In Rare Instance, Greek Orthodox Easter Aligns With West

This year the Eastern Orthodox Easter coincides with the Western Protestant Catholic Easter. The rare occasion is due to the alignment of the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Host Michel Martin talks to Father Eugene Pappas, pastor of the Three Hierarchs Church, a Greek Orthodox parish in Brooklyn, New York. Father Pappas says despite their divergent dates, the two Easters share many similarities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We have another bit of news about Easter for you. This Sunday, something unusual is happening two Easters are being observed at the same time. In most years Western Protestants and Catholics celebrate Easter on one Sunday and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates about a week later. But this year, the two Easters coincide.

Joining me now to explain why and what's different about the Eastern Orthodox Easter, or rather how it is observed, is Father Eugene Pappas. He's the archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And he presides over the church of the Three Hierarchs in Brooklyn, New York. Father Pappas, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Father EUGENE PAPPAS (Archimandrite, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America): Michel, good day to you. And of course as we say in our language (foreign language spoken) is the glorious resurrection for you. (Foreign language spoken) may you have a glorious and happy Easter. I'm very happy to be with you today on this Good Friday.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Can you explain in simple terms why an orthodox Easter is usually celebrated a week later, but why it's the same today?

Father PAPPAS: It's very simple and one has to just take a pen and pencil in hand and just write a few things down to understand it and reread it again. It was really confusing in the early years of the church when the first 300 years of the church when the church was (foreign language spoken) - elicit, an unlawful religion.

It was Constantine the Great in 325 who realized that Christians have to be organized and better represented. And so he called the first Council of Nicaea, the ecumenical council in 325. And 318 bishops of the East and the West, the whole Roman Empire, gathered to establish a standard method to determine and calculate the Pascal date, because it was unfortunate that if you were in Jerusalem, you were celebrating Easter one Sunday and if you traveled to Rome two weeks later, you were finding them celebrating Easter again. And you traveled to Athens, they were celebrating it a month later. There was no calculation.

So the calculation was made by these 318 bishops at the first ecumenical council. And they determined, first of all, it must always be a Sunday, unlike Christmas, which is sort of a dynamic holiday that follows whenever December 25th or January 7th, depending how the calendar comes. It must always be celebrated on a Sunday because the scripture says on the first day of the week the women went to the tomb and found it empty.

It must be in the vernal equinox which means not before March 21st or after June 20th. It must be after the first full moon in the spring following the Jewish calendar. And finally, it must follow the Jewish Passover. It must be the first Sunday after the first full moon in the spring after the Jewish Passover. It's that final point that makes the formula somewhat unbalanced because that was taken out by Gregory XIII many years ago in 1583, when he said it wasn't necessary either to come before the Jewish Passover or after the Jewish Passover. And they eliminated that one element. And that caused us great consternation.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. So, I see. So, two different calendars.

Father PAPPAS: There's two different calendars. There's one, you know, the East follows the Gregorian, the Julian calendar, which was established by Julius Caesar in the year 46 B.C. And then Gregory comes in in 1583, Pope Gregory XIII, and realizes that it's inaccurate. There are discrepancies here. And so he calls his mathematicians and astrologers and astronomers, rather and all these great minds, and they find out they had lost 10 days 10 complete days were missing.

So, what he made - because, you know, popes had that authority then - he declared that there would be no October 5th until October 14th. He just eliminated 10 days off the calendar.

MARTIN: That's complicated.

Father PAPPAS: Yeah. So anybody who had a birthday lost it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh dear, oh wow. So that is...

Father PAPPAS: That updated the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. And we have two calendars functioning today.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, do you think, and I understand that theologically there's no difference between what Easter means in the two traditions.

Father PAPPAS: No, no, theologically the Eastern church and the Western church are totally in agreement that this is the resurrection of Christ and it brings hope of eternal life for everyone.

MARTIN: But do you think that there's some spiritual significance to the fact that the dates are aligned this year and next year?

Father PAPPAS: Well, this is a phenomenon that no one has in recorded history. Usually the dates of Easter either coincide every four years or they're one week behind or two weeks behind, accordingly. But this year and next year, 2011, is a phenomenon of the Easters coming together back to back. And this I think God's speaking to us. Now, if we don't act on this, he's not going to have too much patience with us because it's never going to happen again for 800 years.

MARTIN: Well, what should we do?

Father PAPPAS: Well, the first attempts to reconcile the differences in the two calendars was done in 1995 in a leprosaria. John Paul II sent a delegation from Rome and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sent a delegation from Turkey. And they met in a leprosaria. These were theologians and mathematicians and also some people of the scientific realm, to see how they can correct this discrepancy. Both agreed that their calendars were not exactly perfect. There were that's a good sign - both agreeing we're wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, that's above our pay grade, so there's nothing we can do about that.

Father PAPPAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what can we do on the ground? I know that we all share, well, many of share painting eggs or decorating eggs in common.

Father PAPPAS: Yes we do. And in the orthodox church, of course we have a beautiful tradition in the Eastern church of dying the eggs with various colors and of course decorating them with Christian symbols. The traditional coloring of the eggs should always be crimson red. The color of the Christ's blood. And we have a local tradition, among the Greeks, at least, anyway, of on Easter Sunday cracking the egg. You'll take one egg, I'll take another and we'll crack the noses of the eggs and we'll say (speaking foreign language), Christ has risen and the response is (speaking foreign language), truly he has risen. And that's our greeting for 40 days and 40 nights after Christmas.

MARTIN: Oh, well, wonderful.

Father PAPPAS: After Easter, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I will have to practice my greeting. Well, thank you, Father Pappas, for joining us.

Father PAPPAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you for educating us. Father Eugene Pappas is the pastor he is the he leads Three Hierarchs Church in Brooklyn. He's also the host of a public radio program in New York, Matters of Conscience. You can tell, can't you?

Father PAPPAS: You're very kind.

MARTIN: He joined us by phone from his office. Happy Easter to you.

Father PAPPAS: Thank you, Michel. Have a good day.

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