Easter this year is a festival to particularly savour for Christians around the world. In a relatively rare occurrence, Eastern and Western traditions find that their liturgical calendars coincide, with Easter Sunday happening on the same date. It won’t happen again until 2034.
In Western Europe, it is barely noticed that the movable feast of Easter is not universally celebrated on one day each year. Nor does the fact that “Western” and “Orthodox” Easters move on different paths cause significant problems. But at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, it is a very different story.
On my first visit to Syria exactly 20 years ago, the Western and Orthodox calendars were not aligned. In fact, the two feasts of Easter were over a month apart. On the day of “Catholic” or “Western” Easter, as it was known locally, there was a knock on the door of my apartment. I opened the door to find a beautiful bouquet of flowers shyly thrust at me by Salah, my Kurdish florist friend, who muttered: “For your Easter,” before retreating hastily. Perhaps he thought I might mistake this gesture for a romantic act …
The next week he asked me why Christians had two Easters. And what was the religious meaning of this strange duplication? But even 20 years later, I struggle to understand the arcane process by which the liturgical year is calculated.
There is no way to explain to someone why the dates are reckoned differently without entering into the hairsplitting minutiae of historical intra-Christian conflict. At the time, I just shrugged and thought no more about it.
But over the years I have come to realise just how much it does matter – particularly in the Middle East. In this region, the Christian minorities of Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, and the larger Christian population of Lebanon, face a series of existential crises.
Wars wage in Syria and Iraq; Lebanon and Jordan wrestle with an almost unprecedented influx of refugees, and Palestinian Christians struggle to survive in the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict.
What would be helpful would be some kind of intra-Christian solidarity to bind them together. Living in Aleppo, I counted more than 12 Christian denominations in that city alone. I even discovered that my landlady was a Palestinian Quaker.
I later learned to appreciate the generous ecumenical attitude of Syrian Christian society, which was apparent at all levels of society. But this sense of cooperation had a weakness – Easter. However cordial relations were, it was hard to convince the rest of the world of your Christian solidarity if you couldn’t even agree on which date to celebrate the festival at the heart of the faith.
In Syria, there was one famous phenomenon that Christians of all denominations anticipated, and which only occurred on those special years of a single Easter date. Myrna Nazzour, the keeper of the miraculous icon known as Our Lady of Soufanieh, received the stigmata (sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ). When she returned to consciousness after each of these episodes, she would say the Virgin Mary had appeared to her with a simple message: that Christians must heal their internal divisions and come together to serve Christ.
Has Myrna’s message from the Virgin been heeded? Well, last year talks were opened once again with the Archbishop of Canterbury rather hopefully predicting that this ancient problem should be resolved within five to ten years. Without calendar reform, we will not have another united Easter after 2017 until 2034.
And given the ferocity of various other Church conflicts at the moment, it seems to me that the question is unlikely to be resolved in the next 50 years. So this year, Christians of all denominations should come together and celebrate worshipping in a truly ecumenical manner in communion with all the Christians in the world. After all, it will be almost two decades before such an opportunity comes around again.
And the flowers from Salah? No, I wasn’t mistaken. He was not trying to change our platonic friendship. In fact, he had worked out that a Syrian Orthodox priest regularly came to my apartment to teach me Syriac. After seeing the lovely bouquet on my dining room table, Father Antoun gave Salah the contract to supply the Easter flowers to Mar Georgios Church. It was a major coup for a Kurd to win one of the most coveted contracts of the year. And I like to think of it as me doing my little bit for intra-communal relations in Aleppo.