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Why is Easter so late?

2011 April 18
by Paul Vallely

I was asked to go on the radio the other day to explain why Easter has been so long coming. The feast is almost as late as it can get this year. Sunday is 24th April, and that is only one day before the latest permissible date on which the festival can fall, the earliest date being 22nd March. This seriously messes up the school holidays and parental childcare planning, I was told. Whatever happened to the Easter Act of 1928?

Nothing, is the answer. In 1928 the British Parliament agreed to fix the date of Easter so that it always fell on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The trouble was the bill also included a caveat to the effect that, before the act could come into effect “regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body”. That, as you might imagine, gave an awful lot of scope for an awful lot of people to insert what John Lennon memorably called a Spaniard in the works at any point. Agreement has never been forthcoming.

From time to time we get a flurry of activity on this. Last year it came up a lot in the private discussions at the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East where a common date for Easter was seen as a potential symbol of unity which could allow the Roman Catholics of the West, the Latin Catholics of the East and a goodly number even of the Orthodox to celebrate the Resurrection at the same time.

It had been raised in the General Synod of the Church of England the year before when clerics expressed concern at the needless headache and confusion that the moveable feast caused in school timetables, family life and in the national economy – though that has been reduced considerably since more than 30 local education authorities now have a fixed Spring Holiday for schools in March or April, with Easter marked only by the Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays.

I’m all for the churches celebrating Easter on the same day, if they can agree how to do that. It won’t be easy. Some Christians see differences over Easter as part of what constitutes their distinctiveness and rightness. There are not just the Gregorian and Julian calendars somehow to reconcile. There are also astronomical issues. In the West the formula is that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. But we have fixed that equinox as 21st March, which is not astronomically so precise. But let the church historians, astronomers and theologians do their best.

Yet I don’t at all see why we should succumb to secular pressure to fix Easter on a calendar date – to make all school terms the same length, or allow industry to somehow co-ordinate the bank holiday calendar to the business cycle.

The fact that Easter is fixed with reference to both the solar and the lunar calendars keeps us in touch with something more rooted than the tarmac veneer of modern materialism. Part of the richness of human existence comes from the interaction of the complex rhythmic cycles which rule our lives.

There is the circle of the seasons, with its subtle variations (we have had all our fruit and blossom trees in flower at the same time this year in place of the usual familiar sequence). There is the circadian clock of our body which regulates our metabolism and our different kinds of sleep in line with the diurnal patterns of our day. There are the phases of the moon, which pull on our cycles of reproduction as well as our tides. There is the church calendar, which combines the linear process of history with the mystery of eternity to create an annual liturgical circle.

So let the school holidays fall where it suits the bureaucrats best. But let us see the movability of the celebration of resurrection as a bension rather than a burden.

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