Rev. William D. Ingraham
Easter moves around. It will be late this year – almost as late as it can possibly be, falling on April 21st . Last year, Easter was April 1st. Two years before that, it was in March. Easter differs from Christmas, which we observe as a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar. Debuted in 1582 C.E. during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, the Gregorian calendar compensates for a mathematical error in the previous Julian calendar. Established by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.E., the Julian calendar differed from the solar calendar (the actual time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun) by 11 minutes each year. The result was a calendar that gradually shifted through time. The Gregorian calendar was put in place to fix that problem.
Easter is determined by a lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar. The intention was to schedule our remembrance of Christ’s passion and resurrection to the same calendar that he and his community observed at the time of his life and death. This practice was established by the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., placing Easter on the first Sunday that follows the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox (but always after the Passover). By the Gregorian calendar the vernal equinox falls on March 21st. With the shifting of the moon, Easter can come as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th. For us, then, Easter comes late this year, falling a mere four days before its latest possible date.
The Eastern or Orthodox Church still follows the Julian Calendar in fixing the date of Easter. True, they use the same formula that we do: Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (but always after the Passover). But the Julian calendar fixes the Vernal Equinox as April 3. Because of the difference in calendars, our celebration usually precedes the Orthodox celebration of Easter by days or even weeks, though rarely, Easter falls on the same date for both of us.
From my experience, not only does Easter move around on the calendar each year, but the moment I actually feel Easter can shift from year to year, too. I am a pastor. My heart is closely tied to the rhythm of the church’s worship life, so usually, my own, personal experience of Easter coincides with the liturgical calendar our church observes. But there have been years, rarely but occasionally, when this wasn’t the case. These were the times that a deep, personal struggle was yet to be resolved, and my heart wasn’t ready to move from the wilderness’ shadows to the sunlight of resurrection joy. One year, I was in heartache. Another, grief. Still another, uncertainty with regard to a major decision. On each of these years, though I needed and longed for the joy of Easter, I lacked the time to be ready for it. My heart, or my life, was still in Lent. My own, personal experience of Easter was yet to come.
Easter’s joy still had its effect on me, though. As I worshipped in the congregations I served at those times, my heart in a deep and heavy place, the joyful refrains of Easter’s hymns resonated in me. They reminded me of a promise that is true for us, regardless of what we face, how we feel, or where we are or hope to be. “Christ is Risen,” the congregations sings. “Life begins again,” the choir proclaims. “Hope and love are victorious, no matter the foe,” the Gospel announces. “God is with us,” the pastor reminds us (and those words serve as a reminder to me as much as anyone else). Somehow, in the midst of struggle, or darkness, or grief, or trial, or trouble, Easter’s hope dawns yet again.
For Easter hope always dawns. It’s not set by the calendar. It’s not determined by our worship. It doesn’t happen because of our efforts, no matter how effective or ineffective they might be. Easter is God’s gift, to us, and to all. And God’s gift of life, hope and help always comes, just when we need it most. When our hearts are ready, at just the right moment, we’ll not only know Easter joy, we’ll feel it, too.
Only a few weeks of Lent remain. Holy Week is right around the corner. Easter is coming. It always does. It always will. Thanks be to God.
Hang on! We’re gonna make it. With God’s help, we’re gonna make it!
See you in church… - Bill