By Petros Vassiliadis*
In an online, interconfessional and interdisciplinary meeting, organized by the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES), on Sunday, April 4, the day of celebration of Pascha in western Christianity, and symbolically this year the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross of the Orthodox Church, theologians and natural scientists wondered whether the Orthodox celebrate Pascha this year in accordance with the Holy Tradition, and specifically with the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (of the “Holy and Great” according to our tradition). Namely, one month after the Easter of the Christians of the West.
At the meeting, in addition to the members of the Center: its President Niki Papageorgiou, Professor of sociology of religion at the Department of Theology of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH), the theologian and physicist, professor at the same department, Petros Panagiotopoulos, Emer.
Professor Petros Vassiliadis, President in honor of CEMES and director of the Orthodox Postgraduate Program in “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology” of the International Hellenic University, Emer. Professor at the University of Graz, Grigorios Larentzakis, and its General Secretary, Prof. at the International Hellenic University and of the master’s Program in Anatolia, Nikolaos Demitriadis, were also the Archbishop of the Catholics, Emer. Professor Ioannis Spiteris, and the professors at the Department of Physics of AUTH, Argyrios Nikolaidis and Loukas Vlachos.
At the same time, and on the occasion of the common desire of the Primate of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Francis, and of the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, to celebrate Easter together in Nicaea of Bithynia in 2025, the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council, which that year coincides with the celebration of Pascha in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, they asked themselves about the reasons the efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate a whole century now (from the historic patriarchal and synodal encyclical of 1920 “to all Churches of Christ on earth” for a common celebration of Easter) have not been successful.
It is worth noting the case of Milutin Milankovic, a prominent Serbian Orthodox scholar, at the Pan-Orthodox Synod that followed in 1923 and suggested a Revised Julian Calendar, more accurate than the Gregorian, which because of internal reactions of extreme conservatives, who preferred a calendar named after a pagan emperor (Julian), rather than a Christian pope (Gregory)! Of course, his proposal, ideal until today for the immovable feasts of Christianity (Christmas, Epiphany, etc.), finally created the problems that this year are more than obvious, and moreover, his own Serbian Church did not adopt his proposal.
Recent reactions provoked by an article of the Archbishop of Telmissos, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and its Permanent Representative to the World Council of Churches, Job (Getcha) on the vision of a common celebration in Nicaea for the 1700th anniversary of the convocation of the First Ecumenical Council, inevitably led to the question: Are the Christians of the West or the Orthodox of the East closer to the decision and the spirit of the First Ecumenical Council, as some Orthodox academic theologians have hinted at times, while at the same time trying to explain “why do the Orthodox celebrate Easter on a different day than other Christians”.
At this point it is worth noting the practical/pastoral, but also deeply ecumenical, decision of the Catholics, but also of the Evangelicals, in our country to celebrate Pascha not with their fellow believers all over the world, but together with the Orthodox.
The conclusion of the statements of the interlocutors of the above online event was that there is a misunderstanding by some Orthodox, who believe that the reason for a different celebration of Pascha is due to the fact that the Orthodox Church follow the rules for calculating the date of Pascha as decided by the Ecumenical Council.
They insist that the Council in Nicaea in 325 AD demanded to wait for the Jews to celebrate Passover before the Orthodox celebrate their Pascha.
But this is not sufficiently documented, simply estimating that the main provision of Nicaea was that the Christian Pascha should not be associated with the Jewish Passover (Peshah, Passover, etc.), which came from a misinterpretation of later holy canons (the first of Antioch and the sevent of the Holy Apostles), which in essence forbid celebrating together with the Jews, not dissociating it with the Jewish Passover, as both the Gospel accounts (Synoptics and according to John alike) and the Ecumenical Church itself, claim exactly the opposite.
The Nicene Council solved the practical problems of the different celebrations of Pascha among Christian communities at the beginning of the 4th c. AD, established that the Christian Easter should not be celebrated together with the Jewish Passover, that is, the same day as the spring full moon, the 14th/15th of the Jewish Nisan.
On the contrary, deciding to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the full moon of the vernal equinox, it associated forever Christian Easter with the Jewish Passover, without of course identifying it with it.
Most importantly, it was decided Pascha to be celebrated independently of the various calendars (mostly lunar at that time), but calculated it solely on astronomical scientific data (spring equinox and first spring full moon after it). That is why the Church instructed the Patriarch of Alexandria, a leading center of astronomy in the ancient world, to determine the exact time of the celebration of Pascha.
In 455 AD the dynamic Pope of Rome Leo the Great, the one who insisted on the papal primacy, accepted the recommendation of Alexandria, although he was universally recognized as the first in rank.
The vernal equinox used today by the Orthodox Church to calculate Easter is not the actual astronomical equinox, nor was the full moon followed in the Orthodox celebration of Easter with the real, astronomical full moon.
To put it in simple words, the best available calendar and the best science available are no longer used to calculate the Orthodox Pascha.
And this has led the Orthodox to calculate it very often not in accordance with the real astronomical data (spring equinox and full moon). And this has often as a result, like this year, a celebration of Pascha much later in the spring! According to the scientists, this year not only the spirit of the council (common celebration) is being ignored, but also its regulatory decisions (spring equinox, first and not…fifth Sunday, and first and not second full moon).
This year the difference is a whole month. Western Easter was estimated and celebrated on April 4, while Orthodox Pascha a month later (based on the Julian calendar on May 2).
And this, as our Physicist colleagues have confirmed, despite the fact that today the scientific methods have significantly advanced so that we know with a reliable accuracy the dates of the vernal equinox and the full moon for each given year.
In contrast, today the Orthodox Church uses a complex mathematical formula for calculating Easter and the most inaccurate calendar (currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and in fact, based on accurate astrological data, 14 days), and in addition an unreliable mathematical algorithm for calculating the full moon, based on an outdated lunar cycle of 19 years (the Metonic cycle).
The Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1920 suggested that all the Churches use a common calendar so that Christians in the East and the West could celebrate the great Christian feasts together.
However, divisive reactions to the adoption of a new calendar and re-calculation of Easter led to a compromise that allowed the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches to choose either the Old Calendar (Julian) or the New (Gregorian) for the immovable feasts and for determining the movable (the celebration of Pascha) a revised Julian Calendar, which as we have already mentioned caused, if nothing else, a complete unreliability in our Orthodox Church.
The issue was also addressed relatively recently by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. In 1997, with the consent and support by both the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they organized an ecumenical conference in Aleppo, Syria, on a common celebration of Easter.
In addition to the Pan-Orthodox Synod of 1923 other attempts to solve the problem had preceded: the ecumenical conference of Chambésy in 1970, which put as a main priority the religious concept of Easter and Christian unity, and the preparatory consultation of the Pan-Orthodox Holy and Great Synod of 1977, with the participation of leading Orthodox positive scientists.
The proposal of the Aleppo Conference, with the consent of all Protestant denominations, was to maintain the ecumenical decision of Nicaea, that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon that followed the vernal equinox.
At the same time, for the calculation of astronomical data (spring equinox and full moon), the most accurate scientific data should be taken into account.
Finally, for the first time, it was proposed to determine the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, as the basis for the determination of the spring full moon.
More substantial, however, was the theological substantiation of the compromise (without the use of either the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, but a third scientific one, more accurate than the Gregorian one) and ecumenical recommendation, which were elaborated jointly by all three main families of the Christian faith.
First, the Church should not forget its origins, by including the close connection between the biblical (Jewish) Passover and the passion and resurrection of Christ. This connection reflects the overall course of the history of salvation, i.e. of the divine economy. In assessing a movable date (and not a fixed one, as suggested from time to time) this link and reference to biblical standards for calculating Easter is strengthened.
And secondly, the cosmic dimension of the Christian Easter should not be overlooked. Through Christ’s resurrection the sun, the moon and all the cosmic elements are restored to their original integrity in order to declare the glory of God (cf. “how clearly the sky reveals God’s glory! How plaintly it shows what He has done!”, Psalm 19:1, and “ praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him shining stars” (Psalm 148:3), while at the same time the close relationship between creation and recreation, that is, incarnation and redemption, are revealed as inseparable aspects of the divine revelation.
Unfortunately, these thoughts and recommendations to the churches and Christian communities for further elaboration on the findings of the Aleppo conference have not been followed to this very day.
And for us Orthodox, at the insistence of the Autocephalous Churches that follow the Julian calendar for their immovable feasts (mainly, until very recently, by the Russian one), the issue of the calendar was withdrawn from the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Synod.
Approaching in 4 years, in 2025, the 1700th anniversary of the Εcumenical Council of Nicaea, which decreed for a common celebration of Pascha for all Christians, it is time for Orthodox Christians to follow in the footsteps of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and start discussing again the important issue of the calculation of a common celebration of Easter by all Christians, beyond any prejudices and misinterpretations of the historical and canonical data.
A calculation that according to the spirit of the First Ecumenical Council requires the use of a more accurate calendar, beyond the Julian (old) and Gregorian (currently in use by most Orthodox Churches for unmovable holidays), as well as more accurate scientific (astrological) calculations.
The Holy and Great Council, moreover, has decreed at the highest dogmatic level, that “for the Orthodox Church, the ability to explore the world scientifically is a gift from God to humanity.” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church, par. 11). And in her Message (par. 7) urbi et orbi it assured that “in regard to the matter of the relations between Christian faith and the natural sciences, the Orthodox Church avoids placing scientific investigation under tutelage and does not adopt a position on every scientific question.
She thanks God who gives to scientists the gift of uncovering unknown dimensions of divine creation. The modern development of the natural sciences and of technology is bringing radical changes to our life. It brings significant benefits, such as the facilitation of everyday life”.
In other words, the “Orthodox” (confessional and essential) Pascha should be celebrated again every year on the first Sunday after the – astrologically/scientifically calculated – first full moon, after the vernal equinox, in the spirit of the First Ecumenical Council.
*Petros Vassiliadis is an Emeritus Professor of the Department of Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, President in Honour of the Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES) and of the World Conference of Associated Theological Institutions (WOCATI)
* The articles express the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of orthodoxtimes.com