Home > Concepts, Ephemeris Program, Equinox > 04/14/2014 – Ephemeris – Why does Easter occur on a different Sunday every year?

04/14/2014 – Ephemeris – Why does Easter occur on a different Sunday every year?

April 14, 2017

The answer is astronomical!

Ephemeris for Good Friday, Friday, April 14th.  The Sun will rise at 6:59.  It’ll be up for 13 hours and 26 minutes, setting at 8:26.  The Moon, 3 days past full, will rise at 11:48 this evening.

Easter will be celebrated by western and eastern christian churches this Sunday.  Easter is a movable feast in that it falls on a different date each year following the first full moon of spring.  It’s an attempt to follow the Jewish Passover, which starts on the 15th of the month of Nisan.  Being a lunar calendar the 15th the generally the night of the full moon.  And since the Last Supper was a Seder, the Christian church wanted to follow Passover as closely as possible using the Roman solar based calendar where the year was 365.25 days long.  Passover started at sunset this past Monday night.  The western churches eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar to keep in sync with the seasons.  The Eastern churches did not, however Easter is late enough this year so they both fall on the same date.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


The seasonal, or officially the Tropical Year, from vernal equinox to vernal equinox is approximately 365.24220 days long, about 11 1/2 minutes shorter than the Julian (after Julius Caesar) Calendar year.  The Julian Calendar kept up with the year by having three 365 ordinary years and one leap year of 366 days.  It over corrects.  To make the calculation for Easter easier in the various dioceses of the far-flung church, the vernal equinox, the day the Sun crosses the celestial equator, heading northward was defined as March 21st.  The actual vernal equinox was falling behind the Julian Calendar by 0.8 days every century.

By 1582 the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Gregory XIII decided to correct the problem.  By then the real vernal equinox occurred on March 11th.  Easter is supposed to be a spring feast, and using March 21st as the vernal equinox would eventually push Easter into summer.  The Pope instituted a commission to look into the problem.  This commission headed by Christophorus Clavius* came up with what we know as the Gregorian Calendar.  First, eliminate 10 days from the calendar.  This was done in October 1582 between October 4th and 15th.  Then to keep the calendar in sync with the actual year it was decreed that leap years would continued for years divisible by 4; except that century years, those divisible by 100 be ordinary years, except those by also divisible by 400.  Thus the year 1900 was an ordinary year, but the year 2000 was a leap year, and the year 2100 will be an ordinary year.  Adoption of this as a civil calendar took 400 years to be universal.

The Greek Orthodox and other eastern churches kept the Julian Calendar, so on occasion their Easter is sometimes celebrated in May.  The Jewish Calendar is, as I alluded to in the program transcript, a lunar calendar.  It has a relationship to the Julian Calendar in that 19 Julian Years equals 235 lunar months almost exactly. This is called the Metonic Cycle.  Those 235 months equal 12 lunar years of 12 and 13 months.  So without correction Passover too will slowly head into summer in millennia to come.

* Clavius was honored by having a large, rather spectacular crater on the Moon named for him.  Search these posts for Clavius to find it.




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