How The Date For Easter Is Set

Lunar Versus Solar Calendars

In Judaism, the calendar is lunar. Each month, Nisan included, includes
the phases of the moon, and the Passover falls on the 14th day of the
month, that is full moon. The determination of this date was a secret
process carefully guarded in the Jewish temple and later, synagogues,
and it was according to this calculation that Christ observed the feast.
The early Christians were Jews and the Hebrew tradition was powerful in
their minds. A party of such conservatives known as the Quartodecimians
thus pressed for a continuance of the Jewish Passover as Easter, even to
the point of schism, but they were overruled by the Church as a whole,
and for these reasons:

The Church resented dependence on the Synagogue for arranging its
ecclesiastical year.
The Hebrew Passover falls on any day of the week and this did not
suit the Christians. They wanted a Holy Week beginning with Palm
Sunday, proceeding to Good Friday and ending on Easter Sunday,
commemorating the resurrection.
Between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter, there were
thus a doctrinal and calendrical severance.

On the Church, therefore, fell the duty of setting Easter in the
Christian year. The reason for the problems came from the fact that
the Hebrew and Christian calenders were in conflict. The earlier
calender was lunar in which the unit was a month of about 28.5 days
or 342 days in a year. The second was solar in which the unit was a
year of about 365.25 days. The lunar reckoning was Babylonian and the
solar reckoning was Egyptian. Judaism held to Babylon, Rome adopted
Egypt, and the Western World has followed Rome, which is the reason
why our modern year differs from the Hebrew observance. In the case
of Christmas, the Church ignored the lunar year and no difficulty
arose. Christmas comes about four days after December 21, the winter
solstice. But with Easter the Church wished to adjust the Hebrew or
lunar practice to the solar year, and wranglings were inevitable.

The Clock is Ticking...

If there are two clocks ticking, one fast, the other slow, the ticks
will be distinct except at the moment when one clock overtakes the other,
and the ticks synchronize. In calendars, interval between synchronizations
is called a cycle, and over the length of the cycle between the solar and
lunar years there was much uncertainty in the days before the telescope was
an astronomical instrument.

The Jewish cycle was 84 years, but about the year 222 A.D., Hippolytus
recommended a much shorter cycle of 16 years. Rome raised a statue to him with
his cycle engraved on the sides, but despite amendment, his cycle fell into
disuse and the Church fell back on the Hebrew cycle of 84 years. Emotions were
aroused. The Western Christians observed Easter on a Sunday, the Eastern in many
cases were Quartodecimanians and preferred the 14th day of the lunar month. It
was a foretaste of the schism that was to split the Eastern Orthodox Church from
the Roman Catholic.

Anxiety over the date of Easter was thus a reason why Constantine the Great in
325 A.D. summoned the famous Council of Nicaea. It was decided that Easter must
be celebrated everywhere on the same day and this day must be a Sunday. It must
be the first Sunday after a full moon following the vernal equinox, March 21 with
one reservation. In the English prayerbook it is stated thus: "and if the full
moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday after." The reason for this
exception reveals the depth of the division between the Church and the Synagogue.
For whenever the full moon fell on a Sunday, Easter would be celebrated on the
same day as the Hebrew Passover. Hence, the postponement for a week, to avoid the

At Nicaea they had to decide who was to manage the full moon and so announce the
date of Easter. This duty was referred to Alexandria, the citadel of astronomy,
where the bishop was to declare the dat each year. Travel was slow and the
pronouncement had to be made in advance. It had to be based, not on observation
of the moon in the sky, but on mathematics.

Many cycles were tried, one of 8 years, the Alexandrine cycle of 19 years, the
Roman cycle of 84 years, and the Victorian cycle of 19 x 28 or 532 years, arranged
by Victorius of Aquitania (Victorinus) in 457 A.D. at the request of the pope. It
meant that Easter was celebrated on different Sundays in different places, and when
the pope promulgated the Victorian cycle, the British and Irish churches continued
with their cycle of 84 years. Whence arose the fundamental question, more important
than the date of Easter itself, whether these churches were under the authority of Rome.

In 664, Oswy or Oswiu, King of Mercia, summoned the famous Synod of Whitby where he
decided to throw in his lot with the papacy. A simultaneous observance of Easter throughout
Christendom was thus made possible and it continued for nine centuries. At this moment, the
Protestant and Roman Catholic Easters coincided. Not so the Eastern Orthodox Church Easter.

The Julian Calendar advanced year by year, beyond the true solar year. In 1582, therefore,
Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from that calendar and so brought March 21 back to the
correct vernal equinox. He found that Easter was 3 days ahead of the full moon, and the
adjustment for Easter was thus 7 days. This resulted in the Gregorian Calendar or New Style,
now generally adopted in the modern world. The Eastern Orthodox churches, however, still
clung to the Old Style or Julian reckonings, and once more there were two Easters in the
ecclesiastical year. This problem of Easter even in the West has yet to be completely solved,
and remains a matter for the future.

Fixing the Date of Easter
The date of Easter, though accurately determined, varies from year to year, and Easter is
thus a "movable feast." Easter falls anywhere between March 22 and April 25, a range of 35
days. Dependent on this variable Easter are 17 weeks of the ecclesiastical calendar or about
one third of the Christian year. These "movable days" are as follows:
Septuagusima Sunday -------9 weeks before Easter
Sexagesima Sunday ---------8 weeks before Easter
Quinquagesima Sunday ------7 weeks before Easter
Quadragestima Sunday ------6 weeks before Easter
Shrove TUesday ------------Eve of Lent
Ash Wednesday -------------Beginning of Lent
Lent ----------------------40 days
Palm Sunday ---------------End of Lent and Beginning of Holy Week
Good Friday
Easter Sunday
Rogation Sunday -----------5 weeks after Easter
Ascension Day -------------40 days after Easter
Whitsunday ----------------7 weeks after Easter
Trinity Sunday ------------8 weeks after Easter

In some countries, for instance, England, this movable Easter has affected secular matters
like the sittings of courts and holidays in schools and colleges. The flow of trade, especially
in women's clothing, is tidal with Easter. There is thus a movement for a fixed Easter.
According to the Vatican there is no canonical objection to fixing the date of Easter, a process
which, we have seen, has been going on for centuries. But the view is that the matter is suitable
for submission to an ecumenical council, which suggests that at Rome it is regarded as an
ecclesiastical matter to be dealt with by ecclesiastical authority. In 1928 the British Parliament
passed a permissive statute making Easter the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.
This would leave Easter among movable feasts but would reduce the movability from 35 days to the
range between April 9 and 15. The proposed world calendar provides that each day of the year fall
perpetually on its own day of the week, Easter might most suitably be allotted to April 8. The
acceptance of this reformed calendar would thus synchronize a fixed Easter for all Christendom
and, if the synagogue agreed, for Judaism. It has to be added that this apparently ultimate
solution to the problem is still not adopted and the problem is ongoing.