Easter’s coming early this year

Shown is some of the frappe and castagnole served up at a Vatican press conference Jan. 24. (John Thavis)At the Vatican Press Office today, Archbishop Claudio Celli’s inaugural press conference was followed by an informal rinfresco — pizza and spumante. The archbishop had one slice, but some of the journalists made lunch of it.

The dessert tray held those pre-Lenten Italian favorites: frappe, a sweet fried flat pastry, and castagnole, fried and sugared dough balls. As they quickly disappeared, someone remarked that we’d better enjoy them now because Ash Wednesday was less than two weeks away.

Is that possible?

Yes. Lent begins on Feb. 6, and Easter is March 23. That’s the earliest Easter since 1913, when it fell on the same date.

In 1913, however, Ash Wednesday came on Feb. 5, a day earlier than this year.

Is that possible?

Yes, because 2008 is a leap year, thus adding an extra day in the middle of the Lenten season.

The earliest Ash Wednesday possible is Feb. 4, and the earliest Easter is March 22. That last happened in 1818.

The fact that Easter is a moveable feast confuses many people, even in Rome. So is the fact that Catholics and Orthodox Christians usually celebrate Easter on different dates, because they follow different calendars. This year, for example, the Orthodox celebrate Easter on April 27 — more than a month after Catholics.

It’s not easy to explain in a sentence or two, but here’s how the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” puts it:

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, all the Churches agreed that Easter, the Christian Passover, should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon (14 Nisan) after the vernal equinox. Because of the different methods of calculating the 14th day of the month of Nisan, the date of Easter in the Western and Eastern churches is not always the same. For this reason, the churches are currently seeking an agreement in order once again to celebrate the day of the Lord’s Resurrection on a common date.

Catholic and Orthodox leaders actually sat down several times in the late 1990s to try and resolve the problem of different Easter celebrations, but didn’t come up with an answer. At that time, the Vatican made it clear that the Catholic Church, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, could accept the assigning of Easter to a specific Sunday agreed upon with other Christian churches.

One proposal was to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. That sounded do-able. But, perhaps because old traditions die hard, it hasn’t happened yet.

PHOTO: Shown is some of the frappe and castagnole served up at a Vatican press conference Jan. 24. (John Thavis)

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