grand cycle. The "ecclesiastical sun" is likewise corrected with three single day jumps in a 400-year cycle: this is why a century year is not a leap year unless it is divisible by 400 (as was the case for the year 2000).

To give an example of how misleading the verbal statement above might be, astronomical full moon could occur on March 20 and the equinox on March 19, but still the ecclesiastical rules delay Easter Sunday by a month because the equinox is assumed to be March 21. Equally well, sometimes Easter occurs on the day when the Moon is full in the sky, even though the verbal statement seems to prohibit such an event.

The above is the contemporary position, stemming from the reform of the calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. That reform resulted in an Easter computus now used throughout the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches, but not by most of the Eastern Orthodox churches. The latter persist in using the earlier Julian calendar and different rules, meaning that their Easter may agree with that of the West but equally well may be one, four, or five weeks later in many years. That is exasperating enough in itself, but if we step back to the first centuries of Christianity we find that the situation was even more confused.

At the time Constantine transferred his sympathies to Christianity in A.D. 312 there was a wide range of Easter practices being employed. This was because of both the slow communications in those days, and the lack of basic agreement between the various factions of the early Church spread around the Mediterranean and

Middle East. Various ecumenical councils were convened where the bishops from different regions met and discussed liturgical and doctrinal matters. These culminated in the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, held in a town now called Iznik, across the Bosporus about 60 miles southeast of Constantinople. The Nicene Fathers— the 319 bishops who attended—drew up the Nicene Creed, the formal statement of the underlying tenets of the Christian faith.

It has been much misstated that the Nicene Fathers laid down the rules for Easter, this construed as fact even in present-day papal missives. In reality all they did was this:

1. They agreed with an earlier council that all Christendom should celebrate Easter on the same day (an ideal that has never been achieved).

2. They made a statement that is covertly anti-Semitic (the major concern was avoiding the Jewish Passover, for reasons of self-identification similar to having the Christian Sabbath on Sunday, rather than Saturday as do those of the Judaic faith).

3. They referred the actual computation of Easter to the Church of Alexandria, in deference to the long Egyptian tradition of calendrical calculations based on celestial observations (for example, when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 B.C. he did so under the advice of an Egyptian, Sosigenes).

Despite this step forward by the Nicene Fathers there was still no agreement as to how Easter should be calculated. For two centuries the Roman Church refused to accept the dates stipulated by the Alexandrine Church. Both churches used the 19-year Metonic cycle, but while the Alexandrians assumed that full moon for ecclesiastical purposes should be taken to be the fifteenth day after new moon, the Romans insisted on the sixteenth.

Elsewhere other churches used their own schemes, producing their own Easter (or Paschal) tables that would be distributed throughout their dioceses to show when the various feasts should be held for some decades into the future. In particular some used an 84-year cycle, consisting of 4 Metonic cycles plus an 8-year addition. The latter stems from an ancient Greek invention called the octaeteris, whereby rather than having a single leap-year day every four years, the months instead followed the Moon with three extra of those lunar months being inserted into an eight-year cycle. The first Olympics starting in the eighth century B.C. followed this cycle, alternating between gaps of 49 and 50 lunar months rather than the quadrennial system we adopted for the modern Olympics.

It was this 84-year system that the first Greek missionaries brought to Ireland around A.D. 400, and was then employed by the Celtic Church. Not only was the cycle different, but also the rules allowed Easter Sunday to fall on the fourteenth day after new moon, making coincidence with Passover a possibility. Avoidance of such a perceived abomination had been the major concern of the Nicene Fathers.

The early Celtic Church, however, was disconnected from the Roman Church. After many quarrels with his Alexandrine counterpart, in A.D. 525 the Roman Pontiff asked Dionysius Exiguus, a learned monk from southwestern Russia who lived and worked in a monastery in Rome, to consider the Easter question and draw up Paschal tables for the next several decades. This Dionysius did, in fact largely adopting the Alexandrine full moon rule, but with a 19-year cycle.

It is from Dionysius's calculations that the erroneous year count of the Christian Era (the Anno Domini system) was later derived. He computed Easter dates forward for 95 years (5 cycles), from A.D. 532 to 626 inclusive, as the pope had requested. Dionysius also back-reckoned for 28 cycles (that is, the 4-year leap cycle of the Julian calendar multiplied by the 7-days-a-week cycle), each of 19 years, making 532 years in all. This took him back to the year we call A.D. 1. Let us look Dionysius's chronology, to see how it all came about. According to his thinking, the year A.D. 1 began with the circumcision ofJesus (when Jewish boys are considered to begin their lives). The Nativity was then eight days earlier (circumcision on the eighth day for Jewish male babies is stipulated in the Bible), on the traditional date of the winter solstice, December 25. Given the human gestation period it follows that the Incarnation, or Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God, was nine months earlier, on March 25. That is the traditional (but not astronomically accurate, even at that time) date of the spring equinox. Dionysius reckoned the years for his Easter table, a count with each labeled the Anno ab Incarnatione, from March 25, 1 B.C. He seems to have been wrong by about four years, mistakenly thinking that the reign of Augustus Caesar should be counted from the year 27 B.C. This was when Augustus adopted that name, rather than 31 B.C. when, under the name Octavian, he became the de facto emperor by defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Dionysius then misinterpreted a biblical statement that Jesus was born in the 28 th year of the reign of Augustus, resulting in the four-year error that has persisted ever since.

Leaving that digression aside, the important point is that the Roman Church used Easter tables based upon a continuation of Dionysius's computus from A.D. 532 right through until the Gregorian reform of 1582. When Saint Augustine arrived in Kent at the end of the sixth century, he brought with him Easter tables that were copied for spreading throughout the expanding domain of that Church, and continued over further 19-year cycles after Dionysius's own calculations expired in 626. The distant Celtic Church on the other hand maintained the 84-year cycle it had inherited from Greek sources much earlier.

A simple but important point must be made here. In this era reference to the "Roman Church" should be differentiated from the present-day "Roman Catholic Church." Although the latter derives from the former, here we are discussing affairs almost a millennium before the Reformation. (That was when the various Protestant churches split off from the Catholic Church: in England as a result of King Henry VIII's disputes with the Pope and in Germany through Martin Luther nailing his list of complaints to the church door.) By the term "Roman Church" reference is made to what might also be called the "Western Church" in contradistinction to the traditions through which the present Eastern Orthodox churches came about.

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