Parson to Person: “Why Is Easter So Hard to Predict?” March 19, 2021

In my sermon this past Sunday I mentioned that I would tell you how (and why) Easter varies so much from year to year. Although my original intention was to include this in my sermon, time limitations led me to put the explanation here instead. If you don’t care about such things, feel free to put this in your file of “Little- Known and Less-Cared-About Facts About Easter.”

This year Easter will be on April 4th; last year it was April 12th; and the year before that it was April 21st. It can come as early as March 22nd, and as late as April 25th–so it can vary by more than a month. How did this come to be? Well, the history is sort of interesting.

In the first three centuries of Christianity, many Christians celebrated Jesus’s resurrection from the dead on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan–or at the same time as Passover. This made sense at the time, since the night before Jesus died, he seems to have been celebrating a Passover meal with his disciples. So the Sunday after that seemed like a good way to celebrate his resurrection. The trouble with using that date, however, was that Christians were forced to depend on Jewish scholars to tell them when that date would be each year. They thought: We shouldn’t have to depend on a religion that we have separated from, to tell us when to celebrate our feast days. So when Christian bishops met at the Council of Nicea in the year 325–to vote on whether Jesus was God or not–they also voted on a date for Easter. They decided it had to be in spring, so it had to be after the vernal equinox. (Vernal from the Latin “ver” meaning “Spring” and “equi” meaning “equal” and “nox” meaning “night”–the time in spring when the night is equal to the day.)*

So, Jesus’s resurrection observance had to be in spring, which meant some time following March 21st. But the bishops wanted it to be fairly bright outside, even at night (to make it more convenient for traveling pilgrims), so they decided there had to be a full moon out too. And, of course they wanted it on a Sunday, since that was the day of the week they believed Jesus rose from the dead. So they made Easter fall on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the spring equinox. Sometimes that date comes as early as March 22nd. Sometimes it comes as late as April 25th. But it’s always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. (Again, little-known–and less-cared-about–facts, from your minister!)

Since we’re talking about Easter here, I thought I’d close with another one of those messages found in actual church bulletins (courtesy of our own Dean Johnson)–messages that end up being humorous without intending to be: “This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar.”

Martin Luther, credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, is reputed to have said: “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” Not bad advice, I say, for earth or heaven. So enjoy the spring season, everyone–whether you end up laying an egg or not!

peace and unrest,

tony