The Jewishness of Easter, and the Value of the Lunar Calendar

Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Mmeeds/Dreamstime)

Let them be for “seasons, and for days and years,” God says of the “lights made in the firmament of heaven” (Genesis 1:14). Easier said than done. Consider: The sun spins on its axis and revolves around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and the earth and its sister planets go along for the ride. Meanwhile, the moon, a kind of middleman, our source of low-dosage sunlight during off hours, spins on its own axis and orbits the earth, which likewise spins while orbiting the sun.

What an intricate dance. The movements do not neatly sync, although in some respects they come close. We set our clocks and calendars by them, our timekeeping gold standard. (For practical purposes, we ignore the sun’s rotation and the solar system’s circuit around the galaxy, but it’s good to remember those movements anyway, as a reminder that the universe is no more heliocentric than it was ever geocentric; the sun revolves, too, as the ancients knew, though what it revolves around isn’t us; and remember, the galaxy itself is hurtling through space at a stupendous speed. No body, celestial or mundane, ever stands still, except in relation to other bodies with which it races in tandem through the cosmos. If you desire absolute rest, seek and you shall find it, but not in this four-dimensional space-time continuum.)

Only slightly less marvelous than God’s creation of the sun, the moon, and the stars was the ingenuity of our Bronze Age ancestors who, equipped with little more than their eyes and their power to reason, unaided by computers, developed functioning calendars. The one we use today was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in Anno Domini 1582. It’s a refinement of the Julian calendar, which had been in force since the first century.

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Like our Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was exclusively solar, a departure from the lunisolar custom of marking simultaneously where the moon was in its orbit around the earth and where the earth was in its orbit around the sun. The solar year consisting of 365 days, and 366 every fourth year, conformed to astronomical reality but not quite; Easter, a movable feast related to the lunar cycle, was instituted to be a springtime solemnity but began to drift toward the heat and high sun of summer. To prevent it from creeping all the way to beach season and beyond — through the changing of the leaves, the short, snowy days of deepest winter, and then back again — Pope Gregory, accepting that the sun would not listen to his suggestion that it start following the calendar more closely, made the calendar follow more closely the sun.

To determine the date of Easter and of the movable feasts — Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Sunday — that depend on it, churches consult their ecclesiastical lunar calendars and identify in the solar, civil calendar the date that corresponds to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Consequently, on the solar, civil calendar, the date of Easter varies from year to year.

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Western Christians translate the lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar calendar; Eastern Christians, to the Julian. So not only does the date of Easter vary from year to year, but it usually lands on one Sunday for the good Catholics of Stella Maris and on a different, later Sunday for their Greek Orthodox neighbors down the road at St. Elias the Prophet. To promote Christian unity, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has proposed that churches east and west agree on a common date. He has been conferring with the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox churches — that would be Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and Pope Tawadros II — to reach an accord.

#share#Few would object to a common date. Unfortunately, the church leaders are folding into that noble objective a depressing plan to abandon the lunar calculations for determining the date of Easter — or Pascha, as many Eastern Christians call it — and to settle instead on a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar. The leading candidates are said to be the second and third Sundays in April. Proponents of the plan argue that it’s simple, in contrast with the traditional system, which they find convoluted. They add that a date fixed to the civil calendar would be convenient for schools and other organizations that might want to designate the period around Easter a spring holiday, but it takes only a few keystrokes in a search engine to discover the date of Easter, whether this year, next year, or in 2028.

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Traditionalists have already objected. Some no doubt delight in the quirkiness built into our annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Easter this year, for example, comes early (for Western Christians, that is — for the Orthodox, who will observe it on May 1, it comes late). Remember that year when it snowed? Or when it was 80 degrees and the chocolate bunnies melted? Whereas reformers prefer more regularity, traditionalists intuit that it would contradict the very spirit of the surprising event that Easter commemorates. Reformers might dream of a world in which everyone spoke Esperanto, but we don’t. The natural languages that we speak, write, and think in reflect the splendid idiosyncrasies of human nature. Some verbs insist on being irregular. “He is rised!” the reformers would have us say. No, thank you.

Jesus is a Jewish man whose Jewishness is essential to his identity and his mission.

But the fundamental, theological reason for the Church universal to tie Easter to lunar calendars is that they remind us that Jesus was, and remains, Jewish. In real time, his “passion,” crucifixion, and resurrection coincided, at least approximately, with the seven-day annual festival that Jews observe during the lunar month of Nisan. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, as we call it, includes Passover. For centuries Jews have celebrated Passover with a ritual meal, the seder. Many Christians have long assumed that the seder is what Jesus was observing with his disciples at the Last Supper, though scholars now cast doubt on that scenario. The ever insightful Jonathan Klawans points out that good evidence for the seder (Hebrew: “order, procedure”) as we know it does not even exist before a.d. 70.

While Christians should be careful not to exaggerate the degree to which they share a tradition with present-day rabbinic Judaism, neither should they forget the Jewish roots of their faith. Christians sporting tallitot or improvising seder–eucharistic banquet hybrids go too far, but those who take the position, fashionable in ecumenical circles, that the two religions are separate but equal go too far in the opposite direction. Observant Jews are understandably concerned to preserve the integrity of their traditions. But for Christians to deny the Judaic origins of their faith would be for them to deny Christ’s human nature in all its particularity. He is a Jewish man whose Jewishness is essential to his identity and his mission.

So if church leaders are to agree on a common date for Easter, let it be either the Sunday immediately preceding Passover or the Sunday immediately following the conclusion of the week-long feast. Let the scholars hash out which one would be more appropriate.

Easter, Pesach, and Pascha blessings to all of us. 

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