A Small (But Not Really) Thing

Last week, Pope Francis has brought up something that seems completely irrelevant but actually kind of a big deal--finding a common date to celebrate Easter.

Eastern Vigil, 2012, Makeni-Lusaka, Zambia
Let me try to summarize this issue in as simple a way as possible.  In 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the church fixed a date for the celebration of Easter--the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (Spring) equinox (the so called "Roman practice," as distinct from the "Jewish practice"--i.e. using the Jewish calendar to calculate Passover and then placing Easter on the Sunday after that).  Except, not exactly--in practice, the date of Easter is determined using a mathematical algorithm that is designed to predict when the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox will fall.  This algorithm was actually developed after the Council, and is not directly referenced in the Council documents.  The important point for purposes of this story is that it spits out a date for Easter based on the assumption that March 21 is the date of the vernal equinox

There is, however, a problem with this method.  The Julian Calendar that underlies the whole system is set up on the premise that a year is 365.25 days long (i.e., 365 days plus 1 leap day per four years).  The problem is that that's not right--the year is actually a couple of minutes shorter than that.  As a result, the stuff that was supposed to happen on a particular calendar date stopped happening on that date--the equinox did not actually occur on March 21, but started moving "forward" toward April.  Moreover, the algorithm was not quite right, and so the estimated calculation of when the moon was full stopped lining up with when the moon was actually full.

To fix this problem, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII adopted a new set of calculations and calendar dates (essentially moving the calendar forward ten days to realign the equinoxes) that resolved the accumulated problems and prevented these issues from arising in the future.  After about two hundred years of resistance, the Protestant world adopted these reforms, and so we have the calendar and calculation of Easter that most of us are familiar with.

The Eastern Orthodox churches took a different tack.
 Basically, they asserted that the Pope did not have the authority to change the way in which Easter was calculated, since it was established at an ecumenical council.  So, they kept the old calculation.  To give a sense of how passionately the Orthodox viewed this issue, in the 1920s the Greek church suggested a modest compromise.  Easter would still be calculated according to the old way, but the dates would be aligned with Western usage (i.e. so that everyone agrees that today is June 19, whereas before people in the Orthodox world would insist it was actually June 6).  This provoked a crisis in Orthodox world--there were riots, and to this day there are two separate jurisdictions in Greece that are primarily divided between the "Old Calendarists" (who reject the change) and the "New Calendarists" who embrace the change.  The Russian Orthodox Church--the largest Orthodox group--is Old Calendarist.  And none of that had anything to do with changing Easter.

Orthodox Pascha (Easter) Service
So, the Orthodox are really passionate about this calendar business.  Now, I think any rational, detatched analysis of the question will conclude that the Orthodox position is kind of silly.  The Gregorian Calendar reforms, even if they perhaps do not attend to the letter of the Council of Nicaea (and I am not sure they don't), certainly reflect their spirit.  It is supposed to be the first Sunday after the first full moon in Spring, and under the Western method it is.

But here comes Pope Francis, to correctly point out that focusing on the method of calculating the date of Easter is to lose sight of what is really important here.  It doesn't really matter what day Easter is celebrated, so long as we can all celebrate it together.

Noting jokingly that Christians could say to one another: “When did Christ rise from the dead? My Christ rose today, and yours next week,” he said that this disunity is a scandal.

As a practical matter, this surely means switching back to the old way of calculating Easter, all of us becoming "New Calendarists" to use the Orthodox parlance, as there is no indication that the Orthodox are prepared to make a move on the date of Easter.  If the goal is to get on the same page, then that page is likely the one held by the party that cares the most about which page is being used.

You know what?  That's the way it should be.  That's how compromise works in any relationship.  Sometimes one party cares passionately about something and the other is indifferent, and so the party that cares more gets to decide how things are going to be.  Sometimes the merits are less important than the process.  Particularly where, as here, all of this is basically arbitrary anyway.  All of these complex calculations are there to symbolize something that transcends some specific date.  To me, and it seems to Pope Francis, the symbolism is more important than the actual date.  But it is very important to the Orthodox.  So, they "win," and the rest of us lose nothing.

Or, you can stamp your feet and insist that you are right and the other person is stupid.  Or you can turn this into an argument about who has the authority to make this or that decision, which is the way this has been framed for almost 500 years.  Where does that get you?  Anger and suspicion.  And division.

If Pope Francis does do this, no doubt some yabbos will make a big point of not changing the date and loudly cry "you're not the boss of me, Pope Francis!"  Whatever.  No doubt some of the nutters on the Orthodox side will crow and treat this as some sort of "victory" for them over Rome, and militants on the Catholic side would spin this as some sort of horrible heresy and capitulation to Orthodox schismatics.  Double whatever.

My (unsolicited) advice to Pope Francis?  Just do it.  Announce that the Catholic Church will celebrate Easter on April 8, 2018 (the Orthodox date) and thereafter follow the Orthodox calculation system.  It falls on the same date in 2017 anyway, so next year will be the last one that involves two different dates.  Maybe see if you can get Archbishop Welby to make a joint announcement, and encourage everyone to follow along in the spirit of Christian unity.  But just do it.

Being a peacemaker means setting aside being right and being in charge for the purpose of making peace.  It means putting aside a bit of ego.  And sometimes it means making gestures that have real meaning for others.  This proposed move by Pope Francis is all of these things.  I hope he does it.


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