Are Easter differences ‘relics of the Cold War’?

In some parts of emerging Europe, the date of Easter is becoming increasingly political.

The Holy Fire Ceremony which takes place each Orthodox Easter Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, is perhaps the holiest of all Orthodox Christian rituals. 

Symbolising the resurrection of Christ, the tradition dates to at least 328 AD. A blue light is believed to emit from Christ’s tomb, forming a column of fire from which candles are lit. The Holy Fire is then used to light the candles of the clergy and pilgrims present. In recent times, a fleet of aircraft has been on standby to bring the Holy Fire to the Orthodox countries of the world and is used to light the candles of millions of faithful who gather at midnight for Easter mass. 

For many Orthodox Christians, the Holy Fire is more than symbolic: it descends directly from Heaven. Sceptics meanwhile claim it is nothing more than a clever trick. In 2005, during a live demonstration on Greek television, Michael Kalopoulos, an author and historian of religion, dipped three candles in white phosphorus. The candles spontaneously ignited after approximately 20 minutes due to the self-ignition properties of white phosphorus when in contact with air. 

Miracle or not, the Holy Fire Ceremony is one of the reasons why the date of Easter in the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox worlds rarely aligns (the last time was 2017, the next will be 2025).  

Using the Gregorian calendar created by Pope Gregory XIII, Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox, placing it between March 22 and April 25. 

Orthodox churches meanwhile continue to use the older Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar and long found to be inaccurate, placing Easter between April 4 and May 8. 

‘Agree a date and we will go where you say’

Even within the Orthodox world, however, there is disagreement over the two calendars. Bulgaria and Romania use the Gregorian calendar to mark Christmas, celebrated with the Catholic and Protestant world on December 25. Most other Orthodox countries, including Russia and Serbia, celebrate Christmas on January 7. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine last year allowed its congregations for the first time to celebrate Christmas on December 25, in a move away from Russia and towards the West.  

So far it has resisted calls for a similar move at Easter, partly to preserve the mystery of the Holy Fire Ceremony. But support for a unified date for Easter is growing, and amongst its supporters is Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, primus inter pares among the heads of the many autocephalous (independent) churches which compose the Eastern Orthodox Church.  

His tenure has been characterised by intra-Orthodox cooperation, intra-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In 2018, Bartholomew granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in a historic split strongly opposed by Russia. Moscow broke communion with the Patriarch in retaliation. 

In November last year Bartholemew, who has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “an indescribable human tragedy” said that he hoped 2025 – when all Christians will again celebrate Easter on the same day, and which will mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, which agreed the first unified Christian doctrine – could provide impetus for renewed agreement. 

“Our objective is that in this context of the anniversary, we can find a solution in regard to Easter,” Bartholomew said. “The Pope has the best intentions, and I think the moment has arrived, both for the Orthodox Church as well as the Catholic, to fix a common date to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. I hope that on this occasion, we will be able to come to an agreement.” 

Pope Francis has consistently supported a unified Easter, even hinting last year that the date could be one that suits Orthodox believers more than Catholic. 

“Let’s have the courage to put an end to this division that at times makes us laugh: ‘When does your Christ rise again?’ The sign we should give is: One Christ for all of us. Let us be courageous and search together: I’m willing, the Catholic Church is willing. Agree [a date] and we will go where you say,” Francis said. 

‘A relic of the Cold War’

Fresh support for a common Easter emerged this week in Romania, where two intellectuals with close links to the Romanian Orthodox Church (BOR), Teodor Baconschi (a former foreign minister) and Adrian Papahagi (a university professor) launched appeals for unification. 

“This gap between Orthodox believers and the rest of the Christian world increasingly resembles a relic of the Cold War,” said Bachonschi.  

“Orthodox believers, free of communism, have called for synchronisation of the calendars, but with no result. BOR does not use the Julian calendar, so could celebrate Easter along with Catholics and Protestants – as do the Orthodox churches of Estonia and Finland,” he continued. “But no, we follow the Russians and their incorrect Julian calendar. This despite the fact that they have sabotaged pan-Orthodox unity with their war on Orthodox Ukraine.” 

Papahagi meanwhile said he planned to launch a “national campaign” to align Easter with the Western world, and that he hoped “the Bulgarians, the Greeks, and others will follow.” 

Support for the initiative from the BOR was almost immediate. Its official spokesperson, Vasile Bănescu, known for his often cryptic and obtuse manner of speaking, was for once unequivocal. 

“Where is the value in adhering to an old calendar scientifically proven to be wrong?,” he said, adding, “this is a problem solvable by an appeal to reason.” 

The influential Archbishop of Tomis, Teodosie, who has expressed support for Russia in its war on Ukraine, has led the reaction. “The Holy Fire does not descend from Heaven at Catholic Easter,” he said. “Do the Catholics even have Holy Fire? No, they do not.”

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