The head of the established Church of England, Justin Welby, recently suggested that the British State should fix the date of Easter, which would become a Spring Holiday, in order to do away with the difficulties caused by its present, variable dating. Many Christians who read the Archbishop’s comments were scandalised. It speaks for a loss of the insight that Easter is no mere commemoration, nor a human arrangement, but the expression of a cosmic reality, for which the modern world-picture has no space.
Why should the State have anything to say about the date of a Christian festival? Why should the Church expect the State to be involved in such matters? After all, the Sermon on the Mount does not tell us that Easter should be a public holiday; for the first centuries of the church, in which it went through its most rapid expansion, the Roman State did not distinguish between the days of the week, and it would have seemed absurd to expect that it would take an interest in Easter Sunday. Only in the fourth century did the Emperor Constantine follow a policy of favouring the Church after growing convinced that Christ had assisted him in his campaign to seize power. He convened the Council of Nicaea (325) with the express intention of bringing the disputes in the Church to an end for the sake of the harmonious order of the Empire. One of the points discussed and settled was method of finding the date of Easter. The old books on Church History call the Fourth Century ‘the victory of the Church’. A more critical attitude has emerged recently, which asks the question: was Rome Christianised, or was the Church Romanised?
We could therefore wonder whether the progress towards a truly secular state, which favours no particular religion, is only a bad thing. Looking ahead to a time when the Christian festivals are only celebrated by those who consciously decide to do so, we might see in this a growth of freedom. However, it would become all the clearer that we can no longer rely on being part of a ‘Christian society’, in which people will be exposed in some way to the fact of Easter, even if they hardly grasp it. Rather, we would have to accept the challenge of the Easter prayer and find words that would reach other human beings with the message that Christ has risen, and that through this fact, the existence of the earth has meaning.
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