One of the benefits of being an Orthodox Christian living in America is the ability to celebrate Easter twice. For most Christians, Easter was celebrated on April 8. But the 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Easter on April 15.
Easter fell on the same date for the Western (Catholic/Protestant) churches and the Eastern (Orthodox) churches in 2011, but that's a rare occasion. And aving the two dates a week apart (as we do this year) is not as confusing as some years when the two "Easter" celebrations could be four or five weeks apart.
Easter is a moveable holiday on the Christian calendar. It can be celebrated as early as March or as late as May. To understand why the Western churches (primarily the Catholic Church) celebrate Easter on a different date than the Eastern churches (or Orthodox), you need to know a little history.
The Christian Church was founded on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem in 33 A.D. — 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox branch believes it has maintained the same tradition for the past 2,000-plus years and can trace its liturgy to the original teachings and traditions of Jesus and the apostles.
For the first 1,000 years, there was one Christian Church — the one that was persecuted by the Romans until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion. As the empire grew, the center of church authority began to splinter into rival factions, one centered in Constantinople (still the home base of the Orthodox Church although the city is now called Instanbul), and the other based in Rome (eventually the Vatican City), where popes rule the Catholic Church.
The official split came in 1054 A.D. when the Patriarch of Rome (also known as the Pope of Rome) broke away from the Eastern church in what religious scholars refer to as the "Great Schism."
The major difference between the Catholic and the Orthodox Christian churches is the Catholic belief in the infallibility of the Pope.
The Eastern churches are autonomous, headed by senior bishops known as patriarchs, and do not recognize the authority of the pope. His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, is the 270th successor of the 2,000 year-old Christian Church founded by St. Andrew.
Bartholomew is the "first among equals" of the Orthodox Primates, who govern their respective churches in Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Since the "Great Schism," the Catholic Church has splintered into various other denominations.
The Lutheran Church was founded by Martin Luther in 1522. The Anglican Church of England was founded by King Henry VIII in 1534. The Presbyterian Church was founded by John Knox of Scotland in 1580. The Congregational Church was founded by Robert Brown in Holland in 1582. The Baptist Church was founded by John Smyth in Amsterdam in 1606. The Dutch Reformed Church was founded in New York in 1628 by Michelis Jones. The Protestant Episcopal Church is an offshoot on the Church of England and was founded by Samuel Seabury in the American Colonies in the 18th Century. The Methodist Church was founded by John and Charles Wesley in England in 1774. The Unitarian Church was founded by Theophilus Lindley in London in 1774. The Mormon Church (Latter Day Saints) was founded by Joseph Smith in 1829.
The Protestant churches also splintered into various branches: Church of the Nazarene, Pentecostal Churches, Holiness Church, Assemblies of God Churches, and many Bible and Evangelical and non-denominational churches, as well as the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Orthodox Church has changed little in 2,000 years, although it has taken on the identify and customs of the countries it serves.
In Greece and Cyprus, the Greek Orthodox Church is dominant. In Russia, it's the Russian Orthodox Church. You also have Romanian, Antiochan, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Albanian, Serbian and Ukrainian churches. All celebrate the same liturgy, but do so in different languages. In the U.S., the largest Eastern Orthodox denomination is governed by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, based in New York City.
Which brings us back to why Easter is celebrated twice. The formula for Easter is the same for both Catholic and Orthodox churches: The holiday is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox, but the churches base the date on different calendars — Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, the standard calendar for much of the world, while Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar.
Eastern Orthodox church leaders also believe Easter should fall after the Jewish Passover because the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place after he entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. In the Western Church, Easter often precedes Passover.
That's why Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter this Sunday.