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Published: 3/16/2008

While Easter's purpose is clear, observance date can add up to confusion

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Aidan Dillon, 12, of Sylvania leads the processional after a Palm Sunday service at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo. Today is the start of Holy Week. Aidan Dillon, 12, of Sylvania leads the processional after a Palm Sunday service at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo. Today is the start of Holy Week.
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If it seems like Easter is early this year, just wait till 2285. It'll come even sooner.

The March 23 observance this year is just one day later than the earliest possible date for Easter, which can fall anywhere from March 22 to April 25. It hasn't been as early as March 23 since 1913 and won't fall on the date again until 2160.

"It catches you by surprise," said the Rev. Dave Claassen, pastor of Mayfair-Plymouth Congregational Church in West Toledo. "You barely catch your breath from Advent and then you're into Lent."

"From a planning perspective, it's been quite a challenge," said the Rev. Charles Singler, director of worship for the Toledo Catholic Diocese. "It seems like no sooner did we finish Christmas this year than in a matter of weeks we're into the Lenten season, and Lent has flown by and we've had the time of the clock changing [for Daylight Saving Time], and now it's Holy Week."

The purpose of the Christian holy day is clear: to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the way the date is calculated is not that simple.

Easter is a moveable feast whose date is set by a formula that takes into consideration the lunar and solar calendars.

"Basically, the date is determined to occur on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal [spring] equinox," said Geoff Chester of the public affairs office of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington.

The equinox this year is Thursday, and the full moon is the next day, he said.

"The earliest possible date for Easter is March 22, which hasn't happened since 1818 and will not occur again until 2285," Mr. Chester said via e-mail.

"The latest it can occur is April 25. This happens a little more frequently, but the last time was 1943 and the next 'latest' Easter won't happen again until 2038," he said.

Most of the world's 2 billion Christians begin celebrating Holy Week today with Palm Sunday, marking the day the Bible says Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey as crowds celebrated by waving palm branches at him.

Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples in what became known as the Last Supper, was crucified on Good Friday, and rose from the grave on Easter Sunday.

For the first three centuries of Christianity, Easter was celebrated on either the first day after the Jewish Passover or the Sunday closest to the first day of Passover.

In 325 A.D., at the First Council of Nicaea in modern-day Turkey, the date for Easter was set as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, independent of the Hebrew calendar.

From 326 to 1582 A.D., Easter Sunday was determined according to the Julian calendar, which was replaced in 1582 by the now-standard Gregorian calendar.

The date of Passover, which is April 20 this year, changes according to the Gregorian calendar but is always on the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, according to Rabbi Sam Weinstein of The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania.

Eastern Orthodox Christians always observe Easter after the Hebrew Passover in order to follow the biblical sequence, said the Rev. Aristotle Damaskos of Toledo's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

This year, the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter, or Pascha, on April 27 - five weeks after Western Christianity's holiday.

The Rev. Jason Tyas, pastor of Reformation and Bethany Lutheran churches in West Toledo, said the biggest impact this year's early Easter has had on him was the jump into Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter that began on Feb. 6, Ash Wednesday.

"We do a lot more special services during Lent, so we did not have much time between the holidays," he said.

Another effect of this year's early Easter was the Catholic Church's celebration of saints whose feast days fell during Holy Week.

The Vatican moved the liturgical observances for St. Patrick up three days to March 14 and St. Joseph from March 19 to yesterday.

Mr. Claassen of Mayfair-Plymouth Church said that although the church calendar has been jammed, there are benefits to having Lent arrive so soon after Advent, the season leading up to Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

"It is good to pull Advent and Lent close together because Christmas doesn't have a lot of meaning without Easter and Easter doesn't have a lot of meaning without Christmas," he said.

People who like to plan ahead can find a list of Easter Sundays through the year 2299, calculated by the Astronomical Society of South Australia, online at www.assa.org.au The site also lists Easter Sunday dates back to 1700.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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