He is Risen!
In my last post we concluded with a brief look at the ‘Paschal Controversy’. In this post I want to explore the reasons that Easter is no longer associated with the time of the Passover (though from time to time the two coincide, as this year 2014). This will necessitate a glimpse of the Jewish calendar, and what happened at the Council of Nicaea that changed everything.
The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon. They have twelve months, each one being either 29 or 30 days long, alternating. The problem is that there are 12.4 lunar cycles in a solar cycle. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that 12 months of 29 or 30 days gives a year of 354 days, eleven days short of a full year. That means the Passover comes eleven days earlier each year than the previous year. Without some adjustment, Passover would soon be happening in December, October or at any other time during the year. So, to balance the lunar cycles with the solar year, an extra month (a ‘leap month’) is added every two or three years. This has the effect of Passover moving around, but only within the months of March and April. Therefore, Passover, being on the 14th day of Nisan (the first month in the Jewish calendar) always falls around the middle of the lunar cycle in March/April. Just as a birthday for example in our calendar will be on the same date each year, but a different day, so too is the 14th of Nisan. The difference is that the day is not simply one day different from the year before, but will be eleven days earlier for two or three years, then will jump forward when the additional month is included.
As we saw previously, some of the early Christians celebrated Easter at the time of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the Sunday following Passover. Also as we saw, while there were differences, these did not detract from the unity it enjoyed; the early Christians did not allow those differences to become divisions.
Earlier in the history of the church, it was clearly established that certain days were celebrated by Christians. Origen states:
“We ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days. For example, there is the Lord’s Day, the Preparation, Easter, and Pentecost...they require some sensible (ie things appealing to the senses) memorials to prevent spiritual things from passing completely away from their minds.”
However, by the end of the fourth century (390AD and following), the Christian calendar had developed to include more ‘holy days’ than these only:
“Brethren, observe the festival days. First of all, there is the birthday that you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month [ie December 25th]. After that, let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own divinity. And let that feast take place on the sixth of the tenth month [ie January 6th, by our calendar]. After that, the fast of the Lord is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s manner of life and teaching. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of Easter, beginning from the second day of the week and ending at the Day of the Preparation. After those solemnities, breaking your fast, begin the holy week of Easter, all of you fasting in this week, with fear and trembling...From Easter, count forty days, from the Lord’s Day to the fifth day of the week, and celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c AD 390)]
So what changes did the Council of Nicaea introduce? The Council of Nicaea was convened to discuss heresy that was infiltrating the church at that time. They also addressed other issues, one of which was establishing a more set date for Easter.
The Roman Emperor Constantine was the son of a Christian mother (Helena) and a pagan father. Constantine himself professed conversion to Christianity and declared that there would be no more persecution of the Christian church in the Roman Empire. This was good news for the Christians who had suffered greatly for their faith under Constantine’s predecessors. But not content with simply allowing religious freedom, Constantine wanted a say in how the church was run. He convened Councils of Bishops from time to time, over which he appointed himself overseer, or ‘chair’, to discuss matters of doctrine and practice. One of these Councils was the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The original purpose was to discuss what to do about certain heresies that were infiltrating the church at that time, but the Council members also discussed many other issues, including the date that Easter was celebrated. Between the Emperor and the Bishops, they determined that Easter should no longer be tied to the Jewish Passover, but should be the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (established in the ecclesiastical calendar as 21st March).
“Easter was first created during the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, which was the first ecumenical conference of bishops of the Christian Church convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, just 13 years after his conversion to Christianity following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD. Constantine declared Easter would replace the Hebrew Passover and be observed the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.” [Eusebius, Life of Constantine]
“An important historical result of the difference in reckoning the date of Easter was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed [the Resurrection] according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday.
Constantine the Great, Roman emperor, convoked the Council of Nicaea in 325. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided.” [Apologies – forgot to make a note of where this quote came from].
What motivated Constantine and the Bishops to make this change? Constantine himself leaves us in no doubt about that – he did not want the Christian celebration of Easter to coincide with the Passover, because he held a deep hatred of the Jews. Following the Council of Nicaea, he wrote a letter to the Bishops in which he stated:
"... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way." (Eusebius, Life of Constantine)
From a letter to the bishops who were not present at the First Council of Nicaea Constantine stated:
"It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them. ... a people so utterly depraved. ... Therefore, this irregularity must be corrected, in order that we may no more have any thing in common with those parricides and the murderers of our Lord. ... no single point in common with the perjury of the Jews." (Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History”
“At the council we also considered the issue of our holiest day, Easter, and it was determined by common consent that everyone, everywhere should celebrate it on one and the same day. For what can be more appropriate, or what more solemn, than that this feast from which we have received the hope of immortality, should be kept by all without variation, using the same order and a clear arrangement? And in the first place, it seemed very unworthy for us to keep this most sacred feast following the custom of the Jews, a people who have soiled their hands in a most terrible outrage, and have thus polluted their souls, and are now deservedly blind. Since we have cast aside their way of calculating the date of the festival, we can ensure that future generations can celebrate this observance at the more accurate time which we have kept from the first day of the passion until the present time. (4.) Therefore have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews. We have received another way from the Savior. In our holy religion we have set before us a course which is both valid and accurate. Let us unanimously pursue this. Let us, most honored brothers, withdraw ourselves from that detestable association. (5.) It is truly most absurd for them to boast that we are incapable of rightly observing these things without their instruction. On what subject are they competent to form a correct judgment, who, after that murder of their Lord lost their senses, and are led not by any rational motive, but by an uncontrollable impulsiveness to wherever their innate fury may drive them? This is why even in this matter they do not perceive the truth, so that they constantly err in the utmost degree, and will celebrate the Feast of Passover a second time in the same year instead of making a suitable correction. (6.) Why then should we follow the example of those who are acknowledged to be infected with serious error? Surely we should never allow Easter to be kept twice in one and the same year! But even if these considerations were not laid before you, you should still be careful, both by diligence and prayer, that your pure souls should have nothing in common, or even seem to do so, with the customs of men so utterly depraved.
(7.) This should also be considered: In a matter so important and of such religious significance, the slightest disagreement is most irreverent. (8.) For our Savior left us only one day to be observed in remembrance of our deliverance, that is the day of his most holy passion. He also wished his catholic church to be one; the members of which are still cared for by one Spirit, that is by the will of God, however much they may be scattered in various places. (9.) Let the good sense consistent with your sacred character consider how grievous and inappropriate it is, that on the same days some should be observing fasts, while others are celebrating feasts; and after the days of Easter some should celebrate festivities and enjoyments, while others submit to appointed fastings. For this reason Divine Providence directed that we put into effect an appropriate correction and establish uniformity of practice, as I suppose you are all aware.
(10.) So first, it was desirable to change the situation so that we have nothing in common with that nation of father-killers who slew their Lord. Second, the order which is observed by all the churches of the western, southern, and northern parts, and by some also in the eastern is quite suitable. Therefore, at the current time, we all thought it was proper that you, intelligent as you are, would also cheerfully accept what is observed with such general unanimity of sentiment in the city of Rome, throughout Italy, Africa, all Egypt, Spain, France, Britain, Libya, the whole of Greece, and the dioceses of Asia, Pontus, and Cilicia. I pledged myself that this solution would satisfy you after you carefully examined it, especially as I considered that not only are the majority of congregations located in the places just mentioned, but also that we all have a most sacred obligation, to unite in desiring whatever common sense seems to demand, and what has no association with the perjury of the Jews. (11.) But to sum up matters briefly, it was determined by common consent that the most holy festival of Easter should be solemnized on one and the same day; for it is not at all decent that there should be in such a sacred serious matter any difference. It is quite commendable to adopt this option which has nothing to do with any strange errors, nor deviates from what is right.”
In my next post, I will be looking at the significance of this change.