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Easter Sunday |
Why Easter falls on Sunday

Easter Sunday is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 244, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Nicene council adopts some twenty canons or decisions that the Paschal feast must occur on ‘the Lord’s Day’

Easter Sunday - Why Easter falls on Sunday

Easter Sunday - Why Easter falls on Sunday

Apart from the thorny question of Arianism, numerous other issues faced the Council of Nicea, chief among them sorting out the confusion about Easter celebrations.

It was a vexing problem. In the East, many churches observed Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover–after all, they said, Jesus was the perfect Passover sacrifice, the Lamb slain to redeem humankind. But in the West, the Easter holy day was celebrated on the Sunday following Passover, because that was the day when Jesus rose from death and left his tomb empty. To make matters worse, because various calendars were in use and they did not all agree, some Christians calculated Easter to fall on one date, and some on another.

The Council of Nicea must have heard all the arguments on all sides about Easter, but any record of the debates has been lost. After considering the matter, the council unanimously issued the following statement: “We give you good news of the unity which has been established respecting the holy Passover. All the brethren in the East who formerly celebrated Easter with the Jews will henceforth keep it at the same time as the Romans, with us, and with all those who from ancient times have celebrated the feast at the same time with us.”

Constantine also issued a letter about the council’s decision that he circulated to bishops who were not present during the discussions at Nicea. After asserting that the minds of the Jews had been blinded by error and that their custom for setting the date of the Passover could therefore not be followed, Constantine writes:

“Our Savior has left us only one festal day of our redemption, that is to say, of his holy Passion, and he desired only one catholic church. Think, then, how unseemly it is, that on the same day some should be fasting, while others are seated at a banquet; and that after Easter, some should be rejoicing at feasts, while others are still observing a strict fast. . . .

“To sum up in a few words: by the unanimous judgment of all, it has been decided that the most holy festival of Easter should be everywhere celebrated on one and the same day, and it is not seemly that in so holy a thing there should be any division.”

That settled one Easter problem, but a more recent clash of calendars haunts the church today. From the Council of Nicea’s decision in 325 until 1582, most of Christianity calculated the date of Easter from the vernal equinox, which occurs on March 21. This unanimity continued even after the Eastern and Western churches split at the end of the first millennium. But in 1582, the Roman Catholic Church switched to the Gregorian reform calendar, while the Orthodox churches retained the old Julian calendar, and used it to set their feast days, as did Protestant Britain, which finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Since then, the Orthodox Easter celebration and the Western Christian Easter have usually occurred on different dates.

The council dealt with numerous other issues, foremost among them the division in the church at Alexandria where followers of Bishop Melitius had created their own episcopal hierarchy, because they considered Bishop Peter too soft on those who had lapsed from the faith during the persecutions. The council agreed to allow Melitius to retain his title as bishop, and it pronounced his ordinations valid. However, he and his clergy must remain subordinate to the bishop of Alexandria.

The council adopted at least twenty other canons, as its enactments and decisions were called, covering a variety of church practices. Some of these included very important and long-lasting rules on ordination, on the establishment of patriarchs, and on the movement of clergy between jurisdictions. One canon decreed that a clergyman whose body had been mutilated by physicians or barbarians could remain in office, but if he had mutilated himself, he could not. The “mutilation” referred to was castration, and the discussion was apparently prompted by several cases of young men who, like Origen before them, had made themselves eunuchs.

Another readmitted to the communion was Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, excommunicated for heresy by a council at Antioch several months before the Nicene council met. Other canons forbade any member of the clergy from dwelling with a woman except his wife, mother, sister or aunt; ordered that those who had supported Licinius during his persecution of Christians should do penance, as should those who had renounced their faith under pressure of the persecutions; that clerics could not lend money at interest and that on Sundays and during Pentecost, prayers should be said standing up.

This is the end of the Easter Sunday category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 244, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Easter Sunday from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at