If there’s one thing other Christians know about the ancient churches of the East it is that Orthodox believers usually get to buy their Easter candy at closeout prices.
This year, the gap between the two Easter dates was so large — five weeks — that the leftover chocolate eggs had been cleaned out by April 27 and the great Orthodox feast called Pascha (Greek for “Passover”).
“It’s true that when the Easters are not together, we don’t have to deal with the whole Hallmark Card, Easter bunny side of things,” said Father Alexander Rentel, professor of Byzantine Studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. “That we’re on a different schedule can make it easier to for us to concentrate on what we’re supposed to be concentrating on — which is what the season means in the first place.”
Why are the dates for Easter and Pascha usually different? The short answer is that all the Eastern Orthodox churches use the ancient Julian calendar when calculating the date for this season, while the Western church began using the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. A more complex answer is to say that, for the Orthodox, Pascha is the first Sunday after the first full moon that comes after the vernal equinox and after the Jewish Passover.
The bottom line, however, is that the Julian and Gregorian calendars are about 13 days apart and this gap will continue growing at the rate of about a week per millennium.
All of that can be hard to explain, noted Rentel, when a child at school hands another child an invitation to an Easter party.
“One kid says, ‘Happy Easter!’ and then your kid says, ‘Actually, we haven’t celebrated Easter yet.’ Then the other kid says, ‘Why not?’ and then that leads off into all kinds of conversations that can either be good or bad, depending on how comfortable your children are when they’re talking about what they believe and why.”
In other words, he said, answering questions about why your church celebrates Easter on a different Sunday is similar to answering questions about why your family fasts from meat and dairy for long periods of time, or why you go to confession, or why you make the sign of the cross and pray before eating lunch in the school cafeteria. Any strong belief that clashes with the surrounding culture is going to lead to questions.
“These are questions about who we really are,” said Rentel.
Identity questions can be especially complex for the Orthodox in North America. There are 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide — the second largest Christian church — but only 5 million in the United States. The Orthodox flock in the “new world” remains divided into a dozen jurisdictions, each with ethnic and historical ties to a mother church abroad.
Thus, there are times when it’s hard to draw a line between ethnic traditions and Orthodox traditions. It’s easy for the rites of Holy Pascha to turn into My Big Fat Greek — or Russian, or Lebanese, or Bulgarian — Easter. Someday, the parishes founded by converts into Orthodoxy (like my own near Baltimore) may be tempted to celebrate My Big Fat Ex-Evangelical Protestant Easter. It could happen.
What the Orthodox call the “small t” traditions are important, said Rentel. The family baskets packed with holiday foods, the blood-red eggs, the joyous dances and the other ties that bind are important. But what cannot be sacrificed are the “Big T” traditions found in the 500-plus pages of prayers, scriptures and rituals that guide the spiritual journey from Palm Sunday to Holy Pascha.
The final sermon is always the same — year after year, century after century — no matter where Pascha services are held. All Orthodox priests, by tradition, read the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom, which dates to about 400 AD. As the sermon ends, the preacher called “the golden mouthed” summed everything up:
“O death, where is thy sting? O hell, where is thy victory? “Christ is risen, and you, o death, are annihilated! “Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! “Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! “Christ is risen, and life is liberated! “Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”