Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Date of Easter

For as long as Easter has been celebrated it seems there have been disputes about its date. Despite the widespread desire for liturgical uniformity, Easter has more often than not been celebrated on different dates in different places. Thus, St. Ambrose (340-397) mentioned in one of his letters that, in the year 377, Easter was celebrated on at least three different dates - March 21 in Gaul, April 18 in Italy, and April 25 in Alexandria. The Western Church would not in fact achieve the desired unity of Easter observance for a few more centuries. To this day, as is well known, the Eastern and Western Churches continue to celebrate Easter on different dates – every once in a  while on the same date, occasionally a month apart, in most years one week apart. This year is one of those years when the Western and Eastern Easters are a full month apart – March 31 and May 5 respectively.

 Thus it was with great interest and some surprise that I read that Catholics in Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus will be celebrating Easter together this year according to the Julian calendar along with their Orthodox neighbors. Apparently, this follows a 2012 decision by the Holy Land’s Catholic Bishops, to be implemented ad experimentum this year.

This surprising decision will, however, thankfully have little effect on the many pilgrims from around the world, who will assemble to celebrate Holy Week and Easter at the traditional Holy Places in Jerusalem. The so-called “Status Quo” arrangements which regulate the different Christian communities’ usage of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem will keep the Catholic Easter celebrations in those cities on their Western dates. (Indeed, those same regulations require the celebration of the Latin Holy Week services to occur at their pre-1956 times –e.g., in the mornings of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday).

Of course, the most fundamental dating issue about Easter has always been the apparent disagreement between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Gospel of John. The former seems to portray the Last Supper as an actual Passover meal, while John very clearly indicates that the Last Supper was eaten before the feast of Passover and that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on the Day of Preparation – indeed at the hour the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. Hence, the reference (John 18:28) to the authorities’ refusal to enter Pontius Pilate’s praetorium lest they become ritually disqualified from eating the Passover (which obviously means they hadn’t already eaten it the evening before!). In his 2011 Holy Week book, Pope Benedict XVI noted that “it is becoming increasingly clear that John’s chronology is more probably historically than the Synoptic chronology” (p. 109). Certainly the Synoptic dating, which would suggests Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution all took place on the holiday, seems presumptively implausible. And John’s chronology has been the one implicitly followed by the Church’s liturgy. (St. Paul’s “first fruits” imagery in 1 Corinthians 15:20 also seems to harmonize nicely with John’s dating).

Thus, prior to the new 1970 lectionary, there no references to the Passover in the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper (other than the opening words of the Gospel which explicitly begins Before the feast of Passover …). Good Friday, however, on which John’s Passion Gospel has traditionally been read, was full of Passover symbolism – starting with the original 2nd Reading, Exodus 12:1-11, the familiar account of the first Passover in Egypt. (In 1970, this reading was inexplicably moved to become the 1st Reading for Holy Thursday).

In past years, whenever I have celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I have preached about the Eucharist, the priesthood, and the other obvious themes that Holy Thursday suggests, but I have always avoided any references to Passover. Just the opposite, on Good Friday I have usually used that day’s Gospel’s Passover imagery as a major reference point in preaching.

That the gospels invest the Last Supper with Passover motifs is undeniable, nor should it seem at all problematic. It may, however, be problematic if we start getting focused (as our symbolically starved, fundamentalistic modern style may incline us to focus) on the Last Supper as a sort of “Christian seder.” That can lead to all sorts of liturgical abuses (which were not exactly unknown back in the 1970s). Such an approach may diminish the ability to appreciate the actual Passover seder’s authentically Jewish character. (On the other hand, I’m all for Christians attending actual seders, if invited, or even having demonstration seders - apart from the liturgy - as a way of learning about both biblical and modern Judaism).   

And it is not just the authentically Jewish character of Passover which we may risk not appreciating, but the Christian Passover as well. Liturgy and tradition have always spoken of Easter as the Christian Passover. As if to bring that point home, the traditional Easter Vigil repeated Exodus 12:1-11, and even the contemporary ritual still retains the powerful account of the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea Exodus 14:15-15:1. It is, after all, on Saturday night – not Thursday – that the Church will exultantly proclaim: These then are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the door-posts of believers. This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

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