Jimmy Westlake: An early Easter this year
March 21, 2016
Have you ever wondered why the date of Easter Sunday hops around like a bunny rabbit from year to year?
Sometimes, Easter falls in March and sometimes in April. In fact, Easter Sunday can come as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. What's going on here?
The oft-stated rule for determining the date of Easter Sunday is this: Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. This rule usually will predict the correct date for Easter, but sometimes, it doesn't. The ancient (and correct) rule for determining the date of Easter Sunday is also tied to the date of the full moon but not to the date of the March equinox.
Easter is the date on which Christians traditionally celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars think that Jesus was crucified sometime between the years 27 A.D. and 33 A.D., during the time of the Jewish festival of Passover, which is celebrated during the time of the first full moon of spring.
In the year 325 A.D., early Christians decided that they wanted all Christians in the world to celebrate Easter at the same time, preferably on a Sunday. They created a table of predicted full moon dates, called Paschal or Easter full moons, that stretched far into the future.
The actual dates of the full moons can differ from these calculated dates by several days, but they are usually close. At that time, Easter Sunday was declared to be the Sunday immediately following the Paschal full moon each year.
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There have been a few modern attempts by various Christian denominations to pin down the date of Easter Sunday to always occur on the second Sunday in April, but all of these attempts have fallen flat.
The Paschal full moon in 2016 falls on Wednesday, March 23, making the following Sunday, March 27, Easter Sunday. The real full moon also falls on Wednesday, March 23, and it is the first full moon to follow the Spring Equinox on March 19, so, both rules point to the same date for Easter Sunday in 2016 — March 27.
The earliest possible Easter, on March 22, last happened in 1818, and it won't happen again until the year 2285. Until then, according to the website http://www.timeanddate.com, there won't be an Easter earlier than this year's until March 25, 2035.
Easter this year is the earliest for nearly two decades to come. I hope that your early Easter is a happy one.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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