Occasionally, people ask me why the date of Easter changes each year. Usually I try to bluff my way out of it, hoping to give the impression that I know the answer but that it is too complicated for mere mortals to understand. I do know that, because of its connection with the Jewish Passover, and the Jewish lunar calendar, it is something to do with full moons and the spring equinox. But not actual full moons or equinoxes. No, ecclesiastical full moons and equinoxes that you can look up in tables (not astronomical ones that you would look up into the sky to see). And I know that the Christian calculation parted company with the Jewish one some time in history, so that Easter doesn’t always coincide with Passover. Anyway, you can read all about it on Wikipedia (as I have tried to do) and learn the actual formula which determines that Easter can fall anywhere between 22nd March and 25th April. This year, Easter Sunday is 27th March (if you follow the Gregorian Calendar, as we do in the West. It’s on 1st May if you use the Julian Calendar, as Eastern Churches do. And Passover is a month later, on 23rd April this year.)
Of course, the changing date makes life difficult for some, including schools whose holidays are now fixed in the first week or two of April, rather than being dependent on religious festivals. Some years ago, I got a phone call from a parishioner who worked for one of the utility companies asking if I could let him have the date of Easter for the next few years. I was able to look it up for him and I like to think I made a small contribution to their planning (although I never got a reduction in my fuel bills).
In 1928 Parliament passed the Easter Act, fixing Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Act has never come into effect, because it would require the agreement of the major Christian churches. Archbishop Justin Welby has said recently that there could be such an agreement within five or ten years (Church Times, 22nd January). Until that time, I will continue to rely on someone cleverer than me to work it out and let me know.
Of course, any change to the calculation will be controversial. In 664 AD, at the Synod of Whitby, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would henceforth calculate Easter following the practice of Rome, rather than that of the Celtic church of Iona. In our day, some will be saddened by the prospect of a utilitarian calculation based on the practicalities of the calendar, rather than wrestling with astronomical phenomena. It also finally breaks the link with the date of the Jewish Passover, which some might regret.
The death of Jesus on the cross is linked to the Passover in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we are told that Jesus celebrated the Passover – which we remember on Maundy Thursday and call the Last Supper –
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed
(Mark 14:12; see also Matthew 26:17 and Luke 22:7).
He was crucified the following day, the day after Passover, which we call Good Friday. But John says that Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover (John 19:31). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? It’s possible that John is using a different way of dating the Passover – in the year in which Jesus died, it’s possible that the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed over the proper date. So controversies over dates are nothing new! Or it may be that John is drawing out the symbolism of Jesus as the new Passover lamb, sacrificed like the other lambs for the feast in which the Jewish people remember their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their journey towards freedom in the Promised Land, as described in the book of Exodus.
Either way, it is that story which informs the gospels’ understanding of the death of Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Some churches mark Maundy Thursday with a meal, like the Jewish Passover Seder. We are not planning to do that this year, but maybe one year we will. Instead, we will recall the Last Supper with a celebration of the Eucharist in which, rather than eating a meal together, we simply take bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus, who said, “This is my body… this is my blood”.
You’ll find details of our services for Lent, Holy Week and Easter elsewhere. I hope you will put these in our calendar and join us for at least some of them.