Scholar’s Compass: Lent and Easter’s Timing

The time when Easter is ordained to take place is, like the Paschal celebrations as a whole, redolent with sacred mystery. In the first place, we are careful to wait until after the equinox to celebrate the Lord’s Passover . . . so that the feast-day on which the Mediator between God and man, having destroyed the power of darkness, opened the way of light for the world, might show its inner [significance] by means of the order of time. — Bede, 0 (trans. Faith Wallis)

Reflection

It was a revelation to one of my Jewish students when she realized that the holidays she cherished tied the rhythms of her life throughout the year to the agricultural and social cycles of ancient Israel. What had begun as a term paper about the Jewish calendar had become an intellectual journey that transformed these days from mere dates in the Gregorian calendar into moments of meaning connected to her heritage.

One of these holidays is Passover—the feast of unleavened bread. For us, it is commemorated in the Last Supper. There Jesus instructed his disciples on the connection between the history of Passover, the present time of his impending passion, and the future of the Church. The next day, Jesus would be crucified, and on the third day after that he would rise from the dead.

Often, this sequence of holy days appears as dates on the calendar. Even worse, these are unpredictable dates that wander about from year to year. They lack the reliability of Christmas. Everything from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost seems irregular. However, this apparent wandering has some intriguing symbolism.

In the timing of Easter, the early church emphasized the symbolism of light. The spring equinox marked when the length of day—hence light—began to be greater than the length of night—hence darkness. Full moons are not just the brightest nights, but the time when the moon fully reflects the Sun’s rays toward Earth. In astrological thinking (which was part of astronomy in the early church), Sunday was the day that the Sun’s influence was the greatest. Easter symbolized the victory of light over darkness, and its correct timing in relationship to the Sun was consequently important. As Bede wrote, “what the light of eternal beatitude promises us is most fully celebrated when the light of the Sun, progressing according to its yearly increase, wins its first victory over the shadow of night.” Just as Christ’s birth occurred at the darkest time of year, Easter celebrated the end of this darkest time and the victory of light.

Lent prepares us so that the seeming irregularity of the timing of Resurrection Sunday does not take us by surprise. As in the parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-13), Lent is a time to make sure we have enough oil to keep our lamps lit until the bridegroom comes. It is the time of literal darkness in which we should cultivate our light. Since Easter’s timing seems so irregular, we are a bit like the virgins with the lamps—not entirely sure when the groom will arrive. Lent teaches us to tend our light.

Questions

1. What do I do to give meaning to moments in time?

2. What will I do during the Lenten season to break from my routine in order to cultivate Christ’s light?

Prayer

SIGNS, SEASONS, DAYS AND YEARS
By Margaret Adams Birth

Originally published in Penned from the Heart, v. 18 (Son Rise Publications, 2012)

“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years. . . .” (Genesis 1:14, KJV)

Good morning, Lord.
Thank You for this new day.
Thank You for the light of dawn
that shines through nightmare-darkness,
that slips through fear’s shadows in my heart.

Good afternoon, God.
Thank You for this bright zenith.
Thank You for this view of Heaven’s heights
that encompasses my daily comings and goings,
that watches over my every move.

Good night, Father.
Thank You for the moon in all its phases.
Thank You for this lesser light
that is always there—like You—
that shows its fullness to me, in the fullness of Your time.
Bio: Margaret Adams Birth has her first chapbook of poetry, Borderlands, forthcoming. She also writes “sweet” secular and Christian fiction as Maggie Adams, mystery stories as Rhett Shepard, and short nonfiction as Margaret Birth. You can find her author page at www.facebook.com/MaggieAdamsRhettShepard, where she will provide updates on the release of Borderlands and her other writing.

Further Reading

Augustine. Letter to Januarius (epistle 55). Available at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm.

Bede. The Reckoning of Time. Faith Wallis, trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Further Notes On Easter’s Timing

The apparent wandering of Easter is somewhat illusory. Just as the landscape appears to move when we travel in a car, train, or plane, it is the calendar that moves relative to Passover. Passover is the same day every year in the Jewish calendar. Passover is always the 14th day of Nisan. Passover always must fall after the spring equinox. To ensure this, an extra lunar month is sometimes inserted into the Jewish calendar to keep it roughly reconciled with the solar year. Since Passover is the same date every year in the Jewish calendar, Passover only moves in the Roman-derived Gregorian calendar that dominates our lives. One would think that since the Last Supper was a Passover meal, Lent and Easter would occur at about the same time every year relative to the Jewish calendar.

It is not that simple. The Nicene Council determined the timing of Easter stating that it should be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This was a convoluted—and unfortunately anti-Semitic—way of creating a rubric that would not directly tie Easter to Passover and yet still result in the two days being around the same time each year. This decree created a challenge, however. To observe Lent, one needed to be able to predict when Easter Sunday would be. This was no easy task, and the job fell onto scholars who used the astronomy of the time to create tables that would allow parish priests to be able to accomplish such calculations reasonably well. Eventually, the Venerable Bede came up with the tables that would be used for many centuries, and according to another Anglo-Saxon, Byrthfert, before a priest was allowed to serve a parish, the priest had to demonstrate the ability to determine when Easter was, and consequently the start of Lent. Now we just look up all of this on the Internet.

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Kevin Birth

Kevin Birth is a professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He studies cultural concepts of time in relationship to cognition, and has conducted ethnographic research in Trinidad and on the current leap second controversy. His publications and presentations cover a wide ranging array of topics including chronobiology and globalization, comparative calendars, timekeeping in Roman Britain, culture and memory, cognitive neuroscience, early modern clocks, and ideas about roosters in the Middle Ages. He is the author of three books: Any Time is Trinidad Time (University Press of Florida), Bacchanalian Sentiments (Duke University Press), and most recently Objects of Time (Palgrave Macmillan).

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2 Comments

  • David Parry commented on March 18, 2015 Reply

    There was also controversy about the date of Easter between the Celtic Christians of Britain and the Roman missionaries, such as St Augustine of Canterbury, and their followers. Bede got quite heated about how many British Christians violated the unity of the church by celebrating Easter on the wrong day. I find these comments by Bede about the Celtic bishop Aidan entertaining and sad at the same time, though at least Bede recognised Aidan as a brother despite his heretical dating of Easter:
    “These things I greatly admire and love in the aforesaid bishop, because I do not doubt that they were pleasing to God; but I do not approve or praise his observance of Easter at the wrong time, either through ignorance of the canonical time appointed, or, if he knew it, being prevailed on by the authority of his nation not to adopt it.375 Yet this I approve in him, that in the celebration of his Easter, the object which he had at heart and reverenced and preached was the same as ours, to wit, the redemption of mankind, through the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven of the Man Christ Jesus, who is the mediator between God and man. And therefore he always celebrated Easter, not as some falsely imagine, on the fourteenth of the moon, like the Jews, on any day of the week, but on the Lord’s day, from the fourteenth to the twentieth of the moon; and this he did from his belief that the Resurrection of our Lord happened on the first day of the week, and for the hope of our resurrection, which also he, with the holy Church, believed would truly happen on that same first day of the week, now called the Lord’s day.”
    (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, trans. A. M. Sellar (1907), p. 171 from Project Gutenberg ebook: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38326/38326-h/38326-h.html

  • Kevin Birth commented on March 18, 2015 Reply

    David is correct. In addition to Bede’s account in his ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND, anybody who wants to get into the gory details of the debate over the timing of Easter should read Charles W. Jones’ introduction (in English) to his edition of BEDAE OPERA DE TEMPORIBUS. For those who don’t read Latin, Faith Wallis’ translation of this key work of Bede’s on time reckoning is among the additional readings at the end of my blog.

    It is an interesting element of the history of the Church that the Easter question was settled in Northumbria at the Synod of Whitby and not in Rome. The extent to which Northumbria loomed large in the Church’s thinking about time in the early Middle Ages is not only attested by Whitby and the importance of Bede’s works for teaching time reckoning, but also the presence of the Northumbrian Alcuin in Charlemagne’s court, as well as the influence of Rabanus Maurus. A nice book on how important Northumbrian time science was is Stephen McCluskey’s ASTRONOMIES AND CULTURES IN EARLY MEDIEVAL EUROPE.

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