Christmas is always on Dec. 25. Why isn’t Easter on the same date every year?
Some years, Easter comes in late March when the weather is still wintry. Other years, Easter comes in late April after the redbuds, dogwoods and azaleas have begun to bloom. Why does the date vary? When is the right time to celebrate Easter?
That very question caused considerable debate and controversy in the early church. A quarrel broke out in the middle of the second century between church leaders in Rome and those in Asia Minor regarding the appropriate date for celebrating Easter.
The practice in the East was to observe Easter according to the moon, regardless of the day of the week the observance fell on. The practice in Rome was to wait until the following Sunday.
Bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, represented the East, and Bishop Anicetus represented the West. Since they could not agree on the date, they each continued to observe Easter according to their own conviction. The controversy became so intense that it threatened the harmony of the Christian world.
Councils were called in Rome and Palestine to debate the merits of both arguments. Most of the participants generally favored celebrating Easter on Sunday. When the Bishop from Ephesus and many of the churches in Asia Minor refused to change their practice, they were declared “excommunicated” from the church by Bishop Victor of Rome.
Later, the Council of Nicea, convened by Augustine in A.D. 325, affirmed the calculation used to determine the official date of Easter. That calculation is still used today.
Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon falling on or after March 21. Therefore, Easter cannot come before March 22 or after April 25.
“Easter” was originally the name of a pre-Christian spring festival held in honor of an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre. However, the name was seized by Christian believers and converted to a day of worship and feasting to commemorate the resurrection of Christ.
Many of our Easter customs have been handed down from ancient times.
The white lily, often called the “Easter lily,” has become a symbol of resurrection. The Easter rabbit and colored Easter eggs are symbols of new life. Colored eggs are usually painted or dyed with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring. Early in the Christian era, the newly baptized wore white garments signifying light, purity and joy. White is now the liturgical color of Easter.
Although Easter traditions vary among faith traditions, all believers recognize Easter as a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.