You just never know when Easter will come. Suppose that on January 1 of any given year, someone handed you a brand new calendar. Then suppose this person said, “Without looking, can you tell me when Christmas will be this year?” You might not know the precise day of the week, but you surely would know that this year, as always, Christmas will be December 25. But what if you were asked when Easter was going to be? To answer that, you’d have to open the calendar and check.
From time immemorial the Church has set the date for Easter based on the lunar cycle. Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon that follows the vernal equinox on March 20. That means that Easter could come anywhere from the last two Sundays in March all the way to the last Sunday in April.
For the most part, the high points on the Church’s liturgical calendar are steady and predictable. Advent is always four weeks long and always concludes on December 25. Lent always includes six Sundays and always concludes on Holy Saturday. Ascension Day is set forty days after Easter with Pentecost following ten days after that. Yet Easter floats with the moon.
In the New Testament, there is no question which is more important: Christmas or Easter. Easter wins hands down. No gospel skips Easter but both Mark and John completely omit stories related to Jesus’ birth (though, as a friend of mine once wryly noted, “two wrongs don’t make a right!”). Apparently you can have a gospel without Christmas but not without Easter. Yet for that very reason I find it ironic that we’ve never fixed a date for Easter. You just never know when Easter will occur.
Spiritually speaking, we wouldn’t lose anything if an ecumenical council decreed that all Christians everywhere would henceforth celebrate Easter on the first Sunday in April. And yet, having Easter ricochet around the calendar year-to-year is not all bad; in fact, there’s something nicely symbolic about it.
Because it’s true: you never know when Easter will come, quite beyond the calendar date. Easter’s sudden bursting forth of eternal life in the midst of a world of death was as unexpected on the first day it happened as it is in the lives of people still today. You never know when the power of Easter will catch you up in its splendid light. So many people have testi- fied that when they least expected it, at the lowest point of their lives when all hope seemed lost, suddenly the light of Christ eastered into their hearts and all things were made new on the landscape of their minds. You never know when it will hit you because God’s Spirit is incessantly on the move, brooding over the darkness of humanity and looking for any opportunity to burst in with the light of Jesus’ victory.
Years ago, when the scourge of Communism seemed so deeply entrenched that it would never go away, a friend of mine went to an Easter Vigil service at a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, right in the heart of Communist darkness. A huge crowd of people was gathered outside the church. Precisely at midnight, the priest flung open the cathedral’s front door and cried out, “Christ Is Risen!” And with one, thunderous voice the great throng replied, “Risen Indeed!” My friend told me it was at that moment that he knew, with a clarity he had never before experienced, that it’s true: Christ is risen! He is alive! My friend was far from home and in the middle of a totalitarian state that denied God’s very existence, and yet it was right then and there that he experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection more powerfully than anything he had ever known.
This March issue of Perspectives is this year’s Easter issue since in 2005 Easter comes fairly early, on March 27. But for all I know, it may be May, July, or August when you are reading this; if you’re like me, periodicals have a way of piling up, unread, on the corner of the desk, just waiting for you to do some catch-up reading. But no matter what the date when you read this, the Holy Spirit of God is right this very moment bringing Easter to some despairing person somewhere in the world. Who knows, maybe the Spirit is stirring in your heart right now in a way you’ve not felt before. It can happen. It does happen.
When you get right down to it, the only reason we are Christians is because every day is the right day to say, “Happy Easter.” Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. And the celebration of that will never be contained in time or even in all eternity