JOLIET – The Rev. John Beal recalled the silent outrage in the pews during one particular Easter when the service didn’t begin at precisely midnight, as is prescribed in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Beal maintained people in the early days of the Christian church didn’t have watches to check, and if the exact time is so important, how does one reconcile the celebration in different time zones?
“So if you miss the stroke of midnight, is it not really Pascha?” Beal said. “Does the magic not work?”
That said, Beal – pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Joliet – belongs to a tradition that sets the date of Easter – or Pascha, as many Orthodox call it – by different calculations than most Christians use.
So although Western and Eastern Christians occasionally celebrate Easter on the same day, generally the Eastern Orthodox observe it anywhere from one to five weeks later than the rest of the Christian world.
This year, most Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter on April 12. Ironically, both West and East refer to one of the first large gatherings of church leaders – the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea held in 325 – for setting that date.
According to information supplied by the Diocese of Joliet, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 decreed Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring.
But here’s where it gets muddy. The calendar in use at the time of the Council of Nicaea was one established by Julius Caesar, known as the Julian calendar. That calendar was modified in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and is the calendar now in use.
However, Beal said, the Orthodox church with its tradition of conservatism, continued to arrange its liturgical calendar according to the Julian calendar until 1923. Easter – Pascha – continued to be calculated by the Julian calendar.
Still, this adoption of the “new” calendar was rejected by some Eastern Orthodox churches, easy to do when a denomination doesn’t have a top to bottom hierarchy, Beal said. So while most Eastern Orthodox do celebrate Easter on the same day, the date for other feast days, such as Christmas, is not uniform.
Yet, in a faith system where its leader – in this case, Jesus – is quoted in the Bible as praying that “all may be one” right before the death that preceded his resurrection – the central focus of Christianity – shouldn’t Christians agree on when to commemorate that occasion?
The Rev. John Belmonte, superintendent for the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Joliet, doesn’t think so – not when Christians have greater divisions to reconcile.
Belmonte feels that the liturgical calendar – which begins Dec. 1 in the West and Sept. 1 (new calendar) in the East – and not Jan. 1 as the secular world marks time – is simply a tool, not a mandate.
“What the church is trying to do is sanctify time, to connect itself with the life of Christ over a calendar year,” Belmonte said.
Interestingly, many Byzantine Catholics, including those belonging to Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, resemble the Eastern Orthodox in their worship services, but recognize the Pope of Rome as its visible head and calculate Easter according to the Gregorian calendar.
The Rev. Thomas J. Loya, pastor, doesn’t view the differences in dates as problematic where ecumenism is concerned – especially since, realistically speaking, no one is exactly certain when Jesus died and was resurrected.
Furthermore, Loya doesn’t understand the Orthodox’s attachment to the Julian calendar.
“The East often accuses us of being legalistic,” Loya said, referring to a general Orthodox view of Catholicism, “but this is one legalism of their own.”
On the other hand, the Rev. Thom Parrott-Sheffer, pastor of Plainfield Congregational UCC, doesn’t feel that the mindset of people living in 325 A.D. should influence the worship of 21st century Christians, although he thinks it would be cool if Christians could decide on one fixed day.
“I think the fact that we celebrate the story is more important than when we celebrate it,” Parrott-Sheffer said.
The Rev. Keith Forni, pastor of First and Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Joliet, sees both sides. Forni likes the idea of the celebration rippling through time through the varying dates, much as the church bells of several different churches ripples through Joliet’s East Side on Sunday morning, announcing their different service times, Forni said.
And yet, Forni feels one simultaneous “Christ is Risen” in all the languages of the world would be a powerful witness.
One thing is certain, Forni feels, no matter how – or when – Christians choose to acknowledge Jesus’ resurrection.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” Forni said, quoting the Bible. “Let us rejoice and be glad.”