Orthodox Easter: Calendar Question Continues To Split The Church

By Jovan Tripkovic

May 3, 2024


This Sunday, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate Easter. Recently, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his desire for Christians in both the East and West to begin celebrating Easter on a “unified date,” rather than following different liturgical calendars.

Patriarch Bartholomew said that he hopes this could happen as early as next year. A step in that direction would strengthen the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It would have a significant impact on Orthodox unity, deepening the rift between Constantinople and Moscow.

“It is a scandal to celebrate separately the unique event of the one resurrection of the one Lord,” Patriarch Bartholomew said in a recent homily, calling for a Easter to be celebrated on the same day by all Christians.

During the March 31 homily, the day that marked Easter, according to the Gregorian calendar observed by Catholics and the second Sunday of Lent for Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew sent a message of love to Christians around the globe.

“We extend a heartfelt greeting of love to all Christians around the world who celebrate holy Easter today,” he added.

According to the Gregorian calendar, which Catholics adhere to, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the northern vernal equinox, regardless of the day of Passover.

This is not the case with Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Easter following the first full moon after Passover, the Jewish spring festival.

Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his hope for reaching an agreement with the Catholic church as early as 2025.

With the 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicea that took place in the year 325 approaching, Patriarch Bartholomew said he believes that this effort is “particularly significant.” It would symbolize the restoration of full communication between the East and the West, which was practiced during the time of the First Council of Nicea.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is not alone in his mission to establish one calendar. Pope Francis has publicly discussed the need for an agreement on a common date for Easter as early as 2015.

The pontiff once even joked about the different dates for Easter. “When did Christ rise from the dead? My Christ rose today, and yours next week.”

Nonetheless, an agreement could be difficult to achieve.

For example, in 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church severed full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The schism within Orthodoxy would mean that an agreement for a common Easter wouldn’t be practiced by all Orthodox churches. Instead, it would only deepen the rift between Constantinople and Moscow and their allied churches.

Split over Christmas 

While there are talks and signals from Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew to establish a common date for Easter, the Orthodox churches still don’t celebrate Christmas on the same date. The majority observe the Gregorian calendar for fixed holidays such as Christmas. Yet, there are some prominent exceptions such as Serbians, Russians and Georgians, who celebrate Christmas in January, in accordance with the Julian calendar.

Meanwhile, all Orthodox churches — except the Orthodox Church of Finland — observe the Julian calendar for movable feasts such as Easter.

Calling for a “unified date” for Easter without reaching an agreement on Christmas may prove to be counterproductive. The debate over the December Christmas celebration has been discussed in the Orthodox Church for over 100 years. It remains a thorny issue for many Orthodox Christians.

A failed attempt at unity

The reform of the Julian calendar was the main theme discussed at the Council of Constantinople in 1923, a gathering organized by the Ecumenical Patriarch Meletius. There is a debate among Orthodox theologians about the pan-Orthodox nature of the Council of Constantinople. Not all autocephalous Orthodox churches were represented at the council. Moreover, the churches that sent their delegations to Constantinople were not represented by their highest hierarchs.

For Igor Jaramaz, former acting Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, the Council of Constantinople of 1923 is a disputed issue.

“The Council of Constantinople of 1923 is quite controversial in Orthodoxy,” Jaramaz told Religion Unplugged. “It did not have the representation of three important sees of the original Pentarchy (Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch). The churches of Serbia, Greece, and Romania were not represented by their patriarchs or archbishops.”

Patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch perceived Patriarch Meletius as an uncanonical patriarch. In addition to the issue of calendar reform, the Council of Constantinople of 1923 also discussed possible union with the Anglican Church and second marriage for priests.

Vladimir Dimitrijevic, a conservative Orthodox author, said the Council of Constantinople was among the greatest mistakes of the Orthodox Church in the 20th century.

“The great tragedy of the Orthodox Church in the 20th century was modernism,” Dimitrijevic added. “The goals of the Council of Constantinople, led by Patriarch Meletius, were deeply uncanonical, such as allowing second marriage for Orthodox priests and shortening Lent time.”

Following the Council of Constantinople of 1923, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece and the Romanian Orthodox Church began to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. Other Orthodox churches followed their lead.

To this day, the Russian, Serbian, Georgian, as well as the Mount Athos and Jerusalem Patriarchate, continue to observe the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Both Dimitrijevic and Jaramaz believe that the decision of the Council of Constantinople of 1923 destroyed the liturgical unity of the Orthodox Church.

Besides establishing two dates for Orthodox Christmas, the calendar reform decided by the Council of Constantinople of 1923 led to schisms between what’s known as “old” and “new” calendarists within the Greek and Romanian churches.

The case of the Serbian Church 

The Serbian Orthodox Church was represented at the Council of Constantinople of 1923 by Metropolitan Gavrilo Dozic of Montenegro. He signed on to the calendar change. In 1938, he became a patriarch. As a head of the Serbian Church, he wouldn’t adopt the calendar change.

The official position of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the time was that the calendar change would be pending until the acceptance of all Orthodox churches. While Dimitrijevic and Jaramaz said Metropolitan Gavrilo’s signature was a historic mistake, Vladimir Veljkovic, a Serbian religion journalist, disagreed.

“The Serbian Church agreed to adopt a new, revised Julian calendar at the Council of Constantinople of 1923. The leaders of the Serbian Church agreed to postpone adoption to a future date,” he said. “I am still waiting for that future to arrive.”

The Serbian Church agreed to adopt the new calendar. Its adoption, however, has been postponed indefinitely. The calendar reform question is not discussed by the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Every year during the Christmas season there are always dozens of media reports and analysis exploring a possibility of calendar change.

For many Orthodox Serbs, celebrating Christmas in January is not just a religious matter. It also has a strong national and cultural aspect to it.

Jaramaz grew up a Serb-Canadian. Preserving religious and cultural identity is an important part of his life.

“Celebrating Yule Log Day (Badnji dan) and Christmas Eve Vespers on Jan. 6 and Christmas on the following day is something that goes back centuries and several generations in my family tree. And I am in no way an outlier. It is what has kept the faith amongst us Serbs and giving that up would be akin to renouncing our faith,” he said.

Dimitrijevic added: “It is very important for me to celebrate Christmas in January. It is an essential part of my religious, cultural and national identity.”

New realities in Ukraine 

Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 for the first time in history last year. Traditionally, they observed the holiday as part of the Julian calendar, which aligns with Orthodox Churches of Russia, Georgia, Serbia, among others, on Jan. 7. The move aligned Ukrainians with a majority of Christian denominations around the world. Metropolitan Job of Pisidia described the decision as a psychological reaction and a way for Ukrainians to distinguish themselves from the Russian nation.

For Kateryna Hatsenko, a freelance journalist from Ukraine, celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 is a positive change.

“I am not a religious person but I feel that everything has fallen into place. Last year, my family celebrated Christmas on December 25 for the first time and will continue to do so in the future. My parents agree that it is more logical to celebrate Christmas first and then the New Year,” Hatsenko said.

Monika Palotai, a senior Research Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, who traveled across Ukraine extensively since the beginning of the war, said she sees the change as part of the process of Westernization.

“It is a step toward Europe and the West. It is a practical step to distance Ukraine from Russia,” Palotai said. “Traveling across the country, I came to the conclusion that celebrating Christmas in December is a vital part of the new Ukrainian identity, forged in the war.”

Veljkovic also welcomed the decision of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as “part of the larger effort to Europenize the country.” Veljkovic’s opinion was not shared by Dimitrijevic and Jaramaz.

Dimitrijevic characterized the move as “anti-Russian, uncanonical and unorthodox.”

Jamaraz described the motive behind the decision to change the calendar as “spiteful and divisive even by existing Ukrainian societal standards affected by the war.”

Both of them reject a possibility of something similar happening in Serbia in the near future.

“The beauty of Orthodoxy is the freedom of choice and differences in local traditions and cultural variants,” Jaramaz said.

Future of Orthodox unity 

The success of the agreement between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is remote. Celebrating Easter on the same day by next year seems unrealistic, expert said.

If by any chance the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate do reach an agreement on a common date for Easter, this would create a tectonic shift in the Orthodox world. Such a move would deepen the ongoing Orthodox rift between Constantinople and Moscow, potentially creating a series of schisms within local Orthodox churches (similar to what happened in the 1920s with the Greek and Romanian churches).

It would also lead to a ‘multi-speed’ ecumenical dialogue, with Rome and Constantinople establishing full communion, while the Moscow Patriarchate would fall behind. This would create an immeasurable difference in Orthodox Christianity that wouldn’t be possible to bridge for generations to come.