Church leaders in the Middle East are asking for an end to separate Easter and Christmas holidays among Christian traditions in the region.
The need to improve ecumenical and interreligious relations has been at the heart of many of the addresses and discussions during the course of the Vatican's Oct. 10-24 Synod for the Middle East. Many are urging better communication among Catholics, other Christians, Jews and Muslims and more knowledge of each other’s traditions as a way to reduce conflict in the Middle East.
The issue of a common Easter and Christmas dates has come up repeatedly as an obstacle to greater communion between Christians in the region.
In all Christian traditions, the Easter holiday changes from year-to-year based on the first full moon after the Spring equinox. However, the holiday often is not shared because of a variation in the calendars recognized in the different traditions. The Orthodox Church uses the older Julian calendar, while the Catholic Church, uses the Gregorian calendar.
Church leaders in other parts of the world have taken steps to make the holidays coincide in all traditions. In a statement on Oct. 1, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation said that the key today to resolving the issue of a common Easter while remaining true to tradition is to determine the date "using the most accurate scientific instruments and astronomical data available," based on the moon's position in Jerusalem.
Currently, dates differ by more than a month in their celebration of Easter, but every once in a while they coincide. In 2011, 2014 and 2017 the dates will be shared, for this reason, the joint consultation stated, "time is of the essence."
The group called for Church authorities to reexamine the issue, already under scrutiny for years, and make a change. "For the mission of the Church," they said, "a common celebration would support the unity we already share and help to build it further in the future."
Many synod speakers pointed to this separation as an obstacle to better relations between Christians in the Middle East and hoped for the synod to provide the impetus for change.
Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Alep, Syria told participants that the common date for Easter is a "general request of all Christians of the Middle East.' He said that the synod is the time and place to give attention to the issue, study it and "translate it into reality."
He hoped that the synod fathers, Catholic Church leaders from all over the Middle East and bordering countries, might be able to make a statement on the matter. "Christians are waiting impatiently to see their unity represented by this symbol." This, he said, "could be the first step towards the longed-for Christian unity."
Speaking of the many ways in which a shared Christian witness is manifested in his country, Archbishop Yasser Ayyash of the Greek-Melkites said that in Jordan all Christians have been successful in celebrating Easter according to the Julian calendar and Christmas according to the Gregorian for more than 40 years.
The director of Caritas in Jordan, Huda Musher, explained that "this means that Christians share their celebrations and their sufferings. In this way they become a single heart and a solid unity."
She thought that "the happiness of Christ Our Lord will be great if all Christians were to celebrate their feasts together."
Auxiliary Bishop William Hanna Shomali of Jerusalem of the Latins hoped also for the unification of holidays. He proposed to take it another step further and establish a shared Lent and mutual observance of abstinence and fasting. This additional unification would be "a positive sign for Christians and also for non-Christians," he said.
Speaking with journalists at the Holy See's Press Office on Oct. 19, Franciscan priest and protector of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said the issue of shared holidays is a "very pastoral and concrete problem" that changes from place to place.
With mixed Catholic-Orthodox marriages among 80 percent of the married population of the area, he said, the separate holiday make things difficult for many. "No one" is interested in the two Easters, he said, noting that some countries have established shared dates. However, he noted, at least in Jerusalem, it is still "a problem that has no easy solution."
It is because of the situation in the city, where "all of the fears ... and the weight of the past come out and become concrete. Until there is a truly serene relationship of the single churches, all the way through," he said, "it will be hard for Jerusalem also to achieve this spirit."
Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, the "house speaker" of the synod said in his report at the synod's midpoint that it is "a pastoral necessity, given the pluralistic context of the region, and the many mixed marriages between Christians of different ecclesial denominations." He also asked how this "powerful witness of communion" might be accomplished.
Forty-four proposals have been drafted from synod discussion topics and include the call for greater communion between Christians in the region. Among other initiatives for cooperation, there is the invitation to work towards common dates for Christmas and Easter.
The Holy Father will examine all of the results of the Synod and eventually make a declaration, in the form of an apostolic exhortation, on his findings. In the message or the apostolic exhortation, it remains to be seen if a statement concerning common holidays will also be included in which he implores compromise for greater union.