When Bishop Tremble, the episcopal leader of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, announced that churches should not meet for four weeks, I think all pastors immediately grabbed a calendar to look ahead. It was with shock and disappointment that I think all of these pastors realized that Easter was included in this four-week period of suspended worship services for social distancing. It is true, for the first time in most of our lives we will not be able to gather together to loudly sing “Up From the Grave He Arose” in a sanctuary full of beautiful lilies. We will miss Easter this year. Rather we will miss the day that church tradition has assigned to Easter this year.
Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, but only rarely do we actually celebrate the resurrection on a date that the resurrection happened. The history of when we celebrate Easter is long and complex. In the past, some believers were excommunicated from the church because of when they thought Easter should be celebrated. It became decided that instead of having a fixed date for Easter, the holy day would always be celebrated on a Sunday. This was decided because it was originally a Sunday that Jesus arose, which is why to this day we gather for worship on Sundays. As Europe entered the medieval era it became harder to communicate to distant areas. Therefore, a standardized formula for determining what Sunday Easter would be celebrated was developed. This way parish priests in the most remote corners of Christendom would be able to accurately celebrate Easter at the same time. So to this day we celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon that comes after the Spring equinox.
Using this traditional method, we rarely celebrate the resurrection on the actual day of the resurrection. The gospels list when in the Jewish calendar Jesus was crucified, and that can be calculated. Many incredibly talented and intelligent people have attempted to do just that. For instance, Sir Isaac Newton calculated that based on the scriptural account April 5th 33AD is the most likely date that the resurrection occurred. Other scholars using different methods also arrive at this date, but it is not universal. There are some scholars who put forth that April 23rd is the most likely date. Assigning dates to events in antiquity is a tricky business, and it can be a real rabbit hole of history and forensic math to dive down.
Finding the exact date of the resurrection should not be our focus though. On Easter we celebrate that Jesus conquered the grave, removed the sting of death, and ushered in the beginning of a new reality. The miracle of the resurrection is honestly too big for a single date to contain it. Every time we gather for worship it is supposed to be a “little Easter” where we celebrate the risen savior and give glory to God the Father.
We will not able to worship in person on the first Sunday after the first full moon that comes after Spring equinox this year. Eventually this crisis will end and we will be able to worship together again. When that happens, then we will celebrate Easter. We will gather together as disciples of Jesus and with one voice we will sing, “He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He Lives, he lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” That day, whenever it is, will be a joyful day of celebration.