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Why Greek Orthodox and Western Easter will Never Coincide After 2700

Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, is celebrated on the majestic island of Skopelos. Credit: JohnKarak,  CC BY-SA 2.0/ flickr

This year, Western Christians and Greek Orthodox believers — who use different liturgical calendars — celebrate Easter, or Pascha almost one full month apart, with the former being on April 4 and the latter May 2.

In 2017, Easter came at the same time for both denominations, something that will happen again in 2025.

However, for purely astronomical reasons, the difference between the celebration of Easter for the two denominations will be getting wider by quite a few years.

And from 2700 and onward, the celebration of Easter for the Greek Orthodox Church and the western Christian churches will never coincide again.

Altogether, in the whole 21st century, the celebration of Easter will be held common 31 years, but during every forthcoming century this will happen more and more rarely.

The last time Easter celebrations will coincide is estimated to be in 2698. From then on, Orthodox and western Christians will never celebrate the Resurrection of Christ together again.

Easter and the Western calendar

The First Ecumenical Synod in 325 AD decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring.

If this full moon occurs on Sunday, then it will be celebrated the next Sunday. Thus, the Christian Easter would never coincide with the Jewish Passover.

At the same time the celebration of Easter was clearly associated with an astronomical phenomenon, the spring equinox and the first full moon of spring.

In order to calculate the date of Easter, the date of the first full moon and then the first Sunday after the full moon had to be found.

The First Ecumenical Synod instructed the Patriarch of Alexandria to inform the other churches the Easter day after the date of the first full moon was calculated with the help of the astronomers in the Egyptian city.

The calendar that was in force at the time of the First Ecumenical Synod was the Julian — which Julius Caesar himself had instituted in 45 BC with the help of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenis.

The latter, based on the calculations of Hipparchus (who a century prior had estimated with impressive accuracy that the solar year had a duration of 365.242 days), established a calendar with 365 days, and in every fourth year (the “leap year”) one more day was added.

However, the Julian Calendar had a small error, because the duration of the solar year is in fact 365.242199 days. Every four years, this small error reaches 45 minutes, and every 129 years the minutes add up to a day. As a result, the Spring Equinox is coming earlier and earlier.

Thus, while the Spring Equinox at the time of Christ occurred on March 23, by the year 1582 AD it occurred on March 11.

At the time, Pope Gregory II instructed astronomers Christoforos Klavios and Luigi Lilios to make a reform of the calendar.

Oct. 5, 1582 was recalculated as Oct. 15 to correct the error that had accumulated over the past 11 centuries and the Spring Equinox returned to March 21, as it had been during the First Ecumenical Synod.

The New, or Gregorian, Calendar was adopted by the Catholic states of Europe in the next five years, and by the Protestants much later.

Due to an even stronger reaction by the Orthodox Church to the Gregorian Calendar, the Julian Calendar remained in force in all Orthodox States until the 20th century.

Greece and the Gregorian calendar

In Greece, the Julian Calendar was finally replaced by the Gregorian on Feb. 16, 1923, with the date changing to March 1st on that day.

That is, 13 days have been removed since 1923, because of the 10-day error between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars since 1582 and another three days for the difference between the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the West and its adoption by the Greeks three and a half centuries later.

In 1924, the Greek Orthodox Church accepted the ecclesiastical calendar, which would be identical with the civil calendar and to apply for immovable holidays — but not for the Easter celebration and for mobile holidays, which are still calculated on the basis of the Julian or Old Calendar.

But the difference in the celebration of Easter between Orthodox and western Christians is not only based on the error of the Julian Calendar but also on the error of the so-called “Metonic cycle,” named after Greek astronomer Meton of Athens of the 5th century BC.

The Metonic cycle is a period of close to 19 years, which is almost a common multiple of the solar year and the synodic (lunar) month.

The Metonic cycle was used by the Christian astronomers of Alexandria, on the basis of which the Orthodox Church continues to count the dates for future spring full moons.

On the 13 days of the Julian Spring Equinox, the error of the 19-year Metonic cycle – which from 325 AD to the present time amounts to four to five days – must be added. As a consequence the Metonic (or Julian) full moon is calculated four to five days later than the actual one.

The Greek Orthodox Church continues to use the Old Julian Calendar and the Metonic cycle to determine the date of Pascha.

Thus, Orthodox Pascha is often celebrated not on the first Sunday after the full moon, but on the next or after the second full moon, instead of the first Sunday after the first Spring full moon, as the Nice Synod had decided.

Catholics and other Christians celebrate Easter according to the rule of the First Ecumenical Synod, but their Spring Equinox and the spring full moon are calculated according to the New Gregorian Calendar, also taking into account the Metonic error.

So the Gregorian-Catholic full moon is much closer to the astronomical one (often coinciding or having only one day difference) than the Julian-Orthodox.

It is fairly common that Orthodox and other Christians to celebrate Easter together, when both the Gregorian and the Julian-Metonic Easter moon fall from Sunday to Saturday of the same week (as long as it is after April 3 and two full moons), so the next Sunday is Easter common for both.

However, after 2700, due to the accumulation of the Metonic error for almost seven centuries, the Julian and the Gregorian full moon will never coincide in the same week again, so there will be no common Easter again.

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