The date of Easter

Question: Why is Easter a floating holy day? Why can’t the Church celebrate Easter on the same Sunday each year? The bishops have moved other holy days for convenience, why not Easter?  

Bill Bartkus, San Diego, Calif. 

Answer: The date of Easter varies each year because it is linked to the cycle of the moon, relative to the cycle of the sun.  

In order to set the date of Easter, one must first look for the vernal (spring) equinox, which is March 20. The word “equinox” refers to that time when the length of day and night are equal. It is also the date we set for the official beginning of spring. 

Having then set our sights on March 20, we next look for the first full moon after March 20. Some years, the first full moon occurs quickly, within days of the equinox. Other years it occurs weeks later. This year, the first full moon after the equinox occurs on March 27, so Easter is early. 

For the Jewish people, this first full moon after the equinox also signaled Passover. And since it was at the Passover feast that our Lord Jesus suffered, died and rose, we Christians always fix Easter to coincide with Passover. 

So then, Easter, (which is always on a Sunday since Christ rose on the first day of the week), is celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. 

Historically there were great debates within the Church in the East and the West about setting the date of Easter. The system described above was finally settled upon.  

Today, we still find that the exact date for Easter varies a bit in the Western and Eastern parts of the Church, since many of the Eastern rites still use the more ancient Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar used by the Church in the West. 

Your wish for a fixed day for Easter, as is the case with Christmas and other feasts, is understandable. But as you can see, the relationship of the moon relative to the sun doesn’t fit perfectly into our modern systems of timekeeping, and to fix the date as you suggest would probably open old debates that caused great harm in the early Church.

Hallelujah vs. Alleluia

Question: Is there a difference in meaning between the words Hallelujah and Alleluia. And if not, why are they spelled differently?  

Donella Matthews, New York, N.Y.

Answer: No, both words are the same. Hallelujah is a Hebrew word, Hallal (Praise) + Yah (The Lord). Hence “hallelujah” means, “praise the Lord!” But the exact way that the Hebrew letters are transliterated into English and other languages has varied a bit over time. Perhaps most influential is the fact that the Greek New Testament rendered the Hebrew word hallelujah as allelouia. And since Greek is generally more influential in English spellings than Hebrew, many English translations render the word as alleluia. 

However, a number of English translators have preferred over the centuries to render the term hallelujah, especially when translating the Old Testament Hebrew. Some translators will use hallelujah for the Old Testament and alleluia for the New Testament. 

At the end of the day, it is the same word, just with different spellings. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.