THE LONG VIEW
MANILA, Philippines — HAVE you ever paused to wonder why Easter is such a moveable date?
The Easter holiday has been determined by three great calendars followed in three great historical capitals: Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople.
Let’s start with why Easter is the greatest celebration in the Christian calendar. Easter marks the commemoration of the Resurrection. And that, as this Holy Week reminds practicing Christians, is the culmination of a profoundly important week in history.
In bold strokes: Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday; on Maundy Thursday, He had the Last Supper; on Good Friday, He was crucified, died and was buried; Black Saturday commemorates Christ’s period of being entombed; and Easter Sunday marks the Feast of the Resurrection.
Now you may have wondered why Holy Week seems to move around from year to year. That’s because the date for Easter changes from year to year, and the reason for this is that it’s based on a great high holiday of the Jewish faith.
That holiday is Passover, and to understand our Christian Easter, we have to go back to why it was that Jesus was in Jerusalem on the week leading to His crucifixion. He went to Jerusalem to commemorate Passover.
You’ll remember from your Bible stories that Passover commemorates the night Moses was told to smear the door posts of Jewish families with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The blood was a signal for the Angel of Death to spare the firstborn of Jewish families. The Angel of Death was sent as the 10th, and final, plague visited upon Egypt since the Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Jewish people go.
The Jewish faith has its own calendar, the Hebrew Calendar, marked by two things: the way the year and important feasts are calculated, and the manner in which a day begins and ends.
The Hebrew calendar itself, in Jesus’ time, was based strictly on observations of the moon. That is, it’s a lunar calendar. What was tracked was the phases of the moon. The Jewish calendar system depended on a system of two official observers who would identify the new lunar crescent at sunset, which marked the beginning of a new month. Apparently, the tradition was to mark each new month by signal fires lit on mountaintops, but after Samaritans started lighting false fires, messengers were sent.
The Jewish calendar day is from sunset to sunset: for example, at sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday. The Jewish day is what the Catholic Church follows. Have you ever wondered why you can hear something called an “anticipated Mass,” that is, you go to Mass on Saturday night, and it counts for your Sunday obligation? The Jewish day is the reason. By this reckoning, Sunday actually begins on Saturday evening.
We also owe the seven-day week to Jewish observance, though their week ends on the Sabbath—Saturday—while Christians end theirs on Sunday.
Thus today for the Jewish faith, Passover begins on 15 Nisan, which in our calendar corresponds to nightfall on April 2. It ends on 21 Nisan, which corresponds to sunset on April 9.
In A.D. 70, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed during the revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. The Arch of Titus in Rome immortalizes the plundering and destruction of the Temple. You can see a frieze of Roman soldiers carrying the great Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick of the Temple, as booty in a triumphal procession. By that date, of course, Christianity had been in existence for nearly half a century, and the transition of the center of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome was taking place.
The shift from Jerusalem to Rome, which would involve the Easter celebration, also involved a shift from most Christians being originally Jewish to most of them being Gentiles or non-Jews. And since the non-Jews who were becoming Christians were inhabitants of the Roman Empire, they in turn were more familiar with another calendar, the Roman calendar. That Calendar, the Julian calendar, owed its origins to Julius Caesar, and was a solar calendar. Its reformed version is the calendar we follow today, the Gregorian calendar.
One of the manifestations of the growing supremacy in Christianity of the popes was that in the year 325, after excommunications and thunderous debates, the First Council of Nicaea finally decreed that the Roman timing of Easter would prevail in Christendom. However, when the Pope decreed reforms to the Julian calendar, inaugurating our present calendar in 1582, Eastern Orthodox Christians refused to adopt it (and some Protestants, too: England wouldn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752).
But here’s something: Pope Gregory XIII, who decreed our present calendar, in a sense harked back to the most ancient meaning of one of his titles. And the great split between Catholics and Orthodox is being healed by the dropping of another papal title.
Have you ever read the Pope’s titles? Until recently, this was his full set of titles: “His Holiness the Pope, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.”
Two of his titles interest us: first, “Supreme Pontiff” and second, “Patriarch of the West.”
The title of “Supreme Pontiff” came from Ancient Rome, and incidentally, the pontiffs were the ones who set important dates, including those for elections.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI dropped the title “Patriarch of the West,” as a kind of peace offering to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Popes had used that title since A.D. 450. Benedict’s gesture shows how earnest he is about forging Christian unity.