Monday, March 07, 2011

Faith Works 3-12-11

Jeff Gill


Easter May Keep You Waiting This Year




Why does it seem like Lent is starting late this year?
Because it is!
We will have Easter on the very latest day it can fall, April 25, in 2038 (eat your fruits and vegetables if you plan on showing up!); this year is April 24.
Given that the beginning of Lent is "backwards calculated" from Easter, those 40 days of fasting plus the six feasts of Sunday, Ash Wednesday was March 9 this year (March 10 in 2038 for those marking their calendars).
Most years, the Ash Wednesday service of an evening as Protestants do it, starts in full darkness; this year (and 2038) it will still be a bit eveningish when you go in.
For Catholics, the observance is most often in the early morning, so your cross-shaped mark of ash is visible all day. Hat tip, Catholicism!
At any rate, the ongoing question is: why can't Easter be a well-behaved holiday like Christmas or St. Patrick's Day?
One reason obviously is that Easter always falls on a Sunday, not a numeric date like Dec. 25 or Mar. 17 that migrates through the week. The Jewish Sabbath of the last day of the week, Saturday, was moved by the early Christian church to recall, each week, that momentous first day of the week when Mary Magdalene & the disciples discovered that Christ was risen, hence Sunday as the day of religious observance.
But that first Day of Resurrection was itself an event that happened in relation to the Jewish observance of Passover. The Hebrew liturgical calendar is lunar based, which the nascent Christian bodies didn't need to follow for the most part, and early on, they could accent their weekly celebration of Jesus' return from betrayal & death with the annual full-on remembrance just by watching nearby Jewish communities, and marking Easter the next Sunday after Passover.
Simple enough, but cheating. That left the Jews to do the hard work & keeping track of the moon, which actually doesn't work well just by eyeball. As we here in the neighborhood of the renowned Newark Earthworks know full well, moonrises and phases are often obscured by clouds, or happen in the middle of the night, and accuracy requires more than just saying "wal, it looks 'bout full to me, don't it?"
So you need tables and charts to know, even in a week of overcast, what day your Passover happens. And as Christianity spread across the Mediterranean basin and into northern Europe, there wasn't always a synagogue nearby to keep tabs on. It was time to keep track for themselves.
Which they did, but with local variations on how they assembled the charts for tracking lunar months versus the western 12 month calendar. The first council of Nicea had this as a major agenda item (creeds came later as an "action item").
Out into the old Roman empire, in the far-flung outposts recently portrayed in the movie "The Eagle," the Celtic Christians had one calendar for calculating Passover, tied in part to old Druidic customs, and the more Roman oriented folk from Canterbury in England followed the Roman mode.
At the Synod of Whitby on the eastern coast of northern England, the two sides met, and the Venerable Bede records in his ecclesiastical history that Bishop Wilfrid  (both of them soon to be saints) carried the day, with King Oswy, brother of the late King Oswald of the Northumbrians, voting to side with Rome. On both the Easter lunar tables, and proper monastic haircuts (don't ask).
In a nutshell, the date of Easter for Western Christendom then and now works like this: the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. As the moon's cycles move versus the fairly stable date of the first day of Spring (Mar. 20 this year), the first Sunday after that next full moon can swing pretty dramatically.
So yes, Ash Wednesday last week and Easter next month are late this year. But it isn't too late to pick a spiritual discipline to focus on for these remaining 40-some days until Easter!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he enjoys these odd little historical asides far too much. Tell him your favorite historical quirk at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.