TGIF: Even the seasons and the Moon proclaim it’s Easter
Easter Sunday arrives this weekend, but how do we know? For starters, all our calendars say it does.
You don’t have to get into its theology to know that Easter is the deepest celebration found on the Christian calendar. If you do get into that theology, you’ll really be digging deep. Visit your favorite local church if that’s what you seek.
As for timing, people have explained it to me by saying Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, or first Full Moon in spring, which occurs Saturday. That computation works almost every time, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
It’s not like Christmas. You can count on Christmas coming on Dec. 25 every year. That’s much like other secular holidays, which always fall on Jan. 1, Feb. 14, July 4, Oct. 31, or Nov. 11, for example. The day of the week varies, but of those dates we can be certain.
Other events have a certain schedule — like 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.
Let’s go back to the simple formula of how the date of Easter is determined. It works this year, and in most other years. Spring arrived on March 20, and the moon will be full on Saturday, so this Sunday is Easter.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, because it does vary occasionally, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Because of the way these calculations were developed, that rule of thumb didn’t work in 1954 and 1962, to name two years. If you must know exactly why, clear your head and go to the website www.whyeaster.com. That’s where I found an exhaustive explanation about how the date of Easter is determined.
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 at the First Council of Nicaea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, when the Roman world used the Julian Calendar.
Shown at the bottom of the page is a complex algorithm used to determine 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.
Do a little online research, and you’ll find that Easter can fall anytime between March 22 and April 25. But that holds true only in the western world by Catholic and Protestant churches. Other Christians operate under different rules. The Orthodox Easter observance, for example, fell on May 1 in 2016, and this year it’s on April 24.
The usual statement, that Easter will be 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 being referenced is not the “astronomical” Full Moon, but the “ecclesiastical” Full Moon, determined from tables, and it doesn’t always align exactly with the astronomical moon.
Ecclesiastical rules hold that Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical Full Moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox; that this particular ecclesiastical Full Moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (New Moon); and the vernal equinox is fixed as March 21.
So, the times of the ecclesiastical Full Moons are not necessarily identical to the times of astronomical Full Moons.
Remember the dates when Easter can fall? The earliest date, March 22, last occurred in 1918 and won’t happen again until 2285. The latest Easter can occur is April 25, and that last happened in 1943. It will happen next in 2038.
Because Easter Sunday might occur across such a wide range of days, many of us can recall when the holiday brought freezing temperatures — and even snow — instead of sunshine and seersucker suits. Based on current weather forecasts, however, the primary chill in our part of the world this Sunday will be coming from air-conditioners running to keep folks comfortable.
In a season when there is so much to ponder and celebrate, the fact that calendars have Easter computed in advance is the least thing Christians have to be thankful about. Nevertheless, in case you’re planning ahead and don’t care to do the math, Easter will fall on April 9 in 2023, and on March 31 in 2024.
Regardless of when Easter is observed, it remains the most joyous observance on the Christian calendar. If this is your calling, it’s the most significant celebration of the year. It’s a day worth remembering — on every day of any year, regardless of what the calendar says.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.