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Easter, Wester, which is bester?

17 January 2016

After the Anglican Primates meeting last week, which, from what I’ve heard narrowly managed to avert the disintegration of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, announced that he was working towards having a fixed date for Easter. Archbishop Justin Welby hopes for fixed Easter date – BBC News:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is working with other Christian churches to agree on a fixed date for Easter.

Justin Welby made the announcement after a meeting of primates from the Anglican Communion in Canterbury.

In the UK, an act of Parliament passed in 1928 allowed for Easter Sunday to be fixed on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.

However, this has never been activated and Easter has remained variable, determined by the moon’s cycle.

Coming just after a meeting at which different views on sexual morality and the theology of marriage threatened to tear the Anglican Communion apart, I can’t help wondering whether this Easter business is perhaps a diversionary tactic to shift the media spotlight to the Orthodox, for whom the calendar is as much a contentious issue as sexual morality is for Anglicans.

One interesting response came from a Pagan friend, who said on Facebook, “If they are talking about divorcing Easter from its connection to the Full Moon, I’m going to be very cross indeed.”

My somewhat jocular response to that was that if Eastern and Wester were always on the same date, the Orthodox would not be able to invite their Western friends to Holy Week and Easter services, because they would be busy with their own, and also the Orthodox would be deprived of the opportunity of buying chocolate Easter eggs in the shops at a discount rate. Not so much this year, when Easter and Wester are five weeks apart (1 May & 27 March) and the chocolate eggs will be well out of the shops by the time Easter arrives.

But it was the connection with the full moon that I find interesting. I don’t have any very profound thoughts on this, and no doubt all kinds of people could pick holes in this, but I thought it is interesting to compare Christian and Pagan notions of the full moon and other astronomical phenomena.

creatheavIn one of the biblical accounts of creation, Genesis chapter 1, the creation of the sun and moon are describes as follows:

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day (Genesis 1-16-19).

There are several interesting things here. One is that the light-bearing bodies are created after light, and even after day and night. They are to mark the distinction between day and night, but do not make the distinction.

Another thing is that the light-bearing bodies are not named. They are not called the sun and moon, but simply the big light and the little light.

This is not an accident, but it is making a deliberate theological point. The people of Israel were aware that many of the surrounding nations worshipped the sun and the moon, or the deities believed to control them, but the covenant God had made with them told them that they were not to do such things. So the creation of the sun and moon is described in such a way as to show that the heavenly bodies are not to be worshipped. They are creatures, created by God, and their purpose is not to be worshipped, but to provide illumination and regulate the calendar.

So the Christian take on it is somewhat different from the pagan take on it, and even the neopagan take on it.

But where we can agree is that they are there to regulate the calendar, and if God saw that it was good, then it is good that they should go on regulating the calendar.

There are other biblical accounts of creation that show it in a somewhat different light, and perhaps they resonate better with what pagans feel about such things. For example this one, when the Lord questions Job, who has been questioning him about everything that has happened:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  (Job 38:4-7)

And it is this view that was taken up by C.S. Lewis in his book The magician’s nephew, when he describes the creation of Narnia accompanied by singing stars, and his friend and fellow-author J.R/R. Tolkien did something similar in the Ainulindalë. Lewis went even further along that line when, in his novel That hideous strength, he gives the planets and their divine rulers their old Roman pagan names and characteristic behaviour, though he also refers to them by their names in his made-up language, Old Solar.

Lewis comes closest to explaining this in yet another novel, The voyage of the Dawn Treader, where two children from our world travel to Narnia and meet a retired star. One of them, Eustace Scrubb, who has had an entirely modern education, says “In our world stars are great balls of burning gas,” to which the retired star replies, “Even in your world, that is only what they are made of, and not what they are.”

And it seems to me that the proposal to fix the date of Easter comes out of the kind of worldview that Eustace Scrubb was educated in. It smacks of Enlightenment thinking, the same kind of thinking that produced the metric system. Of course generations of school children can be thankful that the metric system has made school mathematics easier. But when it was adopted in South Africa 45 years ago, one of the first effects was a rise in building costs. That was because metric bricks were smaller, and so they took 14% longer for a bricklayer to lay them. The metric system is easier to calculate, but a lot of its measurements are not on a human scale.

And is the world really dying for a fixed date of Easter? Wouldn’t it be better to put our time and effort and energy into sorting out things like the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Burundi and other countries, beside which the messy dates of Easter and even Anglican squabbles about sexual morality pale into insignificance?


One Comment leave one →
  1. 26 January 2016 4:38 pm

    The underlying issue is not a fixed date for Pascha/Easter but the same date (a fixed date being but one possible way to resolve the same or ‘one date’). If you find the same date for Pascha/Easter undesirable or inadmissible, then the confusion the outsider confronts (and not a few insiders) is similar, in effect, as when tongues are spoken without an interpreter: Christ, our beacon of unity, who was crucified once for all (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:10), is depicted by his followers as crucified twice liturgically, and twice risen, annually and perennially (except on those rarer instances when the two dates coincide). So how can we ourselves, as Christ’s Church, constitute a beacon of unity when we cannot even agree on something as uncomplicated as a single date for the Resurrection of Christ? If it is important for the lesser light to be full (so symbolically a true beacon for guidance at night) then this can be inserted into the equation (and no less important that Pascha/Easter not precede the Jewish Passover). But let us put no stumbling blocks in the way of a resolution, showing ourselves to be civil enough to then be able to take on the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Burundi.

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