Today I am happy to introduce another guest blogger here at Sacred Space Astronomy: Karen Shadle, Director of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville Kentucky. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a post about Msgr. Bouchet’s telescope and Tim Tomes. Tomes is now the archivist and historian for the Archdiocese. He encouraged Shadle to contact me after reading an article on moveable feasts that she had written for her column in The Record, the Archdiocesan newspaper. This post is adapted from that article. Karen Shadle is a musicologist with a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the history of sacred music in the United States and is an accomplished organist, pianist, and choir director. She lives in Louisville with her husband and two children.
Karen Shadle, 23 Jan 2020
“Alexa, when is Easter?” I asked, pre-stressing for what will be a very busy spring in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
“Easter is Sunday, April 12,” the digital assistant chirped back.
Unlike Christmas, which we know happens on December 25th every year, Easter in the Roman Church moves around from year to year. It occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox, which is the official beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, is the date on which the center of the sun is directly above the earth’s equator, when day and night are of equal length.
“Equinox” combines the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night). I don’t know about you, but the long stretches of winter darkness seem to weigh me down. On many days, it is dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home! The vernal equinox is an exciting turning point where we can all look forward to long days that culminate in sunlit summer evenings.
The vernal equinox always occurs somewhere in the range of March 19-21, but it can vary a bit depending on where you live in your specific time zones, leap year calculus, the slight tilt of the earth, and some other astronomical math that I don’t understand. (I am a liturgist and definitely NOT an astronomer!) At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Church declared that March 21 would be fixed as the “ecclesiastical approximation” of the vernal equinox in order to simplify things somewhat. Therefore, Easter in the Roman church can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.
Why is Easter’s date tied to the moon and the sun to begin with? We know from scripture that Jesus rose from the tomb early on the first Sunday following the feast of Passover. The Jewish calendar is partly lunar and partly solar. Its months are either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to a roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle. Its years are either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to a roughly 12.4-month solar cycle. Passover should ordinarily correspond with a full moon on the 15th of the month of Nisan. However, because we are not dealing with whole numbers, the month-moon cycles often get slightly out of sync before lining back up again. Because of this, the Jewish rabbis would sometimes have to announce when Passover would be celebrated in a given year. This is how we derive the tradition of calculating Easter.
None of this matters much in the age of Alexa, Google, Siri, and the others. Calendars are ubiquitous, and we trust their calculations without thinking. However, there was a time when the announcement of the date of Easter was of great practical and spiritual importance to the Christian people.
There is a very beautiful and very optional liturgical rite of the Proclamation of the Date of Easter, which can be inserted into Mass at the Solemnity of the Epiphany. This feast is traditionally celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas (January 6) and marks the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the newborn King. In the United States, Epiphany is moved to a Sunday (between January 2-8) so that it can be more readily celebrated by the faithful.
At the Epiphany Mass after the homily or after the communion rite, a deacon or cantor chants the proclamation:
|Noveritis, fratres carissimi, quod annuente Dei misericordia, sicut de Nativitate Domini nostri iesu Christi gavisi sumus, ita et de Resurrectione eiusdem salvatoris nostri gaudium vobis annuntiamus.||Know, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by leave of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection, who is our Savior.|
|Die sexta et vigesima februarii erit dies Cinerum, et initium ieiunii sacratissimæ Quadragesimæ.||On the twenty-sixth day of February will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.|
|Die duodecima aprilis sanctum Pascha Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum gaudio celebrabitis.||On the twelfth day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Paschal feast of our Lord Jesus Christ.|
|Die una et vigesima maii erit Ascensio Domini nostri Iesu Christi.||On the twenty-first day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.|
|Die una et trigesima maii festum Pentecostes.||On the thirty-first day of May, the feast of Pentecost.|
|Die undecima iunii festum sanctissimi Corporis et sanguinis Christi.||On the fourteenth day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.|
|Die undetrigesima novembris dominica prima Adventus Domini nostri Iesu Christi, cui sit honor et gloria, in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.||On the twenty-ninth day of November, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.|
(The dates here are the dates for 2020.) Through the rhythms of times and seasons we celebrate the mysteries of salvation. We are a pilgrim Church, and Jesus Christ is the Lord of all time and history. Like the sun in the sky, God illuminates all that is known.
The Proclamation of the Date of Easter on Epiphany is an ancient tradition that is somewhat obscure and rarely used in modern liturgy, perhaps for good reason. On a practical level, Christians no longer need to wait for an announcement or scribble down a list of the important moveable feasts of the year. Nevertheless, I’m glad the Proclamation persists as an option. I might even encourage a renaissance. It’s a beautiful reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus in the rhythm of our lives. Most everything that the church does revolves around Easter, and so should our lives of faith.
There are many ways to mark time in a year. Farmers use the seasons, accountants use fiscal quarters, sports fans use the team schedule, and teachers use semesters. Christians mark time by Easter. From Easter’s placement, the rest of the liturgical year falls into place. As we turn the page to a new year, let us all reorient ourselves to the cross.
Entirely by coincidence, another person from the Diocese of Louisville has been writing on the proclamation of the date of Easter: Fr. Steven Reeves, associate pastor at Saint Boniface and Saint Patrick churches in Louisville. Click here to see his take on the subject.