Present Anglican practice
The Easter festival is considered an extremely solemn and dignified festival. In the Book of Common Prayer of the U.S. Episcopal Church, special liturgies are provided for the preceeding Sunday (Palm Sunday), the preceeding Thursday (Maundy Thursday) and the preceeding Friday (Good Friday) in order to assist the congregation in preparing for the great festival. In this last service the people's prayers are offered according to an extremely archaic pattern of biddings followed by silent prayer followed by a collect. The feast itself begins in the Babylonian fashion when the sun sets on Saturday, and a special night service of Easter, called the Great Vigil, is also provided. This service begins with the kindling of a new fire and the lighting of the Paschal Candle, followed by an extended, but simple vigil of readings followed by canticles or anthems followed by collects. The rubrics require that Exodus 14:10-15:1 always be read. The service then concludes the synaxis in the usual way with a reading from the epistles, followed by "Alleluia", followed by a reading from the Gospel. The congregation then proceeds to baptism and the Eucharist.
The Easter festival is preceeded by a penitential season called Lent. This season begins on Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday in the week of the seventh Sunday before Easter. A special liturgy is provided for this day also, which includes a "call to the observance of a holy Lent" the recitation of the fifty-first Psalm, and a Litany of Penitence. This liturgy also allows for the optional imposition of ashes (traditionally made from palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday liturgy) as a visible token of repentance.
The Easter festival is called a "movable" feast because it "moves" through a range of dates in the Gregorian calendar. This view rests, of course, on the presupposition that the Roman months (January through December) of the Gregorian calendar are "fixed". If the calendar's Lunar Almanac (described below) were considered fixed, then it is the Roman months that would be "movable". But the traditional view is how the Calendar is in fact everywhere experienced. The Roman months are considered primary and fixed; the lunar almanac is considered a secondary underlay.
As noted, the Gregorian Calendar contains two components: A 365- or 366-day year of Roman months mainly of 30 and 31 days (February being the exception); and a series of 30-day and 29-day moons or lunar months which assign an age of the moon to every day of the year. Each moon or lunar month begins on the day (more precisely, at sunset on the preceeding day) when the moon is 1 day old, and ends when it is 29 or 30 days old. These moons or lunar months are distributed according to a 19-year Metonic cycle: That is, nineteen solar years is divided into 235 moons or lunar months of (formally) 29 or 30 days each. Hence the age of the moon, on any day of the year, is a number between 1 and 30 inclusive. The 235 lunar months can further be broken down, if desired, into nineteen lunar years of 12 or 13 moons each. Once each year occurs the Easter-moon. This is the first moon of the year (that is, after January 1st) to begin on or after March 8th; or, more precisely, on or after sunset on March 7th. Easter is the third Sunday of the Easter-moon.
The number of a year within the 19-year cycle is called its Golden Number. Years whose year-number annorum-Domini are divisible by 19 without remainder are the first year of each cycle: their Golden Number is 1. Hence A.D. 1900 was year 1 of the 19-year cycle, as was A.D. 1995.
The following table gives the date on which the Easter-moon begins for each year of the 19-year cycle.
Golden Number / Start of Easter-moon / example A.D. of this G.N. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 / April 01 / 1995 2 / March 21 / 1996 3 / March 10 / 1997 4 / March 29 / 1998 5 / March 18 / 1999 6 / April 05 / 2000 7 / March 26 / 2001 8 / March 15 / 2002 9 / April 03 / 2003 10 / March 23 / 2004 11 / March 12 / 2005 12 / March 31 / 2006 13 / March 20 / 2007 14 / March 09 / 2008 15 / March 28 / 2009 16 / March 17 / 2010 17 / April 04 / 2011 18 / March 25 / 2012 19 / March 14 / 2013
The Easter-moon has 30 days in the 6th and 17th years of the cycle. In all other years of the cycle, the Easter-moon has 29 days.
The view taken in this article is that the celebration of an annual Easter pre-dates the latest books of the Greek Christian scriptures. The evidence for this view is indirect, however, so other possibilities will be addressed in a separate heading.
The earliest pratice: The Sunday of Unleavened Bread
Sunday was a Christian holy day from the beginning. There would have been no inconsistency if the first Jewish Christians held in special esteem the Sunday that fell within the seven days of Unleavened Bread. (The practice of adding an 8th day to the days of unleavened bread in cities outside Palestine had not yet arisen). The first Gentile Christians, on this theory, adopted this annual Easter Sunday together with the weekly Sunday as part of their Jewish inheritance.
The evidence for this theory is, however, indirect. It consists of the archaic lunisolar method for reckoning the Easter festival together with evidence of the use of the Jewish calendar among the first Gentile Christians.
Evidence for the ongoing use of the Jewish calendar in Gentile Christianity
Saint Paul, writing to his Gentile flock in Corinth, notes that "I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost" (1 Cor. 16.8) clearly assuming that his Gentile hearers will know what "Pentecost" is. The author of Acts notes that navigation on the Mediterranean had become dangerous because "the fast had already gone by" (Acts 27.9) referring to the Day of Atonement without any explanation. The same author earlier noted that Peter had undergone a sort of death and resurrection in the form of an imprisonment and release (Acts 12.1-17) and noted also that "this was during the days of Unleavened Bread." (Acts 12.3). This shows that Gentile Christians continued to keep track of the Jewish year and could be expected to know when its most important festivals were. Yet Gentiles would have no obvious reason to keep track of the Jewish calendar, unless they had inherited from Jewish Christians not only the calendar, but some reason to maintain it. An annual festival depending on that calendar would is at least a possible explanation for Paul's ability to refer to a Jewish festival in passing and expect Gentile Christians to know what he meant.
Some other passages in early Christian literature are consistent with, though they do not prove, an early adoption of an annual Easter. In the work now known as 1 Clement the author notes that "there ought to be strict order and method in our performance of such acts as the Master has prescribed for certain times and seasons." (Chapter 40). Similarly the author of the work known as the Letter to Diognetus states, as translated into English by Charles Thomas Cruttwell in 1893, from which translation all U.S. copyrights have expired,
[The divine Word] is the everlasting one, ever reckoned a Son today, by whom the Church is enriched, by whom grace being simplified is fulfilled in the saints, who granteth insight, explaineth mysteries, announceth times....Whatever purposes of the Word we at his bidding have been moved to utter with pain, of these we make you partakers out of love in all things revealed. By earnest reading and hearing of these ye shall know aright how great things God grants to those that love him, who become a very paradise of joy, an all-fruitful flourishing tree, springing up within themselves, adorned with varied fruits....Let your heart be knowledge, let the true Word entertained by thee be life. Whose tree if thou bearest and whose fruit if thou choosest, thou shalt ever gather the things that with God are desired, which the serpent toucheth not neither doth error approach to, nor is Eve corrupted, but a Virgin is trusted; and salvation is made clear, and the Apostles become intelligible, and the Lord's Passover goes forward, and the waxlights are brought together....(Letter to Diognetus, 11-12)
The reference to "the Lord's Passover" might be a reference to the Easter festival, though other interpretations are possible. But in any case, the author states that the divine Logos, or the Church, "announceth times".
A homily on the twelfth chapter of Exodus, attributed to the second-century writer Melito of Sardis, has been considered by scholars as having been written for the Easter service. There is no precise mention of the occasion being an anniversary festival, but the text clearly notes that Exodus 12 "has been read" (Greek: anegnôstai). In light of later practice, the scholars' conjecture is at least plausible.
Earliest direct evidence of the Easter festival.
The earliest mention of the Easter festival by name occurs in 2nd-century documents cited by the 4th-century writer Eusebius. Eusebius, relying on these 2nd-century authors, notes that churches in the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey) observed Easter on the 14th day of the lunar month, and that in this they differed from Christians elsewhere in the world. (Eccl. Hist. 5.23-25). Eusebius's wording implies that all Christians at that time used a lunisolar reckoning to determine the date of Easter. On the other hand, an early example of Christian hagiography, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, notes that Polycarp died "seven days before the kalends of March". Easter and martyr's festivals are the earliest annual Christian festivals of which we have record. Yet the martyr's festivals, on the evidence of the Martyrdom of Polycarp and later practice, are set on fixed dates in the Roman calendar. This suggests that the annual Easter was established tradition before the mid-2nd century, when martyr's anniversaries began to be observed. If Easter had been a 2nd-century innovation, presumably it , like the martyrs' festivals, would have been placed on a fixed date in the Roman calendar.
The early 3rd-century Latin writings of Tertullian show that certain Easter traditions had stabilized by then to a form that is familiar to us today:
Diem baptismo solemniorem Pascha praestat, cum et passio Domini in qua tinguimur, adimpleta est, nec incongruenter ad figuram interpretabitur, quod cum ultimum Pascha Dominus esset acturus, missis discipulis ad praeparandum, "Invienietis", inquit, "hominem aquam baiulantem" (Mark 14.13) Paschae celebrandae locum de signo aquae ostendit. Exinde Pentecoste ordinandis lavacris latissimum spatium est, quo et Domini resurrectio inter discipulos frequentata est, et gratia Spiritus sancti dedicata, et spes adventus Domini substensa, quod tunc in coelos recuperato eo, angeli ad apostolos dixerunt, "sic venturum quemadmodum et in coelos conscendit" utique in Pentecoste. Sed enim Hieremias cum dicit "Et congregabo illos ab extremis terrae in die festo" , Paschae diem significat et Pentecostes, qui est proprie dies festus. Caeterum omnis dies Domini est, omnis hora, omne tempus habile baptismo: si de sollemnitate interest, de gratia nihil refert.--de Baptismo 19
Here is the 1869 translation of this passage, made by the Rev. S. Thelwall, from which all U.S. copyrights have expired. The words in brackets correspond directly to nothing in the Latin, but are added to make clear the sense in English:
The Passover affords a more [than usually] solemn day for baptism; when, withal, the Lord's passion, in which we are baptized, was completed. Nor will it be incongruous to interpret figuratively [the fact] that, when the Lord was about to celebrate the last Passover, he said to the disciples who were sent to make preparation, "You will meet a man bearing water:" He points out the place for celebrating the Passover by the sign of water. After that, [the space of] Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms; wherein, too, the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proved among the disciples, and the hope of the advent of the Lord indirectly pointed to, in that, at that time, when he had been received back into the heavens, the angels told the apostles that "He would so come, as he had withal ascended into the heavens;" at Pentecost, of course. But, moreover, when Jeremiah says, "And I will gather them together from the extremities of the land in the feast-day," he signifies the day of the Passover and of Pentecost, which is properly a feast-day. Howver, every day is the Lords; every hour, every time, is apt for baptism: if there is a difference in the solemnity, in the grace distinction there is none.
In another work, discussing the Christian use of unwritten traditions, Tertullian writes:
Eucharistiae sacramentum, et in tempore victus, et omnibus mandatum a Domino, etiam antelucanis coetibus, nec de aliorum manu quam praesidentium sumimus; oblationes pro defunctis, pro natalitiis annua die facimus; die Dominico ieiunium nefas ducimus, vel de geniculis adorare. Eadem immunitate a die Paschae in Pentecosten usque gaudemus....Harum et aliarum eiusmodi disciplinarum si legem expostules Scripturarum, nullam invenies: traditio tibi praetendetur auctrix, consuetudo confirmatrix, et fides observatrix.--de Corona Militis 3,4.
In an 1869 English translation, from which all U.S. copyrights have expired, this is interpreted:
We take also, in meetings before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honors. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord's day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilige also from Easter to Whitsunday....If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.
From these writings one sees that Easter and the Fifty Days were times that were considered especially appropriate for baptism. One also sees the Fifty Days treated as if they were a sort of continuous Sunday, on which kneeling and fasting were forbidden. The rule against kneeling during the fifty days was repeated in the 20th Canon of Nicea, and is today enforced among some Christians and encouraged among others.