“Alexa, when is Easter?” I asked, pre-stressing for what will be a very busy spring in the Office of Worship.
“Easter is Sunday, April 12,” the digital assistant chirped back.
Unlike Christmas, which we know happens on Dec. 25 every year, Easter moves around. It occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
The vernal equinox, which is the official beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, is the date on which the center of the sun is directly above the earth’s equator, and day and night are of equal length.
“Equinox” combines the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night). The vernal equinox always occurs around March 21, but it can vary a bit depending on time zones, leap year calculus, the slight tilt of the earth, and some other astronomical math that I don’t understand.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the church declared that March 21 would be fixed as the “ecclesiastical approximation” of the vernal equinox. Therefore, Easter can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.
Why is Easter’s date tied to the moon and the sun? We know from scripture that Jesus rose from the tomb early on the first Sunday following the feast of Passover. Passover should correspond with a full moon on the 15th of the Jewish month of Nisan.
However, the month-moon cycles often got out of sync, and so the rabbis would sometimes have to announce when Passover would be celebrated. This is how we derive the tradition of calculating Easter.
None of this matters much in the age of Alexa, Google, Siri and the others. Calendars are ubiquitous, and we trust their calculations without thinking. However, there was a time when the announcement of the date of Easter was of great practical and spiritual importance to the Christian people.
There is a very beautiful and very optional rite of the Proclamation of the Date of Easter, which can be inserted into Mass at the Epiphany, celebrated this year on Sunday, on Jan. 5.
A deacon or cantor chants, “Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.” Then follows a list of the coming year’s dates for Easter and other major celebrations of the church which are pegged to Easter, such as Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Ascension and Pentecost. The prayer concludes: “To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise for ever and ever.”
The proclamation is a bit obscure and rarely used, perhaps for good reason. Nevertheless, I’m glad it’s there. It’s a beautiful reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus in the rhythm of our lives. There are many ways to mark time in a year.
Farmers use the seasons, accountants use fiscal quarters, astrologers use the stars, sports fans use the team schedule and teachers use semesters. Christians mark time by Easter. From Easter’s placement, the rest of the liturgical year falls into place. As we turn the page to 2020, let us all reorient ourselves to the cross.