Monday, April 18, 2011

How the Easter Date is Determined and the Easter Vigil

The following two articles are by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. Used with Permission.


Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.

People often puzzle over the different dates on which Easter is celebrated. The different dates are determined by the different calendars used for reckoning Easter.

Biblical Background

In the Old Testament, the Jews celebrated the feast of Passover, or Pasch, in remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt. The Book of Exodus, chapter 12, tells the story.

Thereafter the celebration of Passover was begun on the fourteenth day of Nisan (Abib), the Paschal full moon following the spring equinox (Leviticus 23:5-8; Deuteronomy 16:1-8). Spring equinox is when day and night are equal.
The Jewish calendar, however, since it was a lunar calendar consisting of twelve or thirteenth months per year, caused difficulties in determining the day of the spring equinox. Consequently, Passover celebrations would begin on the full moon of either March or April of the Julian calendar.

The Gospel of St. John explicitly states that the death of Jesus coincided with the Paschal celebrations of the Jewish people (John 13:1; 19:31).

Early Christian History

The Christians in Asia Minor, Caesarea, Syria, and Mesopotamia observed Easter on the first day of the Jewish Passover. But the Christians in Rome and Egypt celebrated Easter on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover.
Pope St. Anicetus (155-166) supported the celebration of Easter on the Sunday after the Jewish Pasch. Pope St. Victor (189-198) upheld this practice.
Controversy ensued, and Pope St. Sylvester I resolved the matter at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, Asia Minor, in 325. The general council decreed that Easter be celebrated on the first Sunday following the Paschal full moon after the spring equinox.

The Julian Calendar 

From that time for 1,247 years Easter was celebrated on the same Sunday in the entire Christian Church -- East and West. According to the Julian calendar, March 21 was considered the day of the spring equinox in the Roman Empire.
Eventually the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar witnessed Christians in the sixteenth century celebrating Easter on different Sundays.

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar had originated the Julian calendar. The astronomers of his time calculated the solar year to have 365 days and six hours. Every fourth year became a leap year with 366 days. This was remarkably close, but each year was too long by 11 minutes and 14 seconds. This small difference accumulated to one day in 128 years. In addition the astronomers figured that the moon cycle of 19 years was exact, that is, that the full moon returned to the identical day and hour after 19 years. However, the cycle was too long by one hour and 29 minutes. This difference amounted to one day in 308 years. By the sixteenth century astronomers were alarmed that the Julian calendar was out of congruence with the seasons of the years by ten days, and with the cycles of the moon by four days.

The Gregorian Calendar 

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII asked the leading astronomers to correct these inaccuracies, and he proclaimed some changes in the Julian calendar. Regarding the solar year ten days were dropped from the calendar, and that year October 5 became October 15. In the future three leap years would be omitted every 400 years. To rectify the moon cycle the calendar full moon was drawn back four days. In the future the calendar full moons were to be drawn back one day eight times in 25 centuries. With these reforms the Julian calendar was brought very close to the astronomical solar year and the astronomical moon cycle.

The Gregorian calendar took its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who proclaimed it to the world.
The Catholic countries of Europe quickly accepted the new Gregorian calendar: Italy, France, Poland, Spain, and Portugal. The Protestant countries --
Germany, England (including North America), Denmark, Sweden, Norway -- adopted it about 200 years later. The non-Christian countries of Japan, China, Siam (Thailand), Turkey, Egypt, etc., accepted it about 350 years later. The Orthodox countries -- Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, and the patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria -- adopted it in the twentieth century in civil and historic matters only. They still observe religious feasts (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) according to the Julian calendar. This divergence can place the celebrations of Easter as much as five weeks apart.
In determining the date of Easter the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars grows each year.


Easter was very early in 2008 on March 23. Actually it can be one day earlier, March 22; but that rarely happens. That was the earliest Easter we will experience in our lifetime.

The next time Easter will be this early, March 23, will be in 2228. The last time it was this early was 1913.
The next time Easter falls on March 22, will be in 2285. The last time it was celebrated on March 22 was in 1818.

But what is really important is that Christ is risen. He is truly risen.


Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.

Knowing more about the Easter Vigil helps us to understand it, appreciate it, and live the Paschal Mystery on a deeper level.


From the outset the Easter Vigil, originally and more appropriately called the Paschal Vigil, has been celebrated at night. In the beginning it was a very plain ceremony – an assembly that ended with the breaking of the bread and an agape. One or more days of fasting preceded the Easter Vigil.

Later, as the Easter vigil developed in Rome and in places where the Roman rite was followed, this tradition added a baptismal rite, the ceremony of the lucernarium, blessing of the new fire, and a candlelight procession.

As it developed the Easter Vigil became more and more meaningful and focused. From the very first the celebration took place at night like the weekly Eucharist, because most of the faithful could not assemble during the day.
The evangelists already situated the discovery of the tomb “as the first day of the week was dawning” (Mt 28:1), very early” (Mk 16:2; Jn 20:1), “at dawn” (Lk 24:1). The thrust is that Jesus is the “light of the world” that came into the world as a “revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32).

Significance of the ceremony

In baptism the believer passes from death to life (Col 2:12). Ritually and really the neophyte, the newly baptized person, is plunged with Christ into death so as to come to new life with the one who “was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom 6:4). For this reason baptism is called “illumination” (in Biblical Greek, photismos) and the baptized, “illuminated.” Light is the dominant theme.
In our day, thanks to electricity, we can have as much light as we want whenever we want it. This was not the case in the past, when lighting the lamps in the evening was a rite. This was generally a happy occasion, when many lamps were lit as for a banquet at the beginning of the Sabbath on a Friday evening. Christians understood that this light which drives away the darkness is a symbol of the Christ-light.

The procession led by the Paschal Candle represents the journey of God’s people no longer led by a bright cloud but by the glorious light that shines on every person coming into the world(Jn 1:9). This rite is most solemn in the context of the great night illuminated by the resurrected Christ. This is eloquently explained in the solemn proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection that we now call the Exsultet.

Because all lights were extinguished on Holy Thursday evening, it is necessary to light a new flame in order to celebrate a liturgy at night. And so the ritual developed: the blessing of a new fire and the procession into the church led by the Paschal Candle as the celebrant intoned “Light of Christ!” and the faithful responded “Thanks be to God!”

Recession, then development

Over the centuries this celebration underwent some problems and waned in significance. As late as the thirteenth century the liturgy was still not entirely structured. Since the seventh century there had been a general decline, and this event was celebrated early in the day on Holy Saturday. When Pope St. Pius V reformed the Missal in the sixteenth century following the Council of Trent, he forbade the celebration of the Eucharist after midday. Consequently on Holy Saturday morning in churches brightened with sunlight and a barely perceptible flame on the Easter Candle, the celebrant sang, “O night truly blessed!” In addition very few people were able to attend this long liturgy on Holy Saturday morning. This added to its diminished appreciation.

The Biblical, patristic, theological, and liturgical renewal that began to swell in the 1920s indicated the unacceptability of this condition and the impoverishment of the Easter celebration. In 1951 Pope Pius XII authorized the celebration of the Easter vigil during the evening hours of Holy Saturday, and revised the rites to foster greater congregational participation. Then in 1955 he decreed that the Easter Vigil must take place at night. In our day we follow the “Missal of Pope Paul VI” promulgated in 1969 following the Second Vatican Council.
Today the Easter vigil has four parts: 1) the blessing of the fire, procession of the Easter Candle, and the chanting of the Exultet; 2) the Liturgy of the Word; 3) the baptismal liturgy, which includes at least the blessing of the water and the renewal of baptismal vows; 4) culminates in the Eucharistic liturgy.
This solemn celebration of the Lord’s resurrection is the zenith of the liturgical year, “the solemnity of solemnities.”

The challenge
While the spoken word is very important in the liturgy, we are called to be more alert to the symbolism, both in things and in actions. We are asked to approach with a receptive attitude, ready to be engaged in a way that appeals both to the mind and to the heart, to one’s whole being. We are invited to look attentively on the realities present in signs that cannot be fully captured in words. This is how we are called to participate fully in the Easter Vigil.
The Easter Vigil invites us to action -- to go forth and reflect the light of the resurrected Christ to the world around us.

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