Easter (or “Pascha,” the Greek word for “Passover”) has yet to come for the Orthodox Church. While many Christians celebrated on March 31, a full five weeks separate the celebrations this year—Pascha takes place this Sunday, May 5. Let’s take a brief look at not only the history behind these differences, but also the manner in which Eastern Christians celebrate the Lord’s resurrection.
The dating of Easter has always been a complicated issue, going all the way back to the second century. At that time, the main divide was between those who celebrated on precisely the 14th day of Nisan (the Jewish Passover) and those who celebrated on the Sunday following the 14th of Nisan. This variance came to a head at the first Council of Nicaea (AD 325), when that assembly of bishops decided to regulate the celebration to always occur on a Sunday, or what had come to be called “the Day of the Lord” (Rev. 1:10).
A 19-year cycle of celestial calculations was developed, and this cycle, connected with the Julian calendar, has remained in use in the East. An 84-year cycle came to be used in the Western half of the empire, and so the first discrepancy (since the first Council of Nicaea) began to occur. With the assistance of the best astronomers and scientists of the time, Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar in 1582 in order to improve its accuracy. A reform of the Western lunar calendar—connected with the dating of Easter—also occurred.
Over the course of several centuries, many countries adopted this “Gregorian Calendar,” with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a result, there can be anywhere from a one- to a five-week discrepancy between the Eastern and Western celebrations of Easter. They can also occur on the same day, and next year (2014), the celebrations for both East and West will coincide on April 20.
Even when we celebrate on different dates, the focus is much the same. Like that of Western Christians, the Orthodox celebration of Pascha is focused on the triumph of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ over death itself, freeing us from the bondage of sin and restoring our ability to have a relationship with God. The great Paschal hymn refrains: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
Preceded by a week of daily services called Holy Week, traditional Orthodox celebrations of Pascha begin late in the evening on Holy Saturday, and conclude at early dawn on Sunday. The midnight vigil is often followed by an Agape feast, in which parishioners share delicious foods with one another, including roasted lamb, cheeses, assorted fruits, homemade baked goods, and Pascha eggs dyed a shade of deep red.
Want to learn more about the history of the Eastern Church and its celebration of the Lord’s resurrection? I’d recommend taking a look at the History of the Holy Eastern Church (6 vols.) collection by John Mason Neale, who writes from a Western (English) perspective, as well as Melito of Sardis’ On Pascha, part of the Popular Patristics Series, Part 1 (10 vols.).