Easter arrives this weekend, but can we be sure?
Easter 2020 won’t be observed in the ways we’ve typically experienced. Some churches have chosen to hold their more traditional Easter celebrations later, when everyone can gather safely.
Regardless, our calendars sing in unison this Sunday: Christ is risen.
The timing of Easter is the most movable, and the most complicated, computation on the Christian calendar. I’ve always heard that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. That’s true most years, but apparently it’s a bit more complicated.
It’s not like Christmas, which falls on Dec. 25 every year. Certain secular holiday observances always arrive on Jan. 1, Feb. 14, July 4, Oct. 31, or Nov. 11. Other celebrations happeb on the second Sunday in May (Mother’s Day) or the third Sunday in June (Father’s Day). But Easter? As I said, it’s complicated.
That simple formula of how the date of Easter is determined is handy. This year, spring arrived on March 19, the moon — a “super pink moon” at that — was full on Tuesday, and this Sunday is indeed Easter.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, since it sometimes varies, according to experts who track such things. Because of the varied ways calculations developed, that rule of thumb didn’t work in 1954 and 1962, to name two examples. If you must know exactly why, clear your head and go to the website https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html. The Naval Observatory’s Astronomical Applications Department’s website once offered a great explanation about this, but unfortunately it’s been offline recently.
It goes back to rules established as part of the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582, now used worldwide for civil purposes. And those rules trace back to 325 and the First Council of Nicaea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, when the Roman world used the Julian Calendar.
Included at the bottom of the website mentioned is a chart used to determine precise dates for Easter. It’s enough to make you appreciate whoever decided Christmas should be observed on Dec. 25 every year, regardless of the day of the week, the full moon, or the first day of a new season.
The website’s explanation does lapse into clear English long enough, however, to note that Easter can never be observed before March 22 or later than April 25. However, that holds true only in the western world for Catholic and Protestant churches. Many Christians operate under different rules. The Orthodox Easter observance, for example, fell on May 1 in 2016, and it’s a week later — April 19 — this year.
Then, there’s this. The usual formula, that Easter is usually the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, is not a precise description of the actual ecclesiastical rules. The full moon involved is not the “astronomical” full moon, but an “ecclesiastical” moon, determined from tables, and it doesn’t always walk in step with the astronomical moon.
The earliest possible Easter last occurred on March 22 in 1918, and it won’t happen again until 2285. The latest Easter can fall, April 25, last happened in 1943. Many of us will be around to see it in 2038.
Because Easter can fall inside such a wide range of weeks, some might recall when the holiday brought freezing temperatures — and even some snow — instead of sunshine and seersucker outfits.
During a season when we have much ponder and celebrate, Christians can be thankful that all of this was calculated in advance. We just show up for services on the appointed day — or not. Things are vastly different this year.
But it supports the reasoning that Easter can be celebrated through online worship this weekend, and celebrated later when the risk eases and it’s safe to gather.
Easter is the most joyous — and unique — observance on the Christian calendar. The fact that we don’t have to figure out the date it happens each year is the least significant thing about it we ought to celebrate.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.