To some it is the holiest day of the year, to others a holiday filled with bunny rabbits and chocolate eggs; but over 1300 years ago the celebration and dating of Easter was a controversial ecumenical hot potato that pitted the might of the Papacy against the Abbey of Iona on Scotland’s west coast, and her daughter houses across the British Isles.
Like most Christian Holy Days (hence: holiday), Easter was adapted by local churches to fit in with existing festivals: originally in Jerusalem to coincide with the Jewish Passover, and then in northern Europe to replace the old spring feasts associated with rebirth and fertility. Indeed, the word ‘Easter’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Ēostre – hence all the eggs and rabbits. The story of Christ’s martyrdom on the Cross, death and resurrection fitted in well with these old rites and the shift from one to the other was practically seamless. The haphazard adoption, growth and local methodology of conversion meant that there were lots of different theologies in the early Christian world; and one issue was the correct way to determine Easter, which had no fixed date like that of Christmas. At its heart lay the thorny problem of reconciling a calculation with the complex celestial clock.
The famous Council of Nicaea in 325AD brought together many various strands of Christian thinking to form a set of rules. Among the rules laid down was the uniformity of the calculation of Easter. Simply put, Easter Sunday will be the first Sunday after the first full moon (known as the Paschal Moon) following the Spring Equinox. This sounds fairly straightforward, if a little pagan, but the reality is far more complicated. The church uses lunar months rather than calendar months – which are out of sync by 11 days per year; the church determines that the full moon will be the 14th day of the lunar month (this may not be an actual full moon). So, using tables it is possible to determine the lunar month dates and thence calculate the dates in the actual calendar. If this wasn’t bad enough, there is a bigger astronomical problem – determining the equinox itself.
The Equinox (literally: equal night) is the point in the earth’s orbit that the tilt of the axis brings the sun directly overhead at the equator, giving everyone on the planet the same length of daylight. However, the earth doesn’t quite go round the sun once every 365 days, a problem corrected with leap years, meaning that the Spring Equinox can fall on either the 19th, 20th or 21st of March. The church however fixed the date in its calendar as the 21st. It was this calculation that caused the rift between Rome and Iona.
During the 5th and 6th centuries the key Christian churches: Rome, Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria tore each other apart through various councils and bloodbath edicts. The Roman Empire in the west collapsed, and the Papacy filled the vacuum; while in the east the others all but annihilated themselves, leaving a gap through which Islam was able to take advantage in the centuries to come. In northern Europe independent churches were growing and taking advantage of the new world order. The so-called ‘Celtic Church’ (this was not a term used at the time), developed in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and evangelised through tough warrior monks like St Patrick, St David and St Ninnian. This church was monastic based, arranged into abbeys and abbots rather than diocese and bishops. However, they did respect the nominal authority of Rome, and the right of the Pope to create bishops in areas they had converted (by the 10th century the abbots and bishops were essentially one and the same). The power and ecclesiastical high-ground remained though with these tight monastic communities, and their daughter-houses.
In 563 Colum Cille, or St Columba, established an abbey on the small but important Island of Iona on Scotland’s west coast; and through his teaching and energetic evangelism it shone as a great beacon of religious light in the heart of the Dark Ages, even after his death in 597. However, Christianity had also entered the British Isles through Kent in the person of St Augustine of Canterbury around the same time; and this form was Roman, Episcopalian and backed by the Papacy. The two worlds were about to collide.
The most powerful kingdom in Britain during the 7th and 8th centuries was Northumbria which stretched up the east coast from the Humber Estuary in modern Yorkshire to the Firth of Forth at Edinburgh. Thoroughly Christian, its rulers had been influenced both by the doctrines of Iona, through her daughter house at Lindisfarne and by Rome at York. Some kings supported one theology, while others took a different view. So, in 664 King Oswiu convened a Synod or council at Whitby on theYorkshire coast to resolve the issues once and for all. The Ionan house still used a very old method of calculating the equinox, while the Romans favoured more modern techniques. It was a thorny issue – the Pope had decreed that a miss-calculation of Easter was a heresy and worthy of excommunication (or worse). The Papacy was determined to bring these remote stragglers on the fringes of Europe into line; and across the continent was winning the day both by reason and by force. Iona stood virtually alone. The Easter calculation wasn’t the only issue, but it was the most important.
Having listened to both arguments, but faced with political reality Oswiu came down on the side of Rome. Henceforth, all abbeys and churches across his realm would observe Easter in the Catholic tradition. Although it didn’t wipe Iona or her ideology off the map, it was a serious blow that left the small Hebridean community isolated. Other northern kingdoms, such as Pictland, followed suit and the Ionans were exiled back to Argyll, and once strong monasteries like Dunkeld were forced to adopt the new calculation. Finally, in 715 with every other religious settlement in line with Rome, Iona too accepted the inevitable. It was the beginning of the end for Columba’s establishment: within 80 years the Vikings began their violent and damaging raids; and within 150 years all authority had been transplanted to the east.
So, next time you unwrap your Easter egg, or enjoy the holiday with a few pints in front of the TV, spare a thought for the battles that raged once upon a time over the simple setting of a date.