Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 1999
One date for Easter
Eastern, Western churches reluctant to overcome visible sign of division
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001 might be a good starting point for Christian unity.
This could be the baptismal date of an ongoing initiative to have all Christians - Roman Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox alike - celebrate Easter or Pascha, as it is referred to in the Eastern churches, on the same date every year.
This could be the beginning of a shared commonality for all Christians or another failed attempt at unity.
Since its initial proposal in 1997, the World Council of Churches has continued to lobby for a common Easter date among Eastern and Western churches.
Easter and Pascha dates can differ by as much as five weeks. But the likelihood of the WCC achieving success in the next two years seems small, even to those on the front lines.
Dagmar Heller, WCC's executive secretary for Faith and Order, said there has been good response to the initiative. She concedes that it might be difficult to reach unanimous agreement between all the churches by 2001, "but in the long term, I would be optimistic."
Supporters of one Easter date insist it will only strengthen the unity of Christians worldwide.
Those gritting their teeth at the preposterous idea say live and let live.
Father Evan Lowig, pastor at several Orthodox parishes in the Lamont-Andrew region, northeast of Edmonton, said "I don't see one common date as a priority."
The Eastern and Western churches agree on one thing - that Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox.
That principle was set by the Council of Nicea in the year 325. The method used for calculating this date is where it becomes a thorny issue.
Since the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection place these events in conjunction with the Jewish Passover, Christians celebrated Easter a week after Passover for many years.
That was until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the reformed Gregorian calendar to correct inaccuracies in the Julian calendar. The Gregorian calendar is now used throughout the world, but the Orthodox generally follow the Julian calendar for their holy days.
"Let's just hope we don't end up seeing three calendars after this," joked Bishop Lawrence Huculak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton.
After a consultation in March 1997, the World Council of Churches released the Aleppo Statement, named after the Syrian city where the conference was held.
Following the consultation, the WCC said having two dates for Easter "gives a divided witness and compromises the churches' credibility and effectiveness in bringing the Gospel to the world."
The WCC suggested setting a common Easter date by 2001. In this year, the Eastern and Western dates for the celebration coincide under the existing calendars. It was an ideal year for "a clean start."
The WCC suggested using modern astronomy to calculate a common Easter date using Jerusalem as the meridian where the calculations are made.
In theory, the WCC's proposal has merit. But getting staunch Christians to applaud the theory is difficult.
"To do this, they have to get all the bishops in the Orthodox churches in the world to agree on it," said Lowig. "I have to be honest, in the Orthodox Church, it's not flying."
Lowig cited conservatism and "undue rigidness" as reasons for a lack of acceptance from some Orthodox Christians. He said some churches are still adjusting to the fixed feasts, such as Christmas.
The change would also have a far greater impact on the Eastern churches. In 13 of the first 20 years of the new century, the date of Pascha would be different under the proposed new system than it would otherwise be under the current Eastern one.
For the Western churches, the date of Easter would change in only one year from the current system.
This year, the congregations of the Western churches will be singing "Christ Has Risen" on April 4, while their Orthodox counterparts prepare for the lamentation of Christ's death followed by his resurrection April 11.
Some Ukrainian Catholic parishes, like St. George's in Edmonton, still use the Julian calendar to determine holy days.
When many Ukrainians immigrated to the West, some converted to the western Easter date for the sake of convenience.
Huculak supports the WCC initiative, but doesn't see a big problem with the dual dates that still occur in his eparchy.
"For some priests, it can be a bit of a help," Huculak said. "Especially for a priest who looks after several country parishes. It's easier for him to provide services when there are separate dates."
There is some tension between Easter and Pascha celebrants, one that Huculak calls a simple misunderstanding.
"Some say, 'We're being more traditional keeping with the true time of the event' and others will say 'We're more modern, keeping up with the times.'
"But there's no big formal doctrine that says either are wrong."
The process in healing such misunderstanding is slow.
This month, Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, asked the LWF's 124 member churches to study the proposal for a common Easter.
Last year, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops endorsed the plan.
The initiative continues to be a debate of East versus West, traditionalism versus modernization.
Many have cited the need for a common Easter date for the sake of countries like those in the Middle East where the sight of Christians divided over the date of Easter has become a highly visible sign of weakness to a non-Christian society.
But the reality of Easter and Pascha co-existing on a singular date each year is not in the grasp for 2001.
"For the Easter celebration to occur on the same date by that time, there may be some stumbling blocks," said Father Stephen Wojcichowsky, religion coordinator for Edmonton Catholic Schools. "But I absolutely feel it's essential to happen.
"Our Christian feast has become so secularized. We have to find that union where we can celebrate it as one."