Why Two Easters?

As Orthodox Christians world-wide prepare to celebrate Pascha (Easter) on Sunday, April 19, 2020, I would like to shed some light on the reasons why the Orthodox Christian Church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ later than other Christians. While the issue can seem complicated, two factors often cause the difference in dates:  the use of different calendars and the adherence of the Orthodox Church to practices of the early Christian Church.

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When determining the date of Easter, or Pascha as the Orthodox Church refers to the Feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection, the Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar when calculating the date.  The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. There is a 13-day difference between the two, the Julian calendar being 13 days behind the Gregorian.

The second factor that the Orthodox Church uses to determine the date of Pascha is a directive established by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  During the first three centuries of Christianity, there was no universal date for celebrating the Feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection.  Churches in various parts of the world, and even those in the same city, followed different traditions. Some Christians celebrated Pascha on the first Sunday after Jewish Passover.  Others celebrated the feast at the same time as Passover. To eliminate confusion and division for celebrating Pascha, the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD addressed the issue. They devised a formula for calculating the date of Pascha that adhered to the early traditions of the Church and the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

In its most simplistic terms, Pascha is to be celebrated on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, following the vernal equinox, but always after Jewish Passover. To ensure that there was no confusion as to when the vernal equinox occurred, the ecclesial authorities established the date as March 21 (April 3 on the Julian calendar). The entire church accepted this formula, ensuring that Pascha was celebrated on the same day throughout the world.

As a consequence of these two factors, the Orthodox Church usually celebrates Pascha later than the Western Churches – anywhere from one to five weeks later. While this year Western Easter is April 9, 2020, the Orthodox Church will celebrate Pascha next Sunday, April 19, 2020.  Occasionally all Christians celebrate Pascha on the same day. The last time that occurred was in 2017, and the next time will be in 2025.