The Feast of Easter, when many Christians celebrate the LORD's resurrection, will fall on March 23 in 2008. This is nearly the earliest possible date upon which Easter can fall. It is possible for Easter to land one day earlier, on March 22, but each of these early dates are extremely rare. 2008 will have the earliest Easter that anyone alive today will ever see!
Traditionally, Christians in the western world all celebrate Easter on the same date. Protestants and Evangelicals use the same method for calculating the date for Easter as used in the Roman Catholic church. This method is essentially based on the astronomical cycles of the Moon's phases and the seasons of the Sun.
The general rule is that Easter lands on the first Sunday following the Full Moon after the vernal equinox, i.e. the first day of spring. However, the actual computational method follows certain mathematical rules that enable the dates of Easter to be tabulated many years in advance, and there can be dates for Easter that depart from the astronomical rule.
Some today -- Christians and unbelievers alike -- detect a whiff of "pagan influence" in the use the cycles of the Sun and Moon to establish a calendar for religious holidays and common secular timekeeping. But as we've seen in previous editions of the Classical Astronomy Update, the LORD did in fact create the Sun and Moon for this very purpose:
. . . for signs and for seasons, and for days and years. -Genesis 1:14
In the long centuries before the advent of mechanical clocks and calendars, there actually was no other method besides the LORD's celestial cycles to objectively measure the passage of time. People in our modern world, who have the technological convenience accurate time of day available at a glance, should consider that just because pagan religions also used these cycles in pre-industrial times, this does not subvert the LORD's creative purpose for the Great Lights in the heavens.
Passover and Easter
In the Torah, the Israelites were commanded to keep the Passover according to the cycles of the Sun and Moon:
Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God: for in the month of Abib the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night. - Deuteronomy 16:1
Let the children of Israel also keep the passover at his appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at even, ye shall keep it in his appointed season: according to all the rites of it, and according to all the ceremonies thereof, shall ye keep it. - Numbers 9:2-3
The name Abib means "budding" in Hebrew, and represents the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. According to the Hebrew lunar calendar, the "fourteenth day" represents the Full Moon, so that Passover is reckoned as falling on the Full Moon of the first lunar month of spring.
Easter, the feast of the LORD's resurrection, is essentially based on the Passover commemoration, using a similar method of timing based on the cycles of the Sun and Moon. In Hebrew, the word for "Passover" is pesach , which in New Testament Greek is given as pascha . A variant of this Greek name is used in nearly every European language, and the name "Easter" is strictly an idiosyncracy of the English language. For more on this, check out the Update article The Astronomy of Easter .
The Date of Pascha in 2008
One of the factors determining the early date of Easter in 2008 is the leap year. Since February, 2008 had 29 days instead of the usual 28, the vernal equinox arrives a day earlier, on March 20 instead of March 21. It also so happens that the Full Moon in this month lands on March 21, earlier than in most years. Since March 21 is a Friday, the following Sunday is March 23, and it is on this date that Easter is celebrated in 2008.
The earliest theoretical date for Easter is March 22, which would happen in a leap year if the Full Moon were the day after the equinox on a Saturday. This circumstance is very rare. According to this Wikipedia article, Easter has not landed on March 22 since 1818 and will not fall on that date again until 2285. And Easter will not again fall on March 23 until 2160! So 2008 will be the earliest Easter for everyone alive today, since it will not fall this early again for another 152 years! So kids, be sure to tell your great-grandchildren about the early Easter of 2008!
In another interesting development, Easter 2008 actually lands a month before Passover! The modern Jewish calendar follows the 19 year cycle of the Sun and Moon, and the year 5768 (corresponding to A.D. 2008) is also a "leap year" in which an extra month is added to make the counting of lunar months agree with the Sun's seasons. As a result, in 2008, the first day of Hebrew month of Nisan (Rosh Chodesh Nisan) is scheduled for April 8, when a thin waxing crescent Moon appears in the evening sky. Passover follows at the Full Moon on April 20.
Another interesting twist of Easter 2008 is that the Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the Pascha on April 27. The Eastern Orthodox church does not follow the Gregorian calendar used in the west, and still uses the Julian calendar used since antiquity. The Orthodox church follows similar rules for computing the date of Pascha from the cycles of the Sun and Moon. However, the Orthodox church maintains a requirement, established at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, that the Pascha shall always follow after Passover. Therefore, the Orthodox Pascha of 2008 falls on the Sunday following the Full Moon of Passover, a month later than the first Full Moon of spring.
Keep in mind these ancient methods of computing Easter as you commemorate the LORD's resurrection this coming week.
Jay Ryan is the author of Signs & Seasons, a Biblically-based homeschool astronomy curriculum. He is also the creator of The Classical Astronomy Update, a free email newsletter of events in the night sky. For more information, please visit www.ClassicalAstronomy.com.