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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Why is Easter always on a Sunday when Passover isn't always on a Sunday?

From a faithful reader:

Since Easter is the celebration of the Crucifixion & Resurrection of Christ which took place during Passover why do we not celebrate it at the same time as the celebration of Passover? When did the change take place and why?

First, a bit of background. The feast of Passover, in the Jewish calendar, is on a fixed date, the 14 day of the month of Nisan. Just as Christmas can fall on any day of the week, so can Passover.

That being said, the timing of the Passover that was connected to the death and resurrection of Christ meant that Jesus died on a Friday, that the Passover also fell on a sabbath, and that Jesus rose on a Sunday.

We therefore have a double meaning regarding the timing of the pascal mystery: it is connected to Passover, but it is also connected to the sabbath. Since the Passover does not always fall on a sabbath, however, the early church was faced with having to decide how to celebrate Easter and respect this double meaning.

Some Christians, known as Quartodecimans (meaning "14th-day-ers"), celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, i.e. along with Passover. The early tradition in Rome, however, was to celebrate Easter on the Sunday following Passover; unlike the quartodeciman tradition, it therefore preserved (as best as possible) the double meaning.

Why is Sunday so important? It has to do with the meaning of the resurrection itself. Sunday is the first day of the week, but spiritually it is also the "eighth day" of creation itself! The Bible depicts the earth as having been created in 6 days, with God resting on the 7th. Humans (i.e. Adam and Eve) were created on the 6th day — but Christ, the new Adam, was killed on the 6th day (a Friday). God rested on the 7th day, just as Christ rested in the tomb on the 7th day. Yet on Sunday, the day after, Christ rose from the dead in a new and glorified body — it is a new state of being, a new form of existence that the universe has never seen before! In the resurrection, God has done a new thing, and every Sunday ever after is his pledge to make "all things new".

There is, therefore, a powerful spiritual connection between day of Sunday and the resurrection of Christ. The "quartodeciman controversy" threatened to divide the Church at one point, until the very first ecumenical council settled the matter in favour of the Sunday tradition.

For more on the spirituality of Sunday, I recommend the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, entitled Dies Domini.