I was baptized and raised Orthodox just like my father. Conversely my mom was Catholic and therefore, almost every year there were two Resurrection Sunday celebrations in our family. From a kid’s perspective this was great but spiritually, it always left me a bit conflicted. What added to that burden was our Orthodox priest’s Resurrection Sunday sermon which always was an explanation about why ‘we’ were celebrating the correct date and everybody else was wrong. His explanation always used the argument of Passover and Easter needing to be in the right chronological order. Of course, this made sense historically but, I was still conflicted out of empathy for my mom. I would always ask my dad, ‘why does he have to preach about the correct date. Isn’t it most important that we simply acknowledge & accept the resurrection?’. My dad would agree and just chalk it up to tradition. As my faith grew so did my Biblical understanding for neutralizing this conflict. I believed the date for celebrating the resurrection was less important because as believers we were really celebrating Jesus’ Resurrection everyday and I still know that to be true but not long ago, something made the date of the Resurrection more significant in my mind. I was chatting about this very topic with my friend and sister in Christ, Tanya Feygin. Tanya had been studying Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament feast days as outlined in Leviticus 23. In the course of her study, she came across the historic reasoning for the difference in Resurrection Sunday celebration dates and shared it with me. (1)
It was not only eye opening information but, a bit shocking as well. Apparently all Christians used to celebrate the Resurrection according to the Orthodox calendar tradition. It wasn’t until 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicea that a decision was made to change the date. That decision was made specifically to separate the Resurrection of Jesus from Passover and Christianity from it’s Jewish roots. The ruler Constantine obliged the Council and sent out a letter to all those who were not able to be present informing them of the decisions made, including the decision to reject Passover and to instead celebrate Easter. From historical documents, here’s an excerpt from the emperor Constantine’s letter…
“It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom[the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded. In rejecting their custom, we may transmit to our descendants the legitimate mode of celebrating Easter… We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way…. we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews…”
You now may understand my shock and dismay. Was this not early antisemitism?… and that’s what really lead to a Resurrection date calendar change? How could the council at Nicea ignore the fact that the Last Supper was the Passover meal shared by Jesus with His disciples? Not only was I surprised to learn this about the resurrection date change but, I am also ashamed of it’s misguided reasoning. From a strictly historical point of view, it’s true that the Pharisees were the driving force behind Jesus’ crucifixion but we know from God’s Word and perspective, that the sinful nature of the human race is what nailed Jesus to the cross. In other words, the crucifixion was necessary for you, me and everyone in order to pay the debt on our collective sins.
Now enlightened with this understanding of the historical reasoning, my initial reaction was to share this in order to get all believers celebrating The Resurrection according to the Orthodox calendar. I reasoned that this must be done to end the perpetuation of a wrongful decision made almost 1700 years ago which has unknowingly and wrongfully separated us from our Judeo-Christian roots in a vile manner. Yet as I discussed this more with Tanya, my zeal to right this wrong was tempered by the Holy Spirit convicting my heart to not undo one wrong with another. You may ask, ‘what does that mean?’ In one word, ‘legalism’. To not foolishly attempt to right a wrong by becoming like the Pharisees. Not only does our Lord hate legalism but He went out of His way to challenge it. When we read the Gospels, it is noteworthy how Jesus deliberately did things to provoke the legalists of His day. He could have healed people on any day, but He often did it on the Sabbath. He could have quietly gone about violating the Pharisees’ rules, but He did it openly. When we read of a Pharisee inviting Jesus to dinner, He could have gone along with their hand-washing rules & rituals, but He deliberately ignored them. When the Pharisees questioned His apparent disobedience, He could have been more polite, but He spoke truth with compassion to chastise them for their hypocrisy. We read this in Luke 11:39-44 where Jesus points out that legalism in the church (body of Christ) puts emphasis on the external to the neglect of the internal. We also find the warning against legalism dividing the church to be a consistent theme of Paul’s ministry. Perhaps the most relevant to this discussion can be found in Colossians 2:14-16, 20-23 KJV;
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days…
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.”
While I believe we should share with others the wrong committed at Nicea in 325 A.D., we still need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over nonessential church matters. Without doubt, The Resurrection is the most central essential of our faith. Without it, Christianity becomes hollow. Conversely, the date one chooses to celebrate the resurrection is clearly according to scripture, a nonessential of our faith and should not become a point of contention that divides the church as a whole. A quote often attributed to Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354-430) states,
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
So now you know what I’ve learned and each of us has a decision to make. As for me, I’ll be celebrating Easter on April 1st with my mom; I will also be celebrating Pascha on April 8th with my dad; most importantly, each and everyday I’ll be celebrating The Resurrection of my Lord & Savior Jesus! What about you?
As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Memories eternal! This article is dedicated to the many fond memories of my dear friend and sister in Christ, Tanya Feygin. Tanya passed away very unexpectedly on January 19, 2018. She is survived by her husband Yury and three young children named Daniel, Anna & Sarah. Please remember them in your prayers.