I am writing this primarily as an article for Baddow Life newspaper, for which I am one of the editorial team; hence the local references. I thank Liturgee for a comment on Lingamish’s blog which led me to an informative post on this subject. I have also made use of this Wikipedia article, this one and this one. Also a Google search found me interesting comments on this blog post.
Easter Sunday this year is unusually early, 23rd March. This causes difficulties especially for schools, and in fact this year Essex children will be back at school for four days after Easter and before their main spring holiday. At least it may mean that this year there are daffodils still in bloom to decorate our churches.
In fact Easter has not been this early since 1913. The earliest possible date is 22nd March, but the last time it was on that day was in 1818. These dates are determined by complex calculations which go back to the 6th century: Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon on or after 21st March, supposed to be the day of the spring equinox. This year the moon is full exactly on 21st March, and so Easter is on the following Sunday.
There have been many proposals to fix the date of Easter, which would certainly make things easier for schools. Parliament passed the Easter Act of 1928 to do just this, but it was never implemented. The Roman Catholic church has accepted in principle a fixed date if a consensus could be reached among churches, and the Church of England position seems similar. But at the moment no such consensus is likely.
One reason for this is because a fixed Easter would break the link with the Jewish feast of Passover or Pesach. The original events of the Easter season, the death and resurrection of Jesus, took place at this festival season. Passover is a celebration of the night when the Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt, which for obvious reasons was at full moon. Easter is similarly a celebration of how Jesus delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and it is important for some that the link to Passover is retained.
As the ancient Israelites used a lunar calendar, and modern Jews still do for religious purposes, Passover was always celebrated at full moon, the 14th day of the first lunar month Nisan. The Christian feast day is supposed to be on the nearest Sunday to this date. But in fact over the centuries the calculations have diverged, and so in some years, including this one, Passover is a whole month later than Easter.
Eastern Orthodox churches also often, including this year, celebrate Easter about a month later than western churches. This is mainly because they calculate the dates according to the old Julian calendar which is 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar.
This Easter, watch out for the full moon and remember how its light helped ancient slaves to escape from Egypt. Then remember that, as the psalmist wrote, God’s word to us in the Bible is “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”. By this light we can follow the way which Jesus Christ has opened up, to escape from anything that enslaves us and find true freedom.