Science, history, unshakable faith behind Easter’s moving date

Amanda Schwengel - aschwengel@nwherald.com
The Rev. Ken Gibson washes the feet of Tyler Brown, as well as 11 other students who soon will be confirmed, on Maundy Thursday at Grace Lutheran Church in Woodstock. The act symbolizes how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Student Jakob Brink looks on, while Lily Kunzie reads from the pulpit.
Amanda Schwengel - aschwengel@nwherald.com The Rev. Ken Gibson washes the feet of Tyler Brown, as well as 11 other students who soon will be confirmed, on Maundy Thursday at Grace Lutheran Church in Woodstock. The act symbolizes how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Student Jakob Brink looks on, while Lily Kunzie reads from the pulpit.

Wondering why Easter’s so late this year? Don’t blame the bunny. It actually has to do with the moon, the spring equinox, and a decision made by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to make the holiday a “movable feast.” Even after that decision, it is believed the date varied for a while among churches.

Confusing matters a bit more, Easter can fall on 35 possible dates between March 22 and April 25, and those dates repeat every 5.7 million years.

Do a little math, study your astronomy, watch the sky, and you could figure out the date of Easter every year on your own. Sounds simple enough, right?

No?

“There are calendars online. God invented the Internet for a reason,” joked the Rev. Michael Pfingsten of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Harvard.

Put simply, the holiday is always the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Calculated out, that makes this year’s Easter one of the latest of all time. That’s probably all you really wanted to confirm anyway.

But if you’re still curious, keep reading. When the subject comes up, perhaps you’ll be able to impress your friends a bit.

Suzanne Willis, Northern Illinois University professor and assistant chair of the Department of Physics, offered a simple explanation.

The first full day of spring is set as March 21, regardless of the timing of the actual equinox – the day in which night and day have approximately equal length. And Easter is set as the first Sunday after the full moon following March 21.

So if the full moon falls on March 21, and March 21 is a Saturday, Easter could be as early as March 22.

“You don’t actually have to have a calendar,” Willis said. “If you sit around and watch the sky, you can tell when the equinox is. ... Now let’s watch for the next full moon. Then the following Sunday is Easter.”

It goes back to prehistoric times when calendars didn’t exist, and dates were determined by the changing sky.

The full moon was chosen as a guide because that was the date of Passover in the Jewish calendar, and the Last Supper is believed to have occurred on the Passover. (The exact date of the full moon is an approximation because it can fall on different days in different time zones.)

Most probably don’t know all these details. What’s more important, church leaders say, is that they know the meaning behind Easter – a celebration of the day in which Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead.

To help provide that meaning, churches throughout the area host numerous services throughout the Holy Week proceeding Easter. As part of a Stations of the Cross at the First United Methodist Church in Crystal Lake, rooms within the church were transformed into visual interpretations and a sort of timeline of what Jesus went through before being crucified.

“It’s very contemplative, very meditative for a lot of people because we don’t always think of all (who) went through that journey from sentencing to resurrection,” said Alison Wild, director of communications for First United Methodist Church in Crystal Lake

Many church leaders like that the actual date of Easter is tied to beliefs and tradition from centuries past.

“It’s what I would call the rhythm of the church,” said the Rev. Ken Gibson of Grace Lutheran Church in Woodstock. “In a world that doesn’t necessarily follow anything, I call it a joyous rhythm that is known and embraced.”

Consult the Internet, however, and you’ll see that in years past, some have called for changes to the somewhat complicated way in which the date is set. Eastern Orthodox Christians continue to celebrate the holiday on a different timeline than Western Christians.

Failed clergy proposals have suggested the holiday should always fall on the second Sunday in April.

While it is widely believed that Easter must always occur on a Sunday because Sunday was the day of Christ’s resurrection, according to Cambridge University Professor Colin Humphreys in his book “Mystery of the Last Supper,” Easter should fall on April 5.

Humphreys suggests that the Last Supper took place on the Wednesday before the crucifixion, which he believes fell on April 3.

Most probably don’t think twice about the date, unless perhaps they work for Hallmark or other businesses trying to build advertising campaigns around the changing date.

“For the average person in the pew, we’re used to it,” Pfingsten said. “It’s one of those things. I think most people aren’t confused because they don’t really worry about it. They just say, ‘OK, this is when it is this year.’”

It might seem old-fashioned or out-of-date, but along with other area church leaders, Pfingsten likes it that way.

“I like knowing that we are worshiping with Christians not just of all places, but of all times,” he said.

“That is one of the great joys of Easter, knowing death is not the end, not the barrier. It’s just a phase we have to go through. ... That carries over if your problem is money or you don’t have a job or your kids are fighting all the time or your marriage isn’t good. We have the hope, the conviction, the promise that this world is not all there is. There’s more beyond.”

They might not remember it every year, but Pfingsten said he tells his parishioners annually about how the date is set.

And he, like other area church leaders, welcomes any and all who come to service on the holiday.

“It’s usually overflowing, which is a good thing,” Gibson said. “I’m not real critical of people who seem to somehow make it to the church on Christmas and Easter only. If we can get them to come, maybe God will work something through what they feel or hear or experience, and maybe they’ll come more often. Getting there at all is a real blessing.”

Here are the dates for Easter in years to come
2012 April 8
2013 March 31
2014 April 20
2015 April 5
2016 March 27
2017 April 16
2018 April 1
2019 April 21
2020 April 12
2021 April 4
2022 April 17

The latest Easter? In 2038, Easter will fall on April 25.
The earliest Easter? In 1818, Easter fell on March 22. That will not happen again until 2285.

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