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.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Someone recently told me he needed scientific proof before he could believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The problem is, it’s impossible to study past events under laboratory conditions!

Thankfully there are ways to probe the past: our legal system depends on it. No one demands scientific proof when it comes to a court case (though of course, we do use science to better understand some of the evidence). Instead, a jury uses the evidence to see which explanation (guilty or innocent) fits.

And we can do something similar with the resurrection. Listed below you’ll find seven common attempts to explain the first Easter. Let’s see which one best fits the evidence.

  1. Jesus rose from death.
  2. Jesus wasn’t dead, just unconscious, and exited the tomb when he recovered.
  3. Jesus’ disciples visited the wrong tomb.
  4. Jesus’ body was stolen by graverobbers.
  5. Jesus’ body was stolen by the Romans
  6. Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples so they could claim Jesus had risen.
  7. Jesus’ disciples hallucinated the whole thing.

Let’s start by making sure Jesus was dead. In the hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered an appalling beating leaving him significantly weakened. He was then crucified in classic Roman fashion (if you can stomach it, watch the Passion of the Christ to understand what he went through!) Wanting him dead before the Sabbath began at dusk, the Roman soldiers, who presumably knew a thing or two about killing, thrust a spear through his chest. From the description of the fluids flowing from the wound, it’s likely this perforated his lung, pericardium and heart. No reasonable doctor would suggest he was alive at this point.

But maybe his disciples went to the wrong tomb? The problem here is that the tomb wasn’t in an anonymous mass graveyard but a private burial cave in a garden belonging to a prominent citizen (Joseph of Arimathea). That’s a relatively easy thing to locate, which is why the Bible’s description of the reaction of Jesus’ followers to finding the tomb empty gives no hint that the location was in doubt.

So what about grave robbers? Let’s ignore the Romans guarding the tomb and the heavy stone sealing it and ask why anyone would want to rob the tomb? Jesus was known for his life of poverty, the only valuables in his tomb were the burial clothes – which his followers found left in the empty tomb. Why leave them and steal his body?

Maybe the Romans (or the Jewish authorities) took the body instead? They certainly had the opportunity, and perhaps a motive: to crush the Christian movement. But this begs an even bigger question: how much more damaging would it have been to produce the corpse when the disciples were running around Jerusalem telling people Jesus was alive?

So perhaps the disciples stole the body? For any resurrection conspiracy to work, you’d certainly have to get rid of Jesus’ body. The problem here is threefold.

  1. The gospels are pretty clear that the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
  2. If it was a conspiracy, making a group of women your main eye-witnesses makes no sense at all: women’s testimony had no weight in Jewish law.
  3. If the conspirators spent the rest of their lives lying about Jesus rising from the dead, it’s astonishing that no one ever told the truth. Charles Colson – one of the Watergate conspirators – said:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one  was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and  they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re  telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years?  Absolutely impossible.

Having ruled out most of the alternatives, what evidence is there that Jesus rose from death? Two strands of evidence are particularly helpful.

First, we have multiple eye-witness accounts of people seeing the risen Jesus. St Paul tells us Jesus appeared to Peter, “and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1Corinthians 15:5-6). “Still living” is an invitation for doubters to go and meet the 500 eye-witnesses who saw the risen Jesus and ask them about it!

Now you might respond by saying they were hallucinating? But the sightings of Jesus don’t fit any pattern of mass hallucination that modern psychology is aware of. There was no expectation that Jesus would rise, there’s no use of narcotics, and Jesus was seen in different places by different groups of people, who interacted with him, touched him and even ate with him.

My second strand of evidence supporting the resurrection is the remarkable transformation in the disciples. Jesus’ arrest and execution left them distraught, demoralised, and afraid. Yet six weeks later they’re standing on street corners and in the Temple fearlessly proclaiming that they have seen the risen Jesus – a message that shook Jerusalem to its core and which despite huge persecution, spread rapidly outwards through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the Earth: even rural Worcestershire.

Modern science first came up with the Big Bang theory because scientists looked at our rapidly expanding universe and concluded that something pretty remarkable (a big bang) had to have set everything in motion. It’s the same with Christianity. When you look at the rapid expansion of the early church it’s clear something remarkable happened to set everything in motion. Which of the explanations do you think best fits the evidence?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2018

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If you’d like to read more on arguments about the resurrection, Who Moved the Stone? By Frank Morison, a sceptic who set out to disprove the resurrection is a great place to start. Or catch the film Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes.

Got a big question about God?