By Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
There have been a number of reports in the Press about the Archbishop of Canterbury announcing impending ecumenical agreement for the date of Easter to be fixed for the second or third Sunday in April. Is this what has been agreed and, if so, is this desirable?
From the earliest days, Christians have celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Sunday, the first day of the week, with worship, fellowship and giving (Acts 20:7, 1Cor16:2, Rev1:10).
There were however, two different opinions about the annual celebration of the Resurrection. The churches of Asia tended to observe it on the day of the Jewish Passover itself, whilst the West, and some others, kept it on the Sunday following. Eventually, the Sunday observance prevailed although there have been disputes about how this is to be calculated.
The Eastern Churches have insisted on it always falling after the Passover, whereas the West has observed it on any Sunday that fell after the Full Moon, following the vernal Equinox.
The adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the West has also caused Easter to be observed on different days by the various churches. This was, perhaps, not so serious when the different traditions were geographically separated but now with large Eastern communities living in the West, it seems odd for Christians, in the same neighbourhood, to be keeping Easter on separate Sundays.
For these reasons, there have been moves since the early years of the 20th Century for Christians to agree a common date for Easter. The latest of these has been a World Council of Churches proposal for Easter to be calculated as the Sunday after the Full Moon following the astronomical vernal Equinox.
This was agreed amongst the Churches but has not been implemented. Perhaps it needs ‘tweaking’ so that it always falls after the Passover to satisfy Orthodox consciences.
Quite separately, Western governments and civic authorities have been concerned either to delink school and university vacations from Easter or to fix the date of Easter for a particular Sunday.
It is important to realise that there are two quite different proposals here: one is to find an agreed method for calculating a date each year that all the Churches could accept and, the other, to fix the date for a particular day.
The first proposal, to find a common way of calculating the date of Easter on which all Christians can agree, has much to commend it. This would still mean a variation on the day Easter falls, from year to year, but all Christians would observe it on the same day.
The second, however, for fixing it on a particular day would effectively separate it from any connection with the Jewish Passover with which it has strong historical and theological ties.
However we assess the evidence from the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus suffered and died at Passover time and the Evangelists associate the commemoration of his death with it. St Paul also tells us that ‘Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us’ (1 Cor 5:7), a cry repeated in the Easter Liturgy.
It would be most undesirable to distance a Christian understanding of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection from its Jewish roots.
In many Middle Eastern and European languages, Pasch or Passover remains the usual term for Easter. This link between the two sister faiths should not be broken.
It is my sincere hope that church leaders are considering the proposal about all Christians observing Easter on one day and not the one about fixing it for the same Sunday every year.