Document: Letter 23
Date: 386
Addressee: Bishops of Aemilia
English Translation: FC 26.189-200
Summary of Contents: On the dates for the observance of Easter

Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Fathers teach us that it requires more than ordinary wisdom to determine the day for the celebration of Easter. Those who met at the Council of Nicaea, in addition to their decrees, true and admirable, regarding the faith, using the help of men skilled in calculations, formulated for the above-mentioned celebration a scheme of nineteen years, and set up a sort of cycle on which might be patterned subsequent years. They called this the ‘nineteen-years’ cycle, and, if we follow it, we should not waver amid foolish ideas regarding a celebration of this kind. Having found a true method of calculating, let everyone be of one opinion, so that the Sacrifice [of the Mass] for the Resurrection of the Lord may be offered everywhere on one night.

Dearly beloved brethren of the Lord, we ought not deviate from the truth, nor dissent with varying opinions on the obligation of this celebration imposed on all Christians. The Lord Himself chose that day to celebrate the Passover which agreed with the method of the true observance. Scripture says: “And the day came when it was necessary to sacrifice the Passover, and he sent Peter and John, saying: ‘Go and prepare for us the Passover that we may eat it!’ But they said, ‘Where do you want us to prepare it?’ And he said to them: ‘Behold on your entering the city there will meet you a man carrying a pitcher of water: follow him into the house into which he goes, and you will say to the master of the house: “The Master says to thee, ‘Where is the guest chamber, that I may eat the Passover there with my disciples?’” And he will show you a large upper room; there make ready.’”

We observe, therefore, that we should not descend to earthly things but seek a large furnished upper room for celebrating the Lord’s Passover. When we cleanse our senses in a kind of spiritual water of the eternal fountain and keep the rule of a devout celebration, and do not follow common opinions, looking for certain days according to the moon, since the Apostle says: “You are observing days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, lest perhaps I have labored among you in vain;” a beginning of another sort is in effect.

It is one thing to keep the observance like the heathens, judging on what day something should be begun, as you think: “avoid the fifth day,” and that you ought begin nothing on it, trusting also various stages in the course of the moon for undertaking business, or avoiding certain days, as some persons habitually shy away from ‘following’ days or ‘Egyptian’ days. It is quite another thing to keep a pious attitude toward that day of which Scripture says: “This is the day which the Lord has made.” Now, although it is written that the Lord’s Passover should be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month, and we ought to look for the fourteenth moon in spring for celebrating the course of the Lord’s Passion, we should understand from this that for a solemnity of this kind we must have either the perfection of the Church or the fullness of clear faith, as the Prophet said when he spoke of the Son of God that “His throne shall be as the sun in my sight, and as the full moon, it will last forever.”

So it is that the Lord, having done wonderful works on earth, having deepened, as it were, the faith of men’s minds, observed that it was the time of His Passion, saying: “Father, the hour has come! Glorify your son, that your son may glorify thee.” He explains elsewhere that He wanted special renown in celebrating His Passion, saying: “Go and say to that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out devils and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the following day I am to end my course.’” Let Jesus end His course in those who are beginning to be perfect, so that through their faith they may believe the fullness of His divinity and redemption.

This is why we are seeking the day and the hour, as Scripture bids us. Even the Prophet David says: “lt is the time for thee to work, O Lord,” as he begs for understanding to know the Lord’s testimonies. And Ecclesiastes also says: “All things have their season.” Jeremiah’s cries: “The turtle and the swallow and the sparrows of the field have known the times of their coming.” What is more evident than that it is said of the Passion of the Lord: “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib.” Let us, then, know the Lord’s crib where we are nourished, fed, and refreshed.

We should know in particular the time when the harmonious prayer of the sacred night is poured forth throughout the whole world, because prayers are made acceptable in time, as Scripture says: “ln an acceptable time I heard you and in the day of salvation I have helped you.” This is the time of which the Apostle said: “Behold now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation.”

Accordingly, it is necessary, even after the calculations of the Egyptians, and the definitions of the Church at Alexandria and of the bishop of the Church at Rome, since several are still awaiting my opinion by letter, to write what I think regarding the day of the Passover. Granted that it is a question concerning the coming day of the Passover, we are stating what we feel should be maintained in the future, if such a question should ever arise.

Two observances are necessary in solemnizing the Passover: the fourteenth moon and the first month, called the month of new fruits. Now, that we may not seem to depart from the Old Testament, let us review the very chapter which concerns the day for celebrating the Passover. Moses tells the people to keep the month of new fruits, specifying that it be the first month, saying: “This will be the beginning of months for you, it will be the first of the months of the year; and you shall offer the Passover to the Lord your God on the fourteenth day of the first month.”

To be sure, the Law “was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” He who spoke the Law, coming later Himself through a virgin in later times, accomplished the fulfillment of the Law, because He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. He celebrated the Passover in a week when the fourteenth of the month fell on the fifth day [of the new moon]. In fact, on that very day, as the above indicates, He ate the Passover with His disciples; on the following day, that is, the sixth day [of the new moon] and the fifteenth day [of the month] He was crucified; the sixteenth was on the great Sabbath, and therefore He arose from the dead on the seventeenth.

We must keep the law regarding Easter in such a way that we do not observe the fourteenth as the day of the Resurrection; that day or one very close to it is the day of the Passion, because the feast of the Resurrection is kept on the Lord’s day. Moreover, we cannot fast on the Lord’s day; fasting on this day is what we criticize in the Manichaeans. One shows disbelief in the Resurrection of Christ if he proposes a law of fast on the day of the Resurrection, since the Law says that the Passover should be eaten with bitterness, that is, with sorrow because the Author of our salvation was slain by mankind’s great sacrilege. On the Lord’s day the Prophet bids us rejoice, saying: “This is the day which the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice at it.”

Consequently, we must observe both the day of the Passion and of the Resurrection, to have a day of bitterness and one of joy, fasting on one day, being refreshed on the other. If it happens, however, as will occur next time, that the fourteenth day of the first month is the Lord’s day, since we should not fast on that day nor break our fast on the thirteenth which falls on the Sabbath, for it is a day of special observance as the day of the Passion, the celebration of Easter should be postponed to the following week. Otherwise, it happens that the fifteenth when Christ suffered will be on the second day of the week, the third day will be the sixteenth when the Lord’s body rested in the tomb, and the fourth day will be on the seventeenth when the Lord arose.

Therefore, when, as will happen next time, the three holy days run into the following week, the three days within which He suffered, lay in the tomb, and arose, the three days of which He said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” what can cause troublesome doubt in us? If we scruple because we do not celebrate the day of the Passion or the Resurrection on the fourteenth, recall that the Lord Himself suffered not on the fourteenth, but on the fifteenth, and arose on the seventeenth. If our difficulty is in our failing to observe the fourteenth of the month which falls on the Lord’s day, that is, April 18, and we tell you to celebrate the following Lord’s day, there is authority for this practice, too.

A short while ago, when the fourteenth of the first month fell on the Lord’s day, the solemnity was observed on the following Lord’s day. And in the eighty-ninth year of the era of Diocletian when the fourteenth day of the first month fell on March 24, we celebrated Easter on the last day of March. So, too, did the people of Alexandria and Egypt. They wrote to say that when the fourteenth fell on the twenty-eighth day of the month of Phamenoth they celebrated Easter on the fifth day of Pharmuth, which is the last day of March. Thus, they agreed perfectly with us. Again, in the ninety-third year of the era of Diocletian when the fourteenth fell on the fourteenth of Pharmuth, which is April 9 and happened to be the Lord’s day, they celebrated Easter on the Lord’s day, the twenty-first of Pharmuth, or, according to us, April 16. Since we are supplied with a method of calculating as well as precedent, we should have no more trouble on this point.

Here something else demands explanation, the fact that some think we will be celebrating Easter in the second month, whereas Scripture says: “Keep the first month of new fruits.” Yet it will not happen that we celebrate the Passover outside of the month of new fruits unless the fourteenth is kept exactly to the letter, and is not celebrated on any but the very day. Now, the Jews are planning to celebrate on the twelfth, that is, March 20 according to us, and it will be not the first month. However, according to the Egyptians it will be the twenty-fourth day of Phamenoth, which is not the first month, but the twelfth month. The Egyptians call the first month Pharmuth; it begins March 27 and ends April 25. Thus, in accord with the reckoning of the Egyptians, we will be celebrating Easter Sunday in the first month, that is, April 25, the thirtieth day of Pharmuth.

I do not think we are unreasonable in borrowing, from the country where the first Passover was celebrated, an example for observing the month. Our predecessors, too, in the ordinance of the Council of Nicaea thought that the very same ‘nineteen-years’ cycle should be decided upon. If one carefully considers the matter [he will see] that they preserved the month of the new fruits, because in Egypt grain is cut in this month. This month is not only the first as far as the crops of the Egyptians are concerned, but first according to the Law, and it is the eighth month with us, since the induction 30 begins in September. April 1 is in the eighth month, yet the month begins according to the experts, although not according to common usage with the equinox, March 21, and ends April 21. That is why the Passover has usually been celebrated within these thirty-one days.

Six years ago we celebrated Easter on April 21, which was the thirtieth day of the month, as we reckon it; therefore, we must not be disturbed to be soon celebrating Easter on the thirtieth day of Pharmuth. If anyone says it is in the second month, since Easter will occur three days after the completed month, which appears to end on April 21, he should realize that our concern is with the fourteenth day, which occurs on April 18, well within the month’s count. The Law only requires that the day of the Passion be celebrated within the first month of new fruits.

This reckoning is satisfactory as far as the full month is concerned, since it still has three days remaining for its completion. Easter does not pass into a different month when it is celebrated within the same month, the first. And, too, we should not be bound to the letter if the custom of the celebration of Easter is our guide. The Apostle, too, teaches us, saying: “Christ, our passover, has been sacrificed.” The passage just read teaches us not to follow the letter, for you have the words: “You will perform the Pasch to the Lord your God on the fourteenth day of the first month.” He uses the word ‘day’ instead of ‘month’; consequently, those skilled in the Law compute the month by the course of the moon. Since the course of the moon, that is, its first day, may begin on more than one of the nones, you see that the nones of May can still be reckoned within the first month of new fruits. According to the judgment of the Law, therefore, this is the first month. Finally, the Greeks call the moon mene and so call the months menas in Greek, while the natural practice of foreign peoples uses the term ‘month’ in place of ‘days.’

Yet, the writings of the Old Testament show that we must celebrate the Passion one day and the Resurrection another. You have the words: “And it will be a lamb without blemish, clean, perfect, of one year, a male; you will take it from the sheep and goats, and it will be for the observing until the fourteenth day of this month, and the whole multitude of the sons of the synagogue of Israel will slay it at evening and take of its blood and put it on both the side posts, and on the upper doorpost of the house in which they will eat it together, and they shall eat the flesh that night roasted at the fire.” And further on: “And you will eat it with care, for it is the Phase [Passage] of the Lord and I will pass through the land of the Egyptians that night and will kill every first-born in Egypt of man and beast, and I will execute judgment on all the land of Egypt. I am the Lord. And the blood shall be unto you for a sign in the houses where you shall be; and I shall see the blood and I shall protect you, and the plague of destruction will not be upon you. And I shall crush the land of Egypt and this day will be a memorial and solemnity for you, and you will keep it a feast of the Lord in your generations, an everlasting covenant, you will keep that festival day.”

We note, too, that the day of the Passion is appointed on a fast day because the lamb is to be slain toward evening, although we can understand ‘the last time’ instead of ‘evening’ according to John who says: “Children, it is the last hour.” But, according to the mystery, it is certain that the slaying took place in the evening when the shadows were falling quickly, and the fast should be kept on that day, for then you will eat it with anxiety, since those fasting have anxiety. On the day of the Resurrection there is the joy of refreshment and happiness, for it appears that the people left Egypt on that day, after the first-born of the Egyptians had been slain. Later details indicate this more clearly where Scripture says that, after the Jews performed the Passover as Moses commanded, “it came to pass at midnight the Lord struck every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh. And Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron in the night and said to them: ‘Arise and go forth from among my people, you and your children, go and serve the Lord your God.’” The Egyptians even urged the people to go, hurrying to drive them out as quickly as possible. Whereupon, the Israelites departed in such fashion that they had no chance to leaven their dough, for the Egyptians drove them out and they could not take what they had prepared for their journey.

It is evident, then, that the day of the Resurrection should be kept after the day of the Passion, and the former should not be on the fourteenth of the month, but later, as the Old Testament says. The day of the Resurrection is that on which the people departing from Egypt were baptized in the sea and in the cloud, as the Apostle says, and overcame death, receiving a spiritual food and drinking a spiritual drink from the rock. Again, the Lord’s Passion cannot be celebrated on the Lord’s day. And, if the fourteenth day falls on the Lord’s day, another week should be added, as was done in the seventy-sixth year of the era of Diocletian. Then, with no hesitancy on the part of our predecessors, we celebrated the Lord’s day of Passover on the twenty-eighth of Pharmuth, April 23. The course of the moon and careful calculation support this plan to celebrate the next Easter on the twenty-first day, because the month is commonly extended to the twenty-first.

Since we have so much evidence of the truth, combined with the example of our predecessors, let us keep the feast of the people’s salvation with joy and gladness, and color our doorposts where is hung the door of the Word, which the Apostle wishes to be opened to Him with faith in the Lord’s Passion. Of this door David also speaks, saying: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a guard at the door of my lips” so that we will speak of nothing but the blood of Christ, by which we overcame death, by which we were redeemed. Let the sweet odor of Christ burn in us. Let us listen to Him, let us direct the eyes of our soul and body to Him, and marvel at His works and proclaim His goodness. Over the threshold of our door let the praise of His holy Redemption gleam. Let us take the Sacrament with fervent soul in the azymes of sincerity and truth, chanting together with holy wisdom the glory of the Father and Son, and the undivided majesty of the Holy Spirit.

Translation from FC 26.189-200, adapted by SMT

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