Friday, April 16, 2004

Christian Unity and the Date of Pascha

Christ is risen!

The Bishop of Rome, Pope John-Paul II, has called for the Churches of the East and the West to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on the same day, as has just happened, April the 11th having been the date for the Orthodox celebration of Pascha, and Easter in the western churches. (I refuse to use “Easter” to refer to the day of Pascha; except when speaking with western Christians; and then only to give them a point of reference to understand what we’re talking about when we say “Pascha.” I know… how pedantic of me… I do note that the 1912 edition of “The Prayer Book Dictionary,” edited by Harford and Stevenson, states (p. 342) that, “’Easter’ is from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Eostre’ the goddess of spring.”) My reply, having first read this news from Rome on an email list for the clergy of our jurisdiction (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), was along the lines of, “No problem. Let’s send the Pope a telegram (or an email) telling him that we agree that Pascha should have a common date. Now, all he has to do is to order the church under his authority to change the way the date is calculated to agree with ours, and the problem is solved! (And what’s the point of being the Pope if you can’t make changes of this type when necessary?)”

This really isn’t far-fetched. After all, according to the last paragraph of the news report, the appendix to the report of the Second Vatican Council expresses a willingness to work with the churches “separated from Rome” to arrive at a common date for Pascha. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.

One one level, the east and the west are in agreement about the date of Pascha: It is the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The agreed date of said equinox is March 21st; and so Pascha always will occur between March 22nd and April 25th. But when does March 21st take place? Therein lies the rub: because the Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar; while Rome and the rest of the west have made the change to the Gregorian calendar – with a “disagreement” at present of 13 days. Thus, the western calendar’s March 21st is March 8th on the Orthodox Church. (Here I must say that I was in error in mentioning above that April the 11th was the date of Pascha this year. Pascha, March 29th, occurred on the date of April 11th, according to the secular calendar.)

The “calendar question” is a point of controversy among the Orthodox Churches; and it isn’t my intention to engage fully in a discussion of this point within the Orthodox realm. (OK, one shot: Which is more important? Astronomical accuracy, or continuity in the cycle of worship?) (OK, one more shot: Do we really need the calendar of the Church to coincide with the calendar of the world? Sure, having December 25th fall on December 25th, rather than January 7th (new style) is “easier.” Are we, as Christians, supposed to take the easy way?) Why, then, bring it up?

The reason to raise the “calendar question” is precisely the question of the unity of the Church. Those Orthodox Churches that follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate our Lord’s Pascha every year on the same day as those of us who retain the Julian calendar. It isn’t a perfect correspondence. The Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, took place this year for those on the “new” calendar outside of Holy Week; while for us it took place during Holy Week. Beyond the incredibly complicated rubrics for the liturgy that day, and the fact that they got to eat fish, but we didn’t (!), it’s no big deal – and on the essential point, we keep Pascha on the same day – the calendar is not an issue.

So, if we can do this within the Orthodox world, would it really be so great a step for Rome to set aside the calendar it introduced under Pope Gregory XIII, and use as the basis for a common celebration of Pascha the Orthodox date? If unity on such a matter is so important – and it was important enough for the Emperor Constantine to issue a letter to that effect – surely Rome will be willing to “un-change” its own revision, so that this outward sign of unity can be expressed? Oh, if only it could be so…