Pascha: The New Passover not Easter
First and foremost, the single most moving service of the Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar is the candlelit Lamentations before the Tomb celebrated on Holy Friday evening, tonight, and the day of this post. If you’re able to, seek out an Orthodox parish and witness the events that’re happening right now. In the end, no description can do justice to the multifaceted journey with Christ that’s culminated by Orthodox Pascha. It must be lived.
At the 3 o’clock hour Christ is lowered from the Cross then in the evening, Christ’s Tomb is carried, in a funeral procession of the Lord. We’ll depart and many will not return until late the next day to witness the most beautiful of services, the life giving Resurrection of the Lord! After all our preparation during Great Lent, our fasting and prayer, our worship through Holy Week, the Orthodox Churchcelebrates not a commemoration of historical events, but events that are occurring RIGHT NOW! A chance to relive the saving Crucifixion and Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a terrible and wonderful journey: terrible because the Lord will have to endure so much; wonderful because if we take this journey with Him, it has the power to transform all.
Just before midnight on Saturday night, lights are extinguished and the chief celebrant emerges from the altar with a single flame, symbolizing Christ’s Resurrection, which is passed to the waiting congregation. All then proceed outside where the Resurrection is proclaimed to the world and the hymn “Christ is Risen” sung, and its words exchanged as a greeting among the faithful.
Pascha – what’s that?
For Orthodox (Eastern Christians) Pascha (the name is derived from the Jewish Passover, which is a feast celebrating how death skipped the households of the Jews) is the Orthodox Christian celebration of how, with Christ’s defeat of death, death now skips over us all – there is NO DEATH and nothing separates us from God!
Western Christians celebrated Easter more than a month ago in 2016, in March. Why though do Orthodox Christian Church celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on May 1st in 2016? Curious? Bear with me and follow along because though the issue appears complicated, it’s really not. Simply, there’re the two factors that cause this conflict in dates. For many people this is a confusing and frustrating issue. Especially for those who have family members who aren’t Orthodox that wonder why we have to celebrate this important holiday at different times.
There’re two factors, the Orthodox Church usually celebrates Pascha later than the Western Churches – anywhere from one to five weeks later (as in 2016). Occasionally Pascha and Easter are on the same day, and will be in 2017. The two dates coincide when the full moon following the equinox comes so late that it counts as the first full moon after 21 March in the Julian calendar as well as the Gregorian. This is not a regular occurrence, but it has happened more frequently in recent years – in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017, but, after that, not again until 2034.
1) The adherence by the Orthodox to the early practices of the Christian Church:
The Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD.
2) The issue of the modern calendar:
The calendar that’s used by the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha, not the one instituted in 1582 by the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory, the Gregorian calendar.
That’s it… but wait, there’s more details for those two items above (note that in the following is interspersed content from goarch.org sources):
HOW THE DATE OF PASCHA IS DETERMINED
The Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD. There it was decreed by all of Christendom that Pascha must take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. The rest of modern Christianity ignores this requirement, which means that on occasion Western Easter takes place either before or during the Jewish Passover. Is it as simple as that? Almost but not quite. It determined that Pascha should be celebrated on the Sunday which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox-the actual beginning of spring. If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Pascha is observed the following Sunday. The day taken to be the invariable date of the vernal equinox is March 21. Hence, the determination of the date of Pascha is governed by a process dependent on the vernal equinox and the phase of the moon. That leads us to the next point (and note there’s issues with how the modern Jewish Passover is calculated, but that’s another story and why technically a “modern” Jewish Passover date may not align with Pascha). Another factor which figures prominently in determining the date of Pascha is the date of Passover. Originally, Passover was celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Christians, therefore, celebrated Pascha according to the same calculation-that is, on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The correlation between the date of Pascha and the date of Passover is clear. Our Lord’s death and resurrection coincided with Passover, thereby assuring a secure point of reference in time. This assurance lasted, however, only for a short time.
Events in Jewish history contributing to the dispersion of the Jews had as a consequence a departure from the way Passover was reckoned at the time of our Lord’s death and resurrection. This caused the Passover to precede the vernal equinox in some years. It was, in fact, this anomaly which led to the condemnation reflected in Canon 1 of Antioch (ca. 330) and Canon 7 of the Holy Apostles (late 4th century) of those who celebrate Pascha “with the Jews.” The purpose of this condemnation was to prevent Christians from taking into account the calculation of Passover in determining the date of Pascha.
Most Christians eventually ceased to regulate the observance of Pascha by the Jewish Passover. Their purpose, of course, was to preserve the original practice of celebrating Pascha following the vernal equinox. Thus, the Council of Nicaea sought to link the principles for determining the date of Pascha to the norms for calculating Passover during our Lord’s lifetime.
Despite the intervention of Nicaea, certain differences in the technicalities of regulating the date of Pascha remained even thereafter. This resulted occasionally in local variations until, by the 6th century, a more secure mode of calculation based on astronomical data was universally accepted. This was an alternative to calculating Pascha by the Passover and consisted in the creation of so-called “paschal cycles.” Each paschal cycle corresponded to a certain number of years. Depending upon the number of years in the cycle, the full moon occurred on the same day of the year as at the beginning of the cycle with some exceptions. The more accurate the cycle, the less frequent were the exceptions. In the East, a 19-year cycle was eventually adopted, whereas in the West an 84-year cycle. The use of two different paschal cycles inevitably gave way to differences between the Eastern and Western Churches regarding the observance of Pascha.
During the first three centuries of Christianity, there was no universal date for celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Churches in various parts of the world followed different traditions. Some Christians celebrated Pascha on the first Sunday after Jewish Passover and others celebrated the feast at the same time as Passover. In order to come up with one unified date for celebrating Pascha, the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD took up the issue. They devised a uniform formula for calculating the date of Pascha that was in line with the early traditions of the Church and the Biblical sequence of events. The formula is this: Pascha is to be celebrated on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, following the vernal equinox, but always after Jewish Passover. In order to ensure that there was no confusion as to when the vernal equinox occurred the date of the vernal equinox was set to be March 21 (April 3 on the Julian Calendar). This formula was universally accepted by all of Christianity, ensuring that Pascha was celebrated on the same day throughout the world. The Orthodox Church continues to follow this formula exactly as prescribed by the Council of Nicea.
However, in modern times, the Western Church has rejected the part of the Nicene formula that requires that Pascha “always follow the Jewish Passover.” Western theologians (and, unfortunately, a few misguided Orthodox Theologians as well) now claim that this provision was never a part of the council’s intention, saying that it is not necessary for Pascha to follow the Jewish Passover. This is hard to understand since, by rejecting this provision of the council, they ignore that the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection was celebrated at the same time from the 1st Ecumenical Council’s decision in 325 to 1582 when the church in the West changed the calendar, as well as the written witness of early Church historians and even earlier canons such as Canon VII of the Apostolic Canons which reads: “If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon celebrate the holy day of Pascha before the vernal equinox with the Jews, let him be deposed.”
THE CALENDAR ISSUE
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII instituted a reform of the traditional Julian calendar. This new calendar, called the Gregorian calendar, was more astronomically correct and is the calendar used by most of the world today. Eventually, all of the Western Churches adopted this “New” calendar. The Orthodox Church, however, vigorously opposed the use of the Gregorian calendar. This resulted in the West and East celebrating all Church feast days on different dates, the Orthodox celebrations always falling thirteen days behind the Western. The calendar that’s used by the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha, not the one instituted by the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory, the Gregorian calendar. The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar and currently, there’s a thirteen-day difference between the two calendars. The Julian calendar being thirteen (13) days behind the Gregorian. Why the change? The Julian calendar doesn’t include leap years, etc. and Orthodoxy (the root being Orthodox or traditional, unchanging, etc.) relives the life of Jesus Christ quite literally and uses date calculations based on how He lived his earthly life before His glorious resurrection. It additionally takes into account the date of the Jewish Passover, but calculates it according to the method used by Jews during Christ’s life. Remember, this change in the west took place in order to adjust the discrepancy by then observed between the paschal cycle approach to calculating Pascha and the available astronomical data. The Orthodox Church continues to base its calculations for the date of Pascha on the Julian Calendar, which was in use at the time of the First Ecumenical Council. As such, it does not take into account the number of days, which have since then accrued due to the progressive loss of time in this calendar.
Practically speaking, this means that Pascha may not be celebrated before April 3, which was March 21, the date of the vernal equinox, at the time of the First Ecumenical Council. In other words, a difference of 13 days exists between the accepted date for the vernal equinox then and now. Consequently, it is the combination of these variables which accounts for the different dates of Pascha observed by the Orthodox Church and other Christian Churches.
Specifically with regard to this year’s date of Pascha, the following observations are made. The invariable date of the vernal equinox is taken to be April 3 (March 21 on the Julian Calendar). Pascha must therefore be observed on the Sunday following the full moon which comes after that date. According to the 19-year Paschal cycle, the first full moon which comes after April 3 this year is on May 1 (April 18 on the Julian Calendar) – the day assigned to the Jewish Passover as calculated originally. In reality, this full moon falls on April 27, a discrepancy left uncorrected in the paschal cycle. As already stated, the provision of the First Ecumenical Council calls for Pascha to be observed on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Since May 1, for the reasons stated above, is taken to be the date of that full moon, the following Sunday, May 5, is the day on which Pascha is observed this year.
If anything, this review of the complexities surrounding the issue of the date of Pascha underscores the compelling need to revisit it with patience and openness. This was the spirit which predominated at the most recent consultation on the matter held in Aleppo, Syria in 1997. One of its conclusions was that the present differences in the calendars and lunar tables (paschal cycles) employed rather than to differences in fundamental theological outlook. In view of the fact that both the Julian and Gregorian modes of calculation diverge from the astronomical data, it behooves us to return to the norms determined by the Council of Nicaea. Although the council did not itself undertake a detailed regulation of the paschal calculation, it did in fact respect available contemporary science regarding the vernal equinox and the phase of the moon. We can do no less today.
This was further complicated in 1923, where an inter-Orthodox congress was held in Constantinople attended by representatives of some, but not all, Orthodox churches. This congress made the very controversial decision to follow a revised calendar (known as the Revised Julian Calendar) that was essentially the same as the Gregorian calendar, for all things except the celebration of Pascha, which continued to be calculated according to the original Julian calendar. The result being that today we celebrate most feast days, like Christmas, Epiphany and the rest, at the same time as Western Christians and only Pascha and the feast days that are connected with it like Pentecost and the Ascension, are dated according to the Julian calendar and celebrated on different dates. For Orthodox, it is important to maintain the teachings and traditions of the Church intact and pure.
Most Americans know the feast as Easter, widely believed to be derived from the name of the Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess Ēostre who may, in turn, have had her origins in the Greek pagan goddess of the dawn Ēōs. However the Orthodox Church and much of the rest of the Christian world uses “Pascha” (Πάσχα), which comes from the Hebrew term for Passover — Pesach (פֶּסַח) — the observance of Jews’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Ancient Christians adopted this term because they saw Jesus’ Resurrection as the “New Passover” celebrating humankind’s Exodus from slavery to sin and death.