Our Life in Christ

Our Life In Christ

How the Date of Pascha Relates to Our Salvation     - April 7, 2023

by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher

Pascha and our Salvation

The date of Orthodox Pascha, the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead, is usually different than the corresponding feast of Easter in the Western Christian traditions of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Occasionally the dates will be the same, for instance, on April 20, 2025. Sometimes they can be more than a month apart, which will occur next year when Easter will be March 31 and Pascha May 5.

Does the actual date of Pascha, or Easter, affect our salvation, especially when they are usually different? This leads to an even more basic question: How does the keeping of Pascha, or Easter, affect our salvation, if it does at all?

First, the fact that Pascha, or Easter, has a date in the calendar is absolutely essential for our salvation. This means that Christ Jesus our Savior actually lived, was crucified, and rose from the dead at a particular time in human history. The Apostle Paul writes: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (apostles)…And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor. 15:3-5, 17). We confess in the Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate,” the Roman procurator of Judea at the time.

Christ Jesus was crucified and risen in the spring of the year during the Jewish feast of Passover (Heb., Pesach; Matt. 26:2; Mk. 14:12; Lk. 22:7; Jn. 18:28). According to the Law, the Passover occurred on the 14th day of the first Jewish month of the year (Ex. 12:6; Lev. 23:5), by definition a full moon. This first month in the Jewish calendar occurs in our corresponding months of March and April. Passover observance included the following week called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The fact that Christ Jesus was crucified and risen during the Jewish Passover is also essential for our salvation in that Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29; 19:36; Ex. 12:46), is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover. The Passover commemorated Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptian house of bondage when the Lord struck the firstborn in every Egyptian house but passed over and spared the firstborn in the Israelite homes marked with the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. The Israelites ate the Passover lamb in haste and left Egypt, passing through the Red Sea on dry ground in which the entire Egyptian army was subsequently drowned, and eventually arrived at Mount Sinai to be made God’s covenant people, His special possession purified in true worship and the commandments of God. This covenant people was destined by God to take possession of the Promised Land.

“For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). Jesus said to His apostles on the night when He was betrayed, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 22:15-16). During the Jewish Passover, Jesus fulfills the old and delivers the new Passover to His disciples in the indestructible power of the Resurrection. Christ is the Sacrifice. He is the Meal, the New Covenant (His Body and Blood; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). His Baptism destroys not just an earthly army, but bondage to the forces of sin, death, and the devil. Christ’s followers are the new Israel, the Church, journeying toward the promised everlasting Kingdom of God. The Christian celebration of Passover is not merely a historical fact, but a theological reality defining everything we do.

Christians have always kept the Feast of our Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection in the spring of the year as a non-negotiable confession of the Faith. Pascha, or Easter, and its preparatory season of Lent (Old Eng., “springtime”), is a sign-post in this temporal pilgrimage toward the eternal life accomplished by our Savior. Actually, Pascha, or Easter, is the axis around which all our time here turns. As Saint John Chrysostom reminds us: Aei estin Pascha (Gk., “It is always Pascha”).

Second, the date of Pascha, or Easter, is essential for our salvation insofar as this date is the lynchpin holding together everything else in the Christian practice and contemplation of the Faith. The date is not man-made and therefore irrelevant. It is not a date intended for bunnies, egg hunts, chocolates, and new suits and dresses. It is the date of our salvation in the death and resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. How and why we keep Pascha, or Easter, demonstrates the importance of the death and resurrection of Christ within the whole context of the doctrine and practice of the Faith in our personal lives and together in the Church.

Two aspects of this topic immediately bring the wider context into view. One, the name of the Feast is important, either Pascha or Easter. Two, the actual day on which the Feast is celebrated is important, evident in that the dates of Orthodox Pascha and Western Easter are usually different; yet even if they coincide, the same differences of doctrine and practice remain between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The word “Pascha” is literally the Hebrew word “Passover” (Pesach) rendered in Greek, and now English, letters. The Orthodox Feast of Pascha is the Christian Passover. Throughout most of the history of the Church, both before and after the Roman papacy separated itself from the Orthodox Church, the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection was known simply as Pascha. Easter is a relatively late title for this Feast taken from a non-Christian springtime festival. In its very usage, Easter introduces an element of ambiguity into the meaning of the Feast, whereas Pascha specifically defines the observance.

Concerning the actual date of the Feast, both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox determine it with the same formula: the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the first day of Spring. This formula was established at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in the year 325. The dates are different because the Orthodox and non-Orthodox use different calendars for the first day of Spring. The non-Orthodox use the revised Gregorian (New) calendar in which the first day of Spring is the vernal equinox (March 20/21). The Orthodox still use the Julian (Old) calendar in which the first day of Spring is about two weeks after the vernal equinox, corresponding to April 2/3 in the Gregorian calendar. In our society which reckons dates using the New calendar, Orthodox Pascha never occurs before April 2.

[The Gregorian calendar promulgated in the late 1500’s by the Roman Pope Gregory XIII was a measure taken to correct the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar enacted by Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.). The Julian calendar, while the most accurate of its era, lost 1 day every 128 years, which is why the Julian first day of Spring is now about 2 weeks behind the Gregorian vernal equinox.] But the date of Pascha is a theological fact, never just an astronomical determination. Consider the original formula and its meaning. Pascha is always on a Sunday (the first Sunday) because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week (called Sunday in English, but in Greek, Kyriake – the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection; see Matt. 28:1; Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10). Pascha is always after the first full moon after the first day of Spring because, by definition, the Jewish Passover occurs at the full moon in the first month in the Spring. Using the first day of Spring on the Julian calendar, Pascha always occurs after the Jewish Passover because Pascha is the fulfillment of Passover.

Using the vernal equinox (March 20/21) as the first day of spring in the formula, Easter can occur on or even before the Jewish Passover. While being astronomically correct, the date of Easter, like its title, is theologically inaccurate, disconnecting its observance from its meaning, and thus incurring the greater risk of ignoring and/or discounting its fuller meaning in the process.

Orthodox Pascha and non-Orthodox Easter are the same, yet they are different. They are the same in that they are both celebrations of the same event: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Both Pascha and Easter, and their respective preparatory seasons of Lent and Holy Week, ostensibly have the same goal of walking in the only way of salvation, that is, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

Yet Pascha and Easter are different. They have different names. They occur on different dates. Most importantly, Pascha and Easter are representative of different Christian theological traditions, one unchangingly Orthodox, and the other a departure from the Orthodox. Establishment of and maintaining the Orthodox tradition, or separation and deviation from that tradition, conditions how the date of Pascha in distinction from Easter relates to our salvation.

Some doctrines and practices, and the customs resulting from them, are more conducive to salvation, and some impede salvation. The Apostle Paul writes: “Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2; also 2 Thes. 2:15); he then goes on to discuss the propriety of head-coverings for theological reasons. Finally, before instruction on the Lord’s Supper, he declares: “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (v. 16). In other words, if a local church practices the custom of head-covering, do it for the right reason, but don’t be contentious with those who don’t.

Apollos was a man “instructed in the way of the Lord…fervent in spirit…though he knew only the baptism of John”; but “when Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Aquila and Priscilla corrected what was lacking in Apollos’s teaching. They didn’t condemn him; rather, they gently led Apollos into the fulness of the Faith.

In the second century a controversy erupted between the Bishop of Rome, Victor, and the churches of Asia (modern-day Turkey) concerning the day on which Pascha is to be celebrated. The churches of Asia following their ancient tradition celebrated Pascha on the very day of the Jewish Passover, the 14th of Nisan, whatever day of the week that happened to be. Bishop Victor insisted harshly, to the point of threatening excommunication, that these churches of Asia celebrate Pascha on Sunday like the rest of the Church.

Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (modern-day France) intervened by confirming that Pascha should be celebrated on Sunday because that is the day of our Lord’s Resurrection. However, he wrote, “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast (leading up to and including Pascha)…disregarding strict accuracy, our forefathers lived in peace with one another, and so do we: the divergency in the fast emphasizes our unanimity of our faith” (in Eusebius’s “Church History,” 5.24). Saint Irenaeus pointed out that all these churches were trying to accomplish the same goal of the Orthodox Faith despite their different dates of Pascha. Eventually all these local churches consented to celebrate Pascha on the same date each year, always a Sunday after the Jewish Passover.

Socrates Scholasticus reiterates the same Orthodox principle when discussing local differences of the Lenten Fast leading up to Pascha. “The aim of the apostles was not to appoint festival days, but to teach a righteous life and piety” (“Church History,” 5.22; early 5th century). The date of Pascha has ultimate significance not in and of itself, but as it relates to attaining a righteous life and piety, in other words, salvation. The date of Pascha does not occur in isolation (e.g., going to Church once a year just because it’s Easter, or Pascha), but in harmony with everything preparing for it and resulting from it: not only Pre-Lent, Lent, Holy Week, and post-Paschal fifty days including Ascension and Pentecost, but also the catechumenate, Confession, Baptism, Christian worship (Liturgy), Holy Communion, Chrismation, and the sanctified life of repentance, faith, and love.

Salvation is a process best begun, continued, and completed where the doctrine and practice of Christ are present in their entirety (Gk., katholikos). This location in space and time is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Orthodox Church because in this place it is always Pascha. This is how and why the date of Pascha relates to our salvation.