Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why Easter is a moveable feast

The sight of chocolate eggs and pancakes on supermarket shelves in January is a little hard to stomach when you've barely had time to digest your Christmas pudding.

But this year, the vagaries of the Christian calendar have brought Easter to its earliest date in almost a century.

In 2008, the most important feast in Christianity falls on March 23, the earliest it has been since 1913 and one of the rare occasions when it occurs before the clocks have moved forward for summertime.

In just under a fortnight, the season of rationing and restraint will be upon us when Lent and Ash Wednesday land on an exceptionally early February 6, jeopardising the romantic indulgences of St Valentine's Day.

The very rare collision of St Patrick's Day and Holy Week has already forced the Catholic Church to switch our patron's feast day to March 15 although the parade will go ahead as usual on March 17.

Rome gave Irish church authorities permission to move the official celebrations two days back to March 15, which falls on a Saturday, after bishops felt that the party atmosphere created by the St Patrick's festival could overshadow the solemnity of Holy Week.

And while schoolchildren around the country are rejoicing at their early Easter holidays, they're sure to find the extra long summer term a bit of a drag. Schools will close on Friday March 14 and report back for business on March 31 leaving a lengthy stretch before they break up again in June.

The calculation of Easter's date has divided Christians for centuries. While most Western church festivals are held on the same date every year or at a fixed position such as the first Sunday of the month, Easter is a moveable feast that can fall on any date from March 22 to April 25, over a range of 35 days.

Now for the science. In the early church, Easter was celebrated on different days in different countries. But the problem for Christians, whose calendar is based on the solar calendar, is that the Resurrection of Jesus happened during the Jewish feast of Passover, which the Hebrew religion celebrates according to the lunar calendar and the changing shape of the moon.

Fixing the date of Easter in the Roman calendar would lead to the celebration of the feast on dates unrelated to the Jewish observance of Passover, which marks the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

In AD 325, church leaders at the Council of Nicaea agreed to keep the Christian feast linked to Passover and it was decided that Easter day should always fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal or spring equinox, which is usually March 21.

The equinox is one of two days in the year when daytime and night-time hours are equal in length -- each being 12 hours long. The autumn equinox occurs in September. The theological significance of this date is that it is a day of maximum light -- 12 hours of daylight followed by 12 hours of full moonlight.

For the early Christians, the correct calculation of Easter was vital, as they believed celebrating it too soon or too late was sacrilegious. In 1752, the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain and Ireland and Easter has been celebrated on the same day in the Western part of the Christian world ever since.

But through the centuries, there have been attempts to change the date away from the lunar calendar but these have met with little support.

In 1928, the British Parliament attempted to bring order to the Christian celebration and implemented the Easter Act, which said the feast should always fall on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. But this did not come into effect as the new law required a seal of approval from the Christian churches, who dismissed the idea outright.

Because Eastern Orthodox churches have an additional rule that Easter may not precede or coincide with the first day of the Jewish Passover, it means that the feast is marked at different times in some European countries.

A few years ago, the World Council of Churches suggested that Easter might be fixed by precise astronomical methods, to avoid the situation where the eastern Orthodox Easter, which is based on the Julian, rather than the Gregorian, calendar, can occur up to five weeks later.

But agreement has yet to be reached on the matter and so Easter continues to shift from year to year.

In 2005, Easter Sunday coincided with the changing of the clocks making it a 23-hour celebration. When Daylight Saving Time was introduced in the early part of the 20th century, a rule was introduced that it should begin on the day after the third Saturday in March unless it was Easter Sunday, in which case it should start a week earlier. This was to preserve the sanctity of a 24-hour Easter day. However, this was overruled in 2005 to keep Britain and Ireland in line with continental Europe.

In that year, there was another unusual alignment of dates when the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 clashed with Good Friday for the first time in 73 years. The Annunciation, once known as Lady's Day, marks the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that Mary would give birth to Jesus, but when it coincides with the day of the crucifixion, it is considered very bad luck as it unites the day that marked the beginning of Christ's life with his death on the cross.

An early English saying goes "if Our Lord falls in Our Lady's lap, England will meet with a great mishap" and early Christians believed if the two days met it would bring about the end of the world.

The next time the dates coincide will be 2016 but when this occurs, the Catholic church moves the feast of the Annunciation to another day.

On a happier note, next year the calendar reverts to a more normal schedule with Easter arriving on April 12, but in 2011, it will be almost as late as it can possibly be, falling on April 24.

And who knows? This year we might even get a white Easter.
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