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§ 79. The Time of the Easter Festival.
Comp. the Literature in vol. i. at § 99; also L. Ideler: Handbuch der Chronologie. Berlin, 1826. Vol. ii. F. Piper: Geschichte des Osterfestes. Berlin, 1845. Hefele: Conciliengeschichte. Freiburg, 1855. Vol. i. p. 286 ff.
The time of the Easter festival became, after the second century, the subject of long and violent controversies and practical confusions, which remind us of the later Eucharistic disputes, and give evidence that human passion and folly have sought to pervert the great facts and institutions of the New Testament from holy bonds of unity into torches of discord, and to turn the sweetest honey into poison, but, with all their efforts, have not been able to destroy the beneficent power of those gifts of God.
These Paschal controversies descended into the present period, and ended with the victory of the Roman and Alexandrian practice of keeping Easter, not, like Christmas and the Jewish Passover, on a fixed day of the month, whatever day of the week it might be, but on a Sunday, as the day of the resurrection of our Lord. Easter thus became, with all the feasts depending on it, a movable feast; and then the different reckonings of the calendar led to many inconveniences and confusions. The exact determination of Easter Sunday is made from the first full moon after the vernal equinox; so that the day may fall on any Sunday between the 22d day of March and the 25th of April.
The council of Arles in 314 had already decreed, in its first canon, that the Christian Passover be celebrated “uno die et uno tempore per omnem orbem,” and that the bishops of Rome should fix the time. But as this order was not universally obeyed, the fathers of Nicaea proposed to settle the matter, and this was the second main object of the first ecumenical council in 325. The result of the transactions on this point, the particulars of which are not known to us, does not appear in the canons (probably out of consideration for the numerous Quartodecimanians), but is doubtless preserved in the two circular letters of the council itself and the emperor Constantine.750750 Socrates: Hist. Eccl. i. 9; Theodoret: H. E. i. 10; Eusebius: Vita Const ii. 17. Comp. Hefele, l.c. i. p. 309 sqq. The feast of the resurrection was thenceforth required to be celebrated everywhere on a Sunday, and never on the day of the Jewish passover, but always after the fourteenth of Nisan, on the Sunday after the first vernal full moon. The leading motive for this regulation was opposition to Judaism, which had dishonored the passover by the crucifixion of the Lord.” We would,” says the circular letter of Constantine in reference to the council of Nice, “we would have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews; for we have received from the Redeemer another way of honoring God [the order of the days of the week], and harmoniously adopting this method, we would withdraw ourselves from the evil fellowship of the Jews. For what they pompously assert, is really utterly absurd: that we cannot keep this feast at all without their instruction .... It is our duty to have nothing in common with the murderers of our Lord.” This bitter tone against Judaism runs through the whole letter.
At Nicaea, therefore, the Roman and Alexandrian usage with respect to Easter triumphed, and the Judaizing practice of the Quartodecimanians, who always celebrated Easter on the fourteenth of Nisan, became thenceforth a heresy. Yet that practice continued in many parts of the East, and in the time of Epiphanius, about a.d. 400, there were many, Quartodecimanians, who, as he says, were orthodox, indeed, in doctrine, but in ritual were addicted to Jewish fables, and built upon the principle: “Cursed is every one who does not keep his passover on the fourteenth of Nisan.”751751 Epiphanius, Haer. l.c. 1. Comp. Ex. xii. 15. They kept the day with the Communion and with fasting till three o’clock. Yet they were divided into several parties among themselves. A peculiar offshoot of the Quartodecimanians was the rigidly ascetic Audians, who likewise held that the passover must be kept at the very same time (not after the same manner) with the Jews, on the fourteenth of Nisan, and for their authority appealed to their edition of the Apostolic Constitutions.
And even in the orthodox church these measures did not secure entire uniformity. For the council of Nicaea, probably from prudence, passed by the question of the Roman and Alexandrian computation of Easter. At least the Acts contain no reference to it.752752 Hefele thinks, however (i. p. 313 f.), from an expression of Cyril of Alexandria and Leo I., that the Nicaenum (1) gave the Alexandrian reckoning the preference over the Roman; (2) committed to Alexandria the reckoning, to Rome the announcing, of the Easter term; but that this order was not duly observed. At all events this difference remained: that Rome, afterward as before, fixed the vernal equinox, the terminus a quo of the Easter full moon, on the 18th of March, while Alexandria placed it correctly on the 21st. It thus occurred, that the Latins, the very year after the Nicene council, and again in the years 330, 333, 340, 341, 343, varied from the Alexandrians in the time of keeping Easter. On this account the council of Sardica, as we learn from the recently discovered Paschal Epistles of Athanasius, took the Easter question again in hand, and brought about, by mutual concessions, a compromise for the ensuing fifty years, but without permanent result. In 387 the difference of the Egyptian and the Roman Easter amounted to fully five weeks. Later attempts also to adjust the matter were in vain, until the monk Dionysius Exiguus, the author of our Christian calendar, succeeded in harmonizing the computation of Easter on the basis of the true Alexandrian reckoning; except that the Gallican and British Christians adhered still longer to the old custom, and thus fell into conflict with the Anglo-Saxon. The introduction of the improved Gregorian calendar in the Western church in 1582 again produced discrepancy; the Eastern and Russian church adhered to the Julian calendar, and is consequently now about twelve days behind us. According to the Gregorian calendar, which does not divide the months with astronomical exactness, it sometimes happens that the Paschal full moon is put a couple of hours too early, and the Christian Easter, as was the case in 1825, coincides with the Jewish Passover, against the express order of the council of Nicaea.
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