For a number of years, I have wondered why Easter Sunday falls at different times of the spring season. Although Easter usually comes in the month of April, it can come as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th. The answer lies in the fact that much of what takes place during the Pascal season has to do with Christianity and its relationship to Judaism.
Long before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people celebrated a spring festival known as Passover, a celebration which was and still is marked by the Seder, a traditional ritualistic supper. The Seder is based on the Hebrew Bible verse commanding Jews to retell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from bondage and slavery in Egypt. “You shall tell your children on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” Exodus 13:8.
It was in the upper room that Christ celebrated the Passover Seder with twelve of His apostles. This Seder, however, did not recount the circumstances under which the Israelites fled Egypt. The theme of this Seder was that of a new beginning and was, in essence, the first mass during which Christ distributed bread to eat and wine to drink - representing His body and blood - to His apostles and commanding them to “ ... do this in remembrance of me.”
The significance of this Passover Seder was the process of its transition. For Christians, this Passover Seder became known as the “Last Supper,” the foreshadowing of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection on Easter Sunday and the beginning of Christianity. Its significance, therefore, was its transition from the Passover Seder to the Christian Mass.
Why is it called “Easter?” It is interesting to note that, according to the Dictionary of Word Origins, the term Easter is actually a Pagan word, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Eastre, the name of a pagan goddess whose festival, of the rising sun in the east, represented a new beginning.
Eástre (1884) by Johannes Gehrts
It ties into Christianity in an interesting way. According to some sources, when Christianity came to Europe, the resurrection of Christ seemed compatible with the rising sun and a new beginning idea which the people were used to and which they called Eastre or Easter. So the day of Christ’s resurrection became known as Easter Sunday. In many European languages, the word for the Easter festival is taken from the name of the Jewish Passover, Pasach in Hebrew, Pascha in Greek and Latin, Pasqua in Italian, Pâques in French and Pascua in Spanish. In English, the term Pascal is used in describing Christ as the Pascal Lamb and Easter as the Pascal season.
It is probably in the spirit of the Jewish Passover that Christians first celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. Passover and Easter, though often falling close to each other, did not always occur at the same time. Both Passover and Easter have similarities of rebirth in that Jesus had resurrected and in a sense was reborn. In like manner, the Israelites free from slavery were reborn into freedom.
Once Christianity had been accepted by Rome, efforts were made to avoid the Christian festival coinciding with that of the Hebrews. The Council of Nicaea, in the year 325, under the direction of Constantine, had decided to change the day of observance of Pascha. To accomplish this, they looked to the Vernal (or spring) equinox, the first day of spring, the time of year when the hours of daylight and darkness are of equal duration. The Vernal equinox often falls on March 20th and sometimes on March 21st.
During the Council of Nicaea, it had been decided that Easter would fall on the Sunday following the full moon which falls on or after the Vernal equinox.
Of course, this affects the entire Lenten season. Ash Wednesday is calculated by simple arithmetic relative to Easter Sunday. The precepts of the church provide that the faithful fast for a period of 40 days as Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert before beginning His ministry. What may be confusing to some is the fact that the days between Easter Sunday and Ash Wednesday add up to 46 days.
But remember, the weeks between Easter Sunday and Ash Wednesday contain six Sundays. Since all Sundays, not only Easter Sunday, are days to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, Christians are forbidden to fast or do other forms of penance on those days, there are six fewer days of fasting. By subtracting those six Sundays, you are left with 40 days.