Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims:

Quest for the common Easter

Motorists across America saw a strange sight this past Sunday morning if they stopped at a traffic signal near an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary and then, shortly thereafter, passed a Catholic parish. What they saw was worshippers singing hymns and waving palm fronds as they marched in Palm Sunday processions at these churches. Similar sights will be common during Holy Week rites this week and then on Easter Sunday.

There is nothing unusual about various churches celebrating these holy days in their own ways. What is rare is for the churches of the East and West to be celebrating Easter ("Pascha" in the East) on the same day. This will happen again next year, as well as in 2014 and 2017.

This remains one of the most painful symbols of division in global Christianity. While Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar, millions of Christians celebrate this feast on different days because they have -- for centuries -- used different calendars. The Orthodox follow the ancient Julian calendar when observing Pascha, while others use the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

"It was a calendar issue then and it's a calendar issue now," said Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox theologian who is a leader in interfaith relations work at the National Council of Churches of Christ. "This is about calendars, but it's much more than that."

This clash between liturgical calendars in the East and West, he said, also affects how churches pursue their missions. "We are talking about the central event of our faith, yet we remain so divided about it. ... That has to raise questions for those outside the faith. If the resurrection is so important, why can't we find a way to celebrate this together?"

Seizing the temporary unity represented by the shared Easter dates this year and next, Kireopoulos and National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon recently renewed an earlier call that challenged leaders on both sides to pursue a permanent solution to this clash of the calendars.

Their letter restates three recommendations from the 1997 Aleppo Conference, which was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. That gathering called for Christians worldwide to:

* Honor the first ecumenical council of Nicea by celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which would maintain the biblical ties between the Jewish Passover, Holy Week and Easter.

* Agree to calculate astronomical data by using the best available scientific methods, which was a principle established in Nicea to settle an early controversy about the date of Easter.

* Use the meridian line for Jerusalem as the reference point for all calculations, once again honoring the biblical narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The problem, of course, is that making a change of this magnitude would require a broad spectrum of Christian leaders -- including the pope and numerous Orthodox patriarchs -- to agree on something that stirs deep emotions among the faithful. Orthodox leaders continue to wrestle with splits linked to a 1923 decision to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar.

The final Aleppo document recognized that it would be especially hard for Eastern believers to change their traditions.

"In some countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where the Christian churches have lived with the challenge of other religions or materialistic ideologies, loyalty to the 'old calendar' has been a symbol of the churches' desire to maintain their integrity and their freedom from the hostile forces of this world," it said. "Clearly in such situations implementation of any change in the calculation of Easter/Pascha will have to proceed carefully and with great pastoral sensitivity."

Orthodox leaders know that the Easter gap will keep getting wider -- with Pascha creeping into the summer in about a century.

But change is hard. As old joke says, "How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "Change? What is this 'change'?"

"This is not a matter of one side finally giving in and the other winning," stressed Kireopoulos. "This is a matter of finding a way to proclaim -- together -- what we all believe about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ... What we hope is that, once again, we can follow the principles of Nicea and find a way to move forward."

Beyond Easter candy bargains

If there's one thing other Christians know about the ancient churches of the East it is that Orthodox believers usually get to buy their Easter candy at closeout prices.

This year, the gap between the two Easter dates was so large -- five weeks -- that the leftover chocolate eggs had been cleaned out by April 27 and the great Orthodox feast called Pascha (Greek for "Passover").

"It's true that when the Easters are not together, we don't have to deal with the whole Hallmark Card, Easter bunny side of things," said Father Alexander Rentel, professor of Byzantine Studies at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. "That we're on a different schedule can make it easier to for us to concentrate on what we're supposed to be concentrating on -- which is what the season means in the first place."

Why are the dates for Easter and Pascha usually different? The short answer is that all the Eastern Orthodox churches use the ancient Julian calendar when calculating the date for this season, while the Western church began using the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. A more complex answer is to say that, for the Orthodox, Pascha is the first Sunday after the first full moon that comes after the vernal equinox and after the Jewish Passover.

The bottom line, however, is that the Julian and Gregorian calendars are about 13 days apart and this gap will continue growing at the rate of about a week per millennium.

All of that can be hard to explain, noted Rentel, when a child at school hands another child an invitation to an Easter party.

"One kid says, 'Happy Easter!' and then your kid says, 'Actually, we haven't celebrated Easter yet.' Then the other kid says, 'Why not?' and then that leads off into all kinds of conversations that can either be good or bad, depending on how comfortable your children are when they're talking about what they believe and why."

In other words, he said, answering questions about why your church celebrates Easter on a different Sunday is similar to answering questions about why your family fasts from meat and dairy for long periods of time, or why you go to confession, or why you make the sign of the cross and pray before eating lunch in the school cafeteria. Any strong belief that clashes with the surrounding culture is going to lead to questions.

"These are questions about who we really are," said Rentel.

Identity questions can be especially complex for the Orthodox in North America. There are 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide -- the second largest Christian church -- but only 5 million in the United States. The Orthodox flock in the "new world" remains divided into a dozen jurisdictions, each with ethnic and historical ties to a mother church abroad.

Thus, there are times when it's hard to draw a line between ethnic traditions and Orthodox traditions. It's easy for the rites of Holy Pascha to turn into My Big Fat Greek -- or Russian, or Lebanese, or Bulgarian -- Easter. Someday, the parishes founded by converts into Orthodoxy (like my own near Baltimore) may be tempted to celebrate My Big Fat Ex-Evangelical Protestant Easter. It could happen.

What the Orthodox call the "small t" traditions are important, said Rentel. The family baskets packed with holiday foods, the blood-red eggs, the joyous dances and the other ties that bind are important. But what cannot be sacrificed are the "Big T" traditions found in the 500-plus pages of prayers, scriptures and rituals that guide the spiritual journey from Palm Sunday to Holy Pascha.

The final sermon is always the same -- year after year, century after century -- no matter where Pascha services are held. All Orthodox priests, by tradition, read the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom, which dates to about 400 AD. As the sermon ends, the preacher called "the golden mouthed" summed everything up:

"O death, where is thy sting? O hell, where is thy victory?

"Christ is risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

"Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

"Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

"Christ is risen, and life is liberated!

"Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;?for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep."