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The Proposal for a Common Date to Celebrate Pascha and Easter

by Father Luke Luhl, Greek Archdiocese of North America, Denver Diocese

 In the last several months there have been various articles written in the public media about a proposal to celebrate the Orthodox feast of Pascha, and Western Easter on the same date.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has indeed come up with such a plan, but it has no likelihood of being enacted. Orthodox Hierarchs would not even consider adopting another modification to the calendar used by the Church and risk creating a third calendar schism.

The WCC released a statement on 25 March 1997 - an inauspicious date for the Orthodox - entitled "The date of Easter: Science Offers Solution to Ancient Religious Problem," in which they suggest that "senior church representatives have come up with an ingenious proposal to set a common date for Easter."

Of course, since the Orthodox do not celebrate "Easter" but rather "Pascha," one might simply dismiss the statement as irrelevant to the Orthodox Church. At the same time, however, the Orthodox should note that the WCC is attempting to foist its agenda and beliefs upon the Orthodox in a less than gentlemanly manner.

The WCC statement was issued following the conclusion of a conference held in Aleppo, Syria from 5 through 10 March 1997 that had been convened under the auspices of the WCC and the Middle Eastern Council of Churches. Represented at the conference were consultants from the Roman Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, various European Protestant Churches, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Moscow, as well as the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) which sent Professor John Erickson to the conference. The Reverend Thomas FitzGerald from the ecumenical center of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Chambesy, Switzerland was also present in his capacity as director from WCC Unit I: Unity and Renewal.

According to the WCC statement, the conference in Aleppo asserted that the celebration of "Easter" on "different dates" in the Christian East and West gives a divided witness and compromises the credibility and effectiveness of the churches to bring the Gospel to the world, and thus they devised a formula for the common celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.

In fact there is very little in common between the theologies of the heterodox western churches and that of the Orthodox Church, thus it would be deceitful to celebrate "Easter" and Pascha on the same date since this would imply more commonalty between them and us than actually exists.

The real answer, of course, is for the heterodox to return to historic, apostolic Orthodox Christianity and to celebrate Pascha in accordance with the decisions of the 318 God-bearing fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which took place in Nicaea.

So as to ensure uniformity in the Church, and thus to present an image of godly unity rather than demonic chaos, these holy and blessed fathers determined that Pascha should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal (spring) equinox, and that, moreover, it must not coincide with the celebration of the Jewish Pascha (Passover) but must occur thereafter so as to preserve the order of the events during the week of our Lord’s Passion. Since the Julian calendar was in universal use at that time, the date of 21 March according to that calendar was fixed to mark the vernal equinox. This is necessary, of course, since using the astronomic observation of the equinox as some have imprudently suggested would cause a six-month displacement between the celebration of Pascha in the northern and southern hemispheres.

It was the western churches that have deviated from this ancient tradition as they one by one adopted the sixteenth-century Gregorian calendar, and it is thus incumbent upon them to return not only to the original tradition of the Church in calculating the Paschalion but even moreso to return to the full teaching of the Orthodox Church so that there might be unity among those calling themselves Christians.

One very sad deception of the WCC statement is that they take advantage of the fact that Latin Easter and Orthodox Pascha will coincide on the same day in the year 2001, and they most boldly presume that at such time Orthodox Pascha will have been calculated by their heterodox method and will continue to be so in years thereafter. Such an assumption would lead the Orthodox Church away from determining the date of Pascha according to the Julian calendar, and would eventually result in its celebration prior to, or coincident with, the Jewish Passover. This, of course, is not logical nor proper.

In a curious example of deceptive double-speak, the WCC statement suggests that "the Nicaea principle will be preserved and neither Churches in the East or (sic) West will have to change their policy," yet they also state that "Churches in the East will be most effected (sic) by the new dating system."

The WCC statement noted that the "’old calendar’ has been a symbol of the [Orthodox] churches’ desire to maintain their integrity and freedom from the hostile forces of this world. The consultation therefore concluded that there will be need of great pastoral sensitivity among the church members as the proposal is pursued."

It must be admitted by all the Orthodox, that the decision of one part of the Church to adopt the Gregorian or civil calendar for the Menaion, while retaining use of the Julian calendar for calculating the Paschalion, has at best been imprudent since it resulted in a schism within the Body of Christ. Fraternal and Christian charity, especially within the Church, demands that we not cause scandal to our brothers and moreover that we do all things in a conciliar and harmonious manner reflecting the unity of Christ.

Alas, charity has not prevailed within the Church, as the "calendar issue" has become the cause to condemn, excoriate, and vilify those Orthodox who share every belief and practice in common with us except use of the same calendar for determining the Menaion. Ill-tempered individuals on both sides of this issue have characterized the others as "rubbish in the street," "illiterates," "peasant ecclesiastical figures," and "a wretched minority" existing "outside the Church." Violence has even been used to wrest church properties away from adherents of the "other side."

The WCC consultation and its resultant statement proposes that the Orthodox Church will agree to this new calendar calculation for the Paschalion. Any right-thinking Orthodox Christian will not fail to see that such a move would not only exacerbate the schism within the Church, but would more than likely create a second schism. Division is the work of the diavolos, not of Christ.

No reasonable person could possibly consider the nonsense coming forth from Aleppo as being consistent with the traditional pronouncements of the Orthodox Church regarding the date of the Paschal Feast. The proposals made by the WCC conference are in fact an insult to the Orthodox people; derive from a simple-minded approach to a complex issue; rely on pseudo-scientific formulae (as though science dictated our spiritual beliefs and customs, anyway); base themselves on a deceptive misrepresentation of the provisions of the Council of Nicaea concerning the date of Pascha; and succeed in "pulling the wool over our eyes" in the name of condescending notions of ecumenical unity.

This proposed WCC notion concerning a common date for Easter and Pascha is a simple attempt to achieve a superficial "cosmetic" unity among Orthodox and Heterodox Christians, when in fact there are severe differences in dogma, doctrine, and matters of Faith that place us miles and miles apart from one another. In short, it is a deception which can only be attributed to the father of deceit, and not to Christ.

Many will surely call for adoption of this ill-conceived notion in the spirit of "Christian love;" the reality, however, is that love without truth is false just as truth without charity is a deception. True Christian love among brothers united in the faith will happen once the truth is proclaimed and acknowledged. Efforts to confound the tradition of the Church and to contradict the determinations of the Holy Fathers are far from being honest or truthful and will result only in disharmony within the Church and its violent offspring, enmity among brothers.

As Orthodox Christians embarked on a life-long struggle toward theosis, our love is exclusively for God and therefore for His way, and His truth, and His life. Love for others that denies or obfuscates divine truth, or which contravenes the way of Christ, is not genuine but disrupts our spiritual progress and leads others astray. Worse, at an institutional level, such as can be seen in the efforts of the WCC, this false love leads to a religion which aims at accommodation to the world and its priorities - a religion foreign to the other-worldly Faith of the Orthodox Fathers, which calls us from this world of darkness to the higher life of light.