Please, leave Easter on nature’s time

In this April 30, 2015, file photo, a cross draped with a white sash for Easter is seen on the campus of St. Peter Indian Mission School in Bapchule, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
In this April 30, 2015, file photo, a cross draped with a white sash for Easter is seen on the campus of St. Peter Indian Mission School in Bapchule, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

by Donna Schaper

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Back in January, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he is in conversation with other Christian leaders -- including Pope Francis, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew -- about establishing a fixed date for Easter.

I can’t tell you how upset that news makes me.

Easter is about living in nature’s time, not the calendar’s time. It involves living in kairos, not chronos time. You can still wear a watch but you can’t live by it. You have to live another way. At Easter, you get a whiff of eternity and move outside the kind of time that can be measured.

According to the BBC, the Vatican in 1990 approved a proposed fixed Easter date, but left it subject to the agreement of other Christian churches and governments that has yet to come. I understand why it would take 26 years, or even longer, to reach agreement on a matter as important as this one.

Francis, meanwhile, has spoken regularly about the need for Christians worldwide to come together around a common date for Easter. “The date of Easter is one sign of unity,” he told journalists aboard the papal plane following his May 2014 trip to the Holy Land, acknowledging he and Bartholomew have discussed the issue.  A year later, he quipped to a gathering of priests in Rome, "A Catholic and an Orthodox meet. One says, 'Your Christ has risen? Mine rises next Sunday.'"

Rarely am I a conservative, but on this matter I can’t believe Francis and I would be on different sides. Throughout his encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” he attempts to help the world reorient toward a deeper connection with nature and its natural cycles -- and then he takes our biggest day and potentially hands it over to the calendar people. Well, he didn’t do this alone, given the Vatican had approved a fixed date before his papacy, but former popes should side with eternity as much as one named after a naturalist, St. Francis of Assisi.

The calendar may be full of my numbers friends but it is full of them in static, non-natural ways. If the date of Easter is fixed, it will hurt those of us trying to learn how to feast on and in time.

Since the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the western churches have calculated Easter Sunday using the paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (or “spring equinox” in the Northern Hemisphere). Easter is celebrated the first Sunday afterward; this year that lands on March 27, but the feast day can occur in the west anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

Thus, Easter is based in a lunar cycle, not a chronological cycle. Time is not a management issue; it is a natural and spiritual issue. When the word “management” gets too close to the word time, we have trouble.

The Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar, meaning Easter falls between April 4 and May 8. On occasion, the dates align and Easter is celebrated on the same day by both churches. That last occurred in 2010 and 2011, and will also happen next year.

People love to talk about how early spring is or how late spring is. We love to talk about the weather and we should love to talk about the weather. Weather is something to love, not manage. It brings us into the air and out of the car, it brings us into the seasons and out of the measurable. When we hear that this past March 10 was the warmest on record in New York City, an attitude of reverence, not measurement, should prevail. It’s cool that someone is counting but warmth, not numbers, is the issue.

But all these tweakings of our language of measurement and weather are minor. They too are a nod to the secular, a bow to the chronological with its major offense to the kairotic.

Chronological time plods along, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour in a human invention called the clock, whereas kairotic time jumps up on your lap like a puppy and says I’ll have a walk now. Or a life-changing thought now. Or a terrible pain in my chest now. 

Kairotic time retains a sense of mystery, always bugging you like a watch that is too tight on your arm. You’re late. You’re out of time. You’re behind time. You’re too early. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You were just lucky; you were in the right place at the right time. For the time being, you were just being.

If we are to retain any sense of mystery about Easter, we’re going to have to do so by refusing to manage time. We are going to have to substitute sacred numbers and sacred seasonality for secular numbers and fully owned-and-bought seasonality -- the kind that gives us “jingle hell” starting before Thanksgiving. We are going to have to move through the numbers of life with a flow and not with a force, or as people who are forced to have a certain job or weight by a certain age.

“My time has come,” Jesus said to his friends on the night of his betrayal in the garden.  This is kairotic time. They thought it was just another Passover, just like the one the year before, and the one that was coming in the next year. It wasn’t. It was the Passover after the first March moon. It was a time outside the type of time that could be managed.

Please join me in telling my friend Pope Francis not to make an Easter mistake by turning it over to the clock. Or maybe encourage him to delay it a couple hundred years. “You are delaying for the right reason,” you can tell him. “You are sticking with a season and not folding to an un-season.”

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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