Christian Men's Breakfast

Presentation by Chuck Esposito

April 8, 2008

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"Easter Sunday"

Thank you I.T., and good morning gentlemen.

By my reckoning, this is the sixth year in a row that I find myself at this podium on the first Saturday in April, and it is my pleasure to be here again to address you this morning.


Some weeks ago when I started considering topics for my remarks today, I began with the recognition that I had probably worn out you, and the topic, of the Christian roots of the Founding of our nation, and that I better pick another topic. At that time, I did not consult the calendar but since Easter Sunday usually happens in April, I thought I would talk about Easter. Of course, as you all know, this year, Easter Sunday was in March, not April, which prompted me to wonder, just how do we know what date to celebrate Easter Sunday? And that is my topic for today. But before I get to that, I have two other things I’d like to do.


Every time I have addressed you, I have included a prayer for our troops, and that’s how I would like to start today. So if you would, please, bow your heads and join me.

Dear Lord,
Today there are about half a million , American men and women –
stationed in 150 countries around the world.

We pray You keep them safe,
we pray You keep them strong,
we pray You send them safely home ...

Bless those who await their safe return.

And Bless the friends and relatives who mourn the casualties in Iraq:

The MIAs, the 29,451 wounded, and the 4,000 Killed In Action. (3/25/08)

In Jesus name we ask ...Amen.

The next item is a short story about President Bush and Moses. If you’ve already heard it, please bear with me:

Recently, while going through an airport during one of his many trips, President Bush encountered a man with long gray hair and beard, wearing a white robe and sandals, holding a staff. President Bush went up to the man and said, "Has anyone told you that you look like Moses?"

The man didn't answer. He just kept staring straight ahead.

The president said, 'Moses!' in a loud voice.

The man just stared ahead, never acknowledging the president. The president pulled a Secret Service agent aside and, pointing to the robed man, asked him, "Am I crazy or does that man not look like Moses to you?"

The Secret Service agent looked at the man and agreed.

"Well," said the president, "every time I say his name, he ignores me and stares straight ahead, refusing to speak ... Watch!"

Again the president yelled, "Moses!" and again the man ignored him.

The Secret Service agent went up to the man in the white robe and
whispered, "You look just like Moses. Are you Moses?"

The man leaned over and whispered back, "Shhhh! Yes, I am Moses. The last time I talked to a bush, I spent 40 years wandering in the desert and ended up leading my people to the only spot in the entire Middle East with no oil."

And now, I’ll tackle the question of, “Just how do we know what date to celebrate Easter Sunday?” The easy answer, of courses, is to look on the church calendar. But what if you don’t have a church calendar, or what if you want to know the date of Easter Sunday next year, or ten years from now? I did some research on these questions, and I would like to share my findings with you this morning.

The Bible provides an excellent account of the crucifixion of Jesus, but it does so without a frame of reference. The Crucifixion, biblically, follows the Last Supper, which is itself a celebration of Passover. Passover, however, is fixed in the lunar based Hebrew Calendar, which has little correlation to the solar based Gregorian calendar which was introduced in the Western world late in the 16th century (and which was accepted by England, and her colonies, in the middle of the 18th century). So, translating dates from the lunar based Hebrew Calendar to the solar based Gregorian calendar is part of the problem.

Other calculation problems existed in the early Christian years, and during the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), Christians agreed that a common method should be used to calculate the day of Easter, and that method had several distinct components. One component was that Easter should always be on a Sunday. Another was that it should follow the spring Equinox, and another was that it had to observe the phases of the moon, since the Jewish calendar that sets the time of Passover was a lunar calendar.


For a couple of hundred years following Nicaea, the Church used various methods for the calculation, until 535 AD when Dionysus introduced the custom of enumerating dates from the birth of Jesus, giving rise to the nomenclature of BC and AD. The Dionysian reforms also included "Easter tables" which provided an equivalency between Passover, the Hebrew Calendar, and the decisions at Nicaea. Dionysius' tables remained in use throughout the Western Church until the Gregorian Calendar reforms in 1582 made the Dionysian tables obsolete and necessitated a new method for calculating the proper day for Easter Sunday. This is the method used today and because it is a confusing system mixing astronomy and ecclesiasticism, it accounts for the wide variation of the date upon which Easter falls. According to the calculation method, the earliest Easter can fall is March 22 and the latest is April 25. As you know, this year it fell on March 23, just one day after its earliest possible date. The last time it fell on its earliest possible date, March 22, was in 1818, and the last time it fell on its latest possible date, April 25, was 1943.

All this may be mildly interesting, but it doesn’t answer the question, “Just how do we know what date to celebrate Easter Sunday?” The common answer to that question is that, “Easter is to be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon, following the spring equinox.” That is the common answer, but it is not exactly correct because it is not a precise statement of the actual ecclesiastical rules. In the Western church, the full moon involved is not the astronomical Full Moon, but an ecclesiastical moon (determined from tables) that keeps, more or less, in step with the astronomical Moon.


The ecclesiastical rules for the Western church are:
#1 Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox;
#2 this particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a new moon; and
#3 the vernal equinox is fixed as March 21(although astronomically it usually falls on March 20, and sometimes on the 19th).

As I mentioned a moment ago, and as you can imagine, the calculation method which incorporates these rules is a confusing system mixing astronomy and ecclesiasticism. Some of the approaches I have seen involve the use of integer math, and computer programs in the C language, and if you’re like me, you might have to call a math expert for help to get through that mess.

But thanks to an unexpected source, the United States Navy, there is an easier way: Just visit the web site of the US Naval Observatory, follow the directions to their Astronomical Applications Department, and they will provide you the date of Easter Sunday for any year from 1583 onward. The reason they start with the year 1583 is because, as I mentioned earlier, the current rules for calculating the date of Easter were part of the Gregorian calendar reform, which was first established in October of 1582.

That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about the date of Easter, but it’s still not the whole story. In addition to Easter Sunday being a movable holiday, it is also a multiple one: in most years, Western Christian churches and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter on different dates. For example, in 2007, the two celebrations occurred on the same date, April 8; but in 2006, Easter was celebrated on April 16 by Western churches, and on April 23 by Orthodox churches. There are several reasons for the differences. One reason is, although the formula used is identical for both Western and Orthodox Easters, the churches base the dates on different calendars.

Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, the standard calendar for much of the world, but Orthodox churches use the older Julian Calendar. Also, the churches differ on the definition of the vernal equinox and the full moon: the Eastern Church uses the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem, site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection; while the Western church uses a fixed date of March 21. The Eastern Church sets the date according to the actual, astronomical full moon; but the Western church uses an "ecclesiastical moon," which is based on tables created by the church. The Eastern Orthodox Church also applies the formula so that Easter always falls after Passover, since the Crucifixion and Resurrection took place after Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. In the Western Church, Easter sometimes precedes Passover by weeks.

This division between the Eastern and Western Churches has no strong theological basis, but neither is it simply a technical skirmish. As the World Council of Churches has noted, much of Orthodox Christianity is located in the Middle East, where it has frequently been the minority religion, and in Eastern Europe, where until recently it faced hostility from communist governments.

The emphasis on honoring tradition and maintaining an intact religious identity was therefore crucial. Seen in this context, changing the rules governing its most important religious holiday chisels away at the foundations of an already beleaguered religious heritage.

Finally, since the beginning of the 20th century, a proposal to change Easter to a fixed holiday, rather than a movable one, has been widely circulated; and several years ago, even the Vatican agreed, provided, a consensus could be reached among all Christian churches. The second Sunday in April has been suggested as the most likely date, but as of today, no consensus has been reached. I don’t know about you, but from what I have seen of reaching consensus among all the Christian Churches, I’m not going to hold my breath. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to rely on the United States Naval Observatory to provide me the correct dates for future Easter Sundays.

Thank for your attention, and God willin’, I’ll be back at this podium a year from now.

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