Why do they keep moving Easter?

Why do they keep moving Easter?

Every year I always enjoy reading fake April Fools stories in the newspapers. Here’s my favourite from last year, from a Devon newspaper, which claimed the Pope has postponed April Fools Day 2018 because of the clash with Easter Sunday. Quoting Papal spokesperson Pesce Daprile (that’s Italian for April Fool) they explained that instead there will be two April Fools Days in 2019: one on April 1st and the other on March 29th, when apparently the British government will be playing a massive practical joke on the country.

Unlike most April Fools Jokes, that’s not one we can endlessly reuse. In fact, April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday won’t coincide again until 2029, and then 2040, by which time most of us will have forgotten the punchline, though the government probably still won’t have sorted Brexit out.

So why does Easter keep moving? Well unlike Christmas, which has a fixed date, Easter has always been calculated in relation to the Jewish Passover festival, which occurs on the first full moon following the vernal equinox (typically March 20th or 21st). And this means that the date of Easter comes down to a question of maths and a bit of church politics.

Let’s do the maths first. Easter moves because our calendar is based on the 365¼ days it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. But the date of Easter is based on the 29½  days it takes for the Moon to cycle from new Moon to new Moon. If you divide 365¼ by 29½ you get 12.37 cycles of the moon a year. Which means that some years we get 12 new moons, but other years we get 13, and every year the date of the full moon shifts by 10-11 days.

Now let’s do the politics. Because they weren’t always sure when the Vernal Equinox was, the early church celebrated Easter on a number of different days. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, that a standard definition was agreed: Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following March 21st. Then, to avoid a clash with Passover, they also agreed that if the full moon fell on a Sunday, Easter would be delayed by a further week. Which is why Easter can happen any time between March 22nd and April 25th.

And with that settled, everyone was happy until 1582. This time the problem wasn’t politics, but maths, and the difference between the 365 days in the calendar and the 365¼ days it takes the earth to orbit the sun. Over time, those ¼ days add up, throwing the seasons out of alignment.

So Pope Gregory XIII proposed a new calendar containing an innovative idea: the leap year, and over time, virtually the whole world had adopted his “Gregorian Calendar”, except for the Orthodox Church. They still prefer the old Julian Calendar, which means that even to this day, Christians in Western and Eastern churches celebrate Easter on different dates.

At various times efforts have been made to reunite the dates. In 1997 the World Council of Churches proposed a new method of calculating Easter based on direct astronomical observation. The reform should have come in in 2001 but was not adopted.

Another failed reform was the UK Parliament’s Easter Act of 1928, which defined Easter as the first Sunday after the 2nd Saturday in April. The legislation passed through parliament, and remains on the statute book to this day, but has never been implemented because the government has always taken the view that to impose an Easter date on the church would be unreasonable.

Our current Archbishop has however indicated a willingness to allow change – as long as the Catholic and Orthodox churches agree to follow suit. Which could mean that one day soon, we’ll read a story in a newspaper, about a Pope postponing, not April Fools Day, but Easter Sunday!

This year Easter Sunday is 21st April, and there are events at all our churches in the week building up to the big day. You can find out what’s happening in your community by visiting www.hopechurchfamily.org/easter. However you celebrate Easter, I hope you have a very special time.

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2019

The Kingdom of Easter

Published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2019

 

The Kingdom of Easter

So what’s Easter really all about? The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? New beginnings? Flowers, chocolate and Easter bunnies?

To make sense of Easter you have to understand one thing: Jesus’ core message. So if you’ve just picked this magazine up at random, then read on – because if you grasp this, you’ll be well ahead of a lot of churchgoers!

The gospel of Mark sums up Jesus’ core message like this:

The time has come, the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14).

Jesus’ core message is as simple as that.

So what does this “Kingdom of God” mean? Maybe it’s like a religious frequent flyers club where you build up point for being good and doing religious things and being on church fundraising committees. Now those are all good things, but they aren’t what Jesus meant.

Or maybe the Kingdom of God is about politics: a way for religious leaders to motivate the masses to fight for whatever bit of land needs defending? But that’s not what Jesus had in mind, either.

Instead, think about kingdom like this: remember the days when you used to sit in the back seat of your parents’ car and fight with your brother or sister about “my side” and “your side”? Well, your “kingdom” is the bit of the seat you rule over. And that’s what the Kingdom of God is like: it’s the realm over which God rules: a realm of eternal love, peace and justice.

Now when some people hear that, they imagine Jesus means Heaven, but again that’s not what Jesus meant. The Kingdom of God isn’t about us going from down here on earth, to up there in Heaven. Instead, when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God his focus was on bringing up there down here. That’s why he taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom Come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” His point is not that we go up to Heaven, it’s that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming down to earth. And it all starts with Jesus. His body and life was the first place people could see God’s will being done on earth, as they would in Heaven.

That’s why he was such a threat to the rulers of his day. It wasn’t “love one another” that troubled them, it was all his talk about Kingdoms. That’s why they killed him. And that’s why God raised him from the dead: because in the Kingdom of God, there is no death. Only life in all its fullness, forever.

And that’s the point of Easter: a forever and a day promise of life in all its fullness, in the Kingdom of God; a Kingdom which is still near to us now.

And to receive it, we have to welcome it’s king, Jesus, by making him the centre of our lives. And when we do that –a little bit of “up there” comes and dwells in us, a deposit guaranteeing us all of God’s Kingdom promises for the future.

So that’s Easter: The Kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.  And it’s as true and accessible today as it was on the first Easter Sunday.

May you have a very Happy Easter, and may a little bit of “up there” come “down here” to dwell with you this Easter time.

Visit www.hopechurchfamily.org/easter to find out about Easter celebrations in the church in your community.

 

In a spirit of full disclosure, I might have pinched an idea or two for this article from a talk given by US Pastor John Ortberg on Easter Sunday 2015.

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