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Divisions over Christianity’s main event

NCR Staff
Damascus, Syria

In Syria, where Catholics and Orthodox feel close because they share the experience of being a minority, believers on both sides of the East/West divide delivered a clear message during John Paul II’s visit: We want to celebrate Easter together.

The fact that Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter on different dates is a complicated matter for even Christians to understand. Many say it is virtually impossible to explain the division to the country’s Muslim majority.

The difference is the result of both history and church politics. Christians link Easter with the Jewish Passover, celebrated in the first century on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Even when Jews began to fix the date of Passover without reference to the equinox, Christians continued to follow the lunar cycle.

Since the split between East and West in 1054, it has been difficult for the Orthodox churches to adopt any Western innovation. Thus the Orthodox refused to follow the Gregorian calendar -- so called because Pope Gregory XIII decreed it -- used in the West since 1582. The Orthodox prefer the older Julian calendar. Both calendars are inaccurate with respect to modern astronomical data, with the Gregorian off by a few minutes and the Julian by 13 days.

The result is that for Catholics, Easter falls between March 22 and April 25; for the Orthodox between April 4 and May 8.

Some experts have proposed fixing a given Sunday as Easter, but church leaders on both sides have rejected the proposal since it would abandon the link with Passover. Others have suggested adopting a common calendar, but the proposal has gone nowhere.

The message that came through loud and clear in Syria was: Figure it out.

“We must celebrate Easter together forever,” said Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham, speaking to the pope during his May 6 Mass at Damascus’ Abyssinian Stadium. The crowd of some 40,000, roughly equal parts Catholic and Orthodox, burst into strong applause, the only line that drew such a reaction.

Gregory repeated the point: “We must have a common Easter, forever.”

Believers on both sides underscored the desire for a common Easter throughout the visit.

“It’s very difficult for us to explain this to the Muslims,” said Sr. Marina, superior of a Greek Catholic community charged with custody of the Church of St. Paul on the Wall in the Bab Kissan gate of the old walls of Damascus. It was built on the spot where the New Testament says Paul was lowered in a basket to escape an angry mob.

“They wonder why we are divided,” Sr. Marina said.

During the papal Mass, a young Syrian named Moussah Al-Saifi told NCR he couldn’t agree more.

“We need a common Easter. We want one church, Catholics and Orthodox together,” he said. Al-Saifi described himself as both Orthodox and Catholic, the son of an Orthodox father and Catholic mother.

Fr. Fayez Mansoua, a Syrian Orthodox priest with responsibility for Syrian Orthodox believers in Germany, said he had hoped the pope would bring a more decisive solution to the problem.

“We’ve talked about this for 20 years,” Mansoua said. “We don’t have more time to lose.” Mansoua hinted, though he did not say explicitly, that he felt the easiest solution would be for the pope to simply adopt the Orthodox calendar.

The most serious attempt to date to resolve the problem was a March 1997 meeting in Aleppo, Syria, sponsored by the World Council of Churches and later endorsed by a joint Orthodox-Catholic theological dialogue.

It suggested the feast be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, using the best astronomical data available and using Jerusalem as the point of reference.

To date, neither the Catholic church nor the 15 independent branches of Orthodoxy have implemented the proposal.

However, one model exists for a solution. In Finland, the tiny Orthodox church received permission from Constantinople in the 1920s to follow the Gregorian calendar. Catholics and Orthodox Finns, therefore, already celebrate a common Easter.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001