In the midst of the Great and Holy Saturday liturgy at St. Andrew's Orthodox Church in America near Patterson Park, the Rev. Michael Roshak went behind the icon screen, shed his dark robes of Lent and emerged in resplendent gold and white Easter vestments.
Carrying a book of Gospels, he stood before the shrouded Tomb of Christ that was surrounded by a white floral bouquet and proclaimed the Resurrection, anticipating the "feast of feasts" that would begin in a few hours.
For the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, including their 35,000 counterparts in Maryland, today is Pascha, the celebration of Easter. The Orthodox celebration this year follows the Easter commemoration in the Western Christian churches by one week, although it can be as much as five weeks because each uses a different method to set its calendar.
But there is a growing consensus that East and West should set a common date for Easter. A proposal by the World Council of Churches to do that appears to be gaining support.
The hope is that starting in 2001, when both East and West will celebrate Easter on April 15, the churches can agree on a formula to choose the same date.
"The hope is to raise the problem up, provide a possible solution and urge the churches to look at it," said the Rev. Thomas FitzGerald, an Orthodox priest and director of the Program for Unity and Renewal at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. "Then it's up to the churches to decide where they want take the whole thing."
The divergence in Easter celebrations dates to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced a calendar change, now known as the Gregorian calendar, to correct discrepancies between astronomical observations and the calculations that were part of the Julian calendar.
The Orthodox churches, which had separated from Rome, maintained the Julian calendar to fix religious holidays. In addition, to maintain the close relationship between Easter and the Jewish feast of Passover that is mentioned in the Gospels, the Orthodox maintained that Easter should always follow Passover.
In a meeting last year in Aleppo, Syria, the World Council of Churches proposed that Easter should be calculated using the traditional formula developed at the Council of Nicaea in 325: Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first vernal full moon. In addition, the vernal equinox and the full moon would be calculated using the most accurate scientific means available, which will bring changes to both the Eastern and Western dates for Easter.
The proposal has received some positive response.
In a letter to the WCC, Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote, "The Catholic Church is ready to endorse the conclusions of this consultation and to work together with other Christians toward this much desired goal."
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, said: "The only solution for a pan-Christian celebration of Easter on the same date would be the faithful application of the decision taken by the Council of Nicaea."
It appears that the Western Christian world is ready to embrace the proposal. "It's quite clear on that whole issue Catholics and Protestants are ready to come to some sort of agreement," said the Rev. Ronald G. Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The move for a unified date for Easter has broad support in the Middle East, where the minority population of Christians sees it as an opportunity for unity in a non-Christian society.
In North America, it would solve the problem facing families in which one spouse is Orthodox and the other is a member of a Western Christian church.
Learning to adapt
The Rev. Manuel Burdusi, pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, said some members of his church were in their Lenten fast this year while family members were celebrating Easter. "But people learn to adapt to both traditions," he said.
And there can be advantages. "I certainly enjoyed picking up all my Easter supplies yesterday at 75 percent off," he chuckled.
But the proposal will likely encounter resistance in the autonomous Orthodox churches.
"We don't have a central authority," said the Rev. Constantine Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. "The Ecumenical Patriarch is first among equals, and each [church] has its own patriarch and discipline."
PTC Eventually, a Pan-Orthodox Synod would have to be called to reach a consensus on the matter, he said.
"What do they say, old habits are difficult to break?" he said. "Anyway, in the final analysis, it's not when you celebrate, it's how you celebrate. It's a very religious time of the year."
Pub Date: 4/19/98