Happy Birthday! …well, sort of. Being born – is there anything more wonderful, more hopeful, more satisfying to witness? But you might say “Yes, but today is not really my birthday … my actual birthday is in October, not April”. Others – for a variety of reasons – may not even know their actual birth date but only have an approximation. The date itself is mainly an annual marker so family and friends have a fixed point in time to remember and celebrate with you. If your actual birthday is truly unknown, it presents an interesting question: How do you determine which date to use?
The early church had a similar dilemma. Which date should they choose to commemorate when God supernaturally intervened in human history and provided a way for some people to go to heaven after they die, the day we celebrate each year called Easter?
Important day, interesting question.
Easter recounts what God did in sending His Son Jesus into this world, who willingly allowed Himself to be crucified. He died and was raised back to life three days later on the first day of the week, also called “Resurrection Sunday” by Christians today. Believers in Christ rejoice and give thanks to God for sending Jesus into the world (John 3:16-17). However, the resurrection event was not instantly called nor celebrated as Easter until well after church leadership around the world became better organized.
A little background: From earliest records, Christians celebrated Jesus’ resurrection in conjunction with the timing of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating when God saved Israel from a deadly plague that was inflicted on all the land of Egypt where they were slaves. If the date of the holiday is known, calculating the correct date for Christ’s resurrection should be simple, right? According to Exodus 12, all Israel was commanded by God to observe Passover on the 14th day of Nisan (the first month on the Jewish calendar). Herein lies the difficulty: Just like the 14th of March does not always fall on a Friday (for example), the 14th of Nisan does not always fall on the same weekday either. Consequently the resurrection (3 days later) wouldn’t always fall on a Sunday, even though the Bible confirms that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.
Depending on which calendar you followed and how you interpret the Passion Week timeline in Scripture, your calculation could be further offset another 1⁄2 day because Jewish “days” actually begin at sundown and proceed to sunset. The first 1⁄2 of the 14th of Nisan could begin at 6 p.m. Saturday, where the second 1⁄2 of the same day would eventually end at 6 p.m. on Sunday. With many other Christians typically seeking to worship and celebrate the resurrection on Sundays it became impossible for all of them to agree on which date to observe Easter each year. So how did all this happen? The Jewish calendar is lunar, based on the motion and position of the Moon throughout the year with twelve lunar months of 29 or 30 days. Since this adds up to a 355-day year on average, an extra “month” gets added to their calendar on certain years to make up for the shortfall. This ensures that Jewish feasts keep to their correct Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter seasons. It sounds strange, but adding time to calendars is really not that unusual. Every four years the current Gregorian calendar adds a leap-day as February 29th to keep it in step with the Earth’s progress around the Sun, otherwise in due time Christmas would be celebrated in the heat of Summer!
Despite Passover always being celebrated in Spring, the continual calendar adjustments explain why the timing of the holiday “wanders” across different dates year by year. Consequently, it also means that Easter gets moved around a lot. But even if a church decided to exclusively follow the lunar system, the phases of the Moon appear quite different depending on your location. A full moon in Jerusalem will not appear full in Rome until several days or weeks later, therefore by itself the lunar solution was insufficient.
With so many different methods to measure time and mark various holy days – and without telephones or the Internet to coordinate scheduled events with other Christians around the globe – observed dates for Easter were contested and varied. Jewish Christians – geographically East closer to Jerusalem – wanted Easter to be observed in conjunction with Passover (14th day of Nissan). Gentile Christians – geographically West closer to Rome – preferred that it be distinct and always practiced on a Sunday (the Lord’s Day).
The irony of seeking to be faithful in date-setting to honor the Lord’s resurrection – something truly worth celebrating – culminating in continued debate was a problem that needed to be resolved for everyone.
The solution came through an edict at a church convention. In 325 AD, bishops and other Christian leaders from around the world assembled in the ancient city of Nicaea (in modern-day Turkey) to debate, develop, and find agreement on several theological and practical matters, among which was how to advise regarding Easter.
The outcome produced a proclamation that officially exhorted Christians in the East to celebrate Easter in conjunction with Christians in the West. This might not sound like much, but a representative consensus towards the uniform observance of Easter worldwide was indeed a significant step forward. In the years following, regional church leaders continued to work to develop new methods, eventually settling on the following criteria:
1. Easter had to be on the first day of the week (Sunday) when Jesus arose from the dead.
2. Easter had to immediately follow the Jewish Passover (14th of Nissan), as the Bible declares it was celebrated by Jesus and His disciples just prior to His crucifixion.
3. Easter needed to be predictable year-to-year by churches worldwide using a consistent calculation method, but not dependent on the Jewish calendar.
Since the 14th day of Nissan always falls somewhere between late-March and mid-April, church leaders knew they needed a consistent marker within that specific time frame. They chose March 21st, the vernal equinox, more commonly known as the 1st day of Spring. This would become the locus for calculating the official date of Easter each year. As a result, Easter is observed on the 1st Sunday after the first astronomical full Moon (according to the current prime meridian) on or after March 21st. Still a bit cumbersome but the decision provided a consistent way to anticipate and plan the holiday for Christians worldwide year after year.
Most of the Christian world employs this method of calculation today. Some Orthodox churches still observe Easter using traditional date-setting methods that are derived from Passover alone. Overall, despite its perplexing appearance the solution brought believers in Christ together to unite them as they bear witness to a needy world of the historical resurrection of Jesus and the corresponding message of His followers’ rebirth.
Those who deliberated at the Council of Nicaea had to combat the theological and philosophical fallacies of the time in order to distill down what God was truly teaching in His Word, the Bible. The same is true today. When we are not careful to reject what is false we are ultimately in danger of totally denying that a loving God created us and the world we live in. Contrary to popular science and culture, life – including every living, breathing, sentient person on the planet – was not produced out of some cataclysmic explosion in outer space.
Evolution is not the author of life. God Almighty, the source of all life, created us perfectly. Many people today spend too much time challenging this fact, searching for explanations and alternative ways of living instead of honoring and obeying God the life-giver, to their shame and endless downfall. Such people live in darkness, some who even attend church services.
Life is a gift. Although eternal life is also a gift, it cannot be earned no matter how much we try. For those who have repented of their sins, turned, and followed Jesus Christ life on Earth will be followed by eternal life – life that never ends, forever with God. They have received the second birth and been reborn of the Spirit of God (John 3:3-8).
A second birthday, incredible! Being reborn – is there anything more wonderful, more hopeful, more satisfying? If you know someone who does not respond with a cheerful “yes” then make time for them this Easter season, to listen and see where they are at. Who knows? Perhaps the LORD will use you in such a way that they might be able to celebrate a Happy Easter and a Happy (2nd) Birthday together this year, a date to remember indeed!