Why change the method of Easter dating?

By Nigel Jackson

April 1 2016A profound change is being proposed to the way in which the Easter festival has been celebrated for over 1500 years. The change is said to have the support of Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury (the Most Reverend Justin Welby), the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church (the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I).

The suggestion is that the date of Easter Sunday be permanently fixed as the second or third Sunday of April.

This plan was discussed by author Nikki Gemmell in The Weekend Australian Magazine (March 26-27) in a column titled “Confusion reigns”. According to her the change has the support of the business and tourism sectors and is likely to appeal to school principals, calendar makers and travel agents. Is it really right that such a momentous change should be promoted to suit such worldly interests?

And why have we heard so little of this proposal, which Gemmell reports was close to being settled by last January? Have ordinary Australian and other Christians been adequately consulted on this matter? It seems not.  

It seems also that some people are embarrassed by the fact that different churches have different dates for celebrating Easter; but is this really a bad thing? It can be argued that “variety is the spice of life” and that the differences have been easily lived with in the past.

Gemmell raises other but nonetheless cogent arguments against the change. She favours the retention of a date that is “slippery and singular” and which “is wedded to the rhythms of the moon and a more ancient world than this.” She wants the “waywardness” of Easter to remain and cherishes its “unpredictable, bullish quality”. She favours the present timing because it harks back “to a time living closer to the Earth and the sun, the natural rhythms of our planet.” She enjoys contemplating the “bounteous full moon” in the sky around Eastertime. She sees the present dating as “an echo of spiritual tradition embracing even the non-religious.” Western spirituality should “align itself more closely with the wonders of this planet, with nature in all its glory” as a divine gift. She sees the irregularity of Easter as a welcome contrast to the over-regimentation of modern life. This is a powerful case, but some Christians may not see it as conclusive.

The controversial Austrian seer Rudolf Steiner (a “mad genius”, perhaps) stated in his 1920 lecture on “Easter: the Festival of Warning” that the principle of a movable festival at Easter was “laid down at a time when traditions of wisdom were still current among mankind”. Thus, he said, “the time of the Easter festival must not be determined by ordinary earthly conditions; it is a time that can be ascertained only when man turns his thoughts to the worlds beyond the earth.” Steiner added that the choice of a movable date tells us that “man is to become free of the evolution of the earth” and calls us to lift ourselves up “to the worlds beyond the earth.”

Tom Harpur in his 2004 book The Pagan Christ reminds us that Easter occurs on different dates each year “because, like the Jewish Passover, it is based upon the vernal equinox [of the northern hemisphere], that dramatic moment when the hours of daylight and the hours of darkness at last draw parallel and then the light finally and triumphantly wins out. Thus Easter is always fixed as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.” It is “a cosmic, solar and lunar event” deeply rooted in very ancient traditions. Christianity should beware of losing “its vital historical connection with the natural world and the cosmos as a whole.”

It can be argued in response that Gemmell, Steiner and Harpur are not representative of mainstream Christianity. However, that does not mean that mainstream Christians will be wise to ignore their viewpoints. My own response when I read Gemmell’s article and for the first time learned of the meetings of the heads of the churches was one of instant horror. I have great trust in that gut reaction. I felt immediately that we are being threatened with a very significant deprivation.

This was surprising, because I have not been averse to arguing publicly on several occasions that mainstream Christianity needs to drastically re-think parts of so-called “orthodox” theology. Why was I so instantly and deeply opposed to “simplification” and “standardisation” of the date of Easter? Is it really such a big deal? Am I worrying too much about what would really be a minor change involving good housekeeping?         

Then I recalled one of the most beautiful of the sayings of Jesus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) That may be the key. Regardless of how the Easter festival came to be instituted as a movable festival, not fixed like Christmas, that mobility embodies something fundamentally holy and sacred. This may be the main reason why Christians around the world should oppose re-dating Easter.

Nigel Jackson is a Melbourne writer who worships at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Upwey.