The western world is celebrating Easter. Today, both Catholics and Protestants will be celebrating one of the greatest Christian holidays. The Orthodox will be celebrating the same holiday more than a month later, on May 5th.
Why don’t the Catholic and the Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same date?
Normally, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Vernal (spring) equinox, which is on March 21. If March 21 is a Sunday, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after that.
Piece of cake, right? Well, things are a wee bit more complicated than that.
One of the main reasons for this, is that the Catholics were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar (for civic and religious computations) but the Orthodox still use the Julian calendar to calculate the Easter. The Gregorian calendar was adopted because the older, Julian one, was inaccurate; already, it has regressed by a full 13 days. This of course causes a major discrepancy, but it is not the only reason for the difference in dates.
In the early years of the church, it was of the utmost importance for the Easter not to coincide with the Jewish Passover, since the Gospels say that Christ died either after Passover (accorcing to the books of Luke, Mark and Matthew), or (according to the book of John) on the day of Passover itself. After the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, Easter often fell before the Jewish Passover, and the Catholic church decided to go along with this. However, for the Orthodox, it is still paramount that the celebration does not violate biblical accuracy.
Are East and West ever to agree on celebrating Easter on the same date? It sometimes happens that the dates will coincide, but excluding coincidence, I don’t think convergence is likely – at least not any time soon.
As with all religious issues, this is not as simple as it may seem – trust me, I used to think so. Under the seemingly simple task of calculating a date, underlie fundamental doctrinal differences that cannot easily be overcome, as I found out by reading one of the comments below. So we’ll be celebrating two Easters for a long time yet, with the exception of the years 2014, 2017 and 2034, when the two fall on the same date.
And what about religious minorities living in other countries? The solution (agreed upon by both Churches) is simple: minorities celebrate the Easter on the day established in the country they live in. So Catholics (and most Protestants) in Greece will celebrate their Easter on May 5th, while the Orthodox of, say, Finland, celebrate theirs today.
Have a nice Easter everyone.
Note 1: for more about the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic version of Christianity, you may want to see this article from the Economist.
Note 2: image from this article.