Do you know why the date of Easter changes? It has to do with the cycle of the moon and the church calendar. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. For the most part that means Easter falls somewhere between March 22 and April 25. Of course, and this is one of the best parts, the churches that use this date for Easter have what’s known as an “ecclesiastical calendar”, meaning the church occasionally has slightly different lunar dates than the astronomical calendar, kept by, well, astronomers. But for the most part, the formula has held true since 325 A.D. (for churches using the Gregorian calendar).
Easter has earned a special name, since it does not have a fixed date. It is referred to as a moveable feast. Moveable feast. And all the dates that are coordinated with Easter’s date are also moveable feasts: Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Ascension, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity Sunday. All moveable feasts because their celebration is always a given number of days from Easter. (For example, Ash Wednesday is always the Wednesday before the sixth Sunday ahead of Easter.)
Why am I talking so much about calendars? It’s actually not the calendar part I care about. It’s the name: moveable feast. It sounds like a picnic on the go, something that comes with us, that we can carry, that carries us. A moveable feast sounds like a banquet, a glorious table spread with all kinds of amazing foods. But when you’ve been really hungry or exhausted, a moveable feast is a shared crust of bread and the slug of liquid that makes you feel like you can keep going. Easter is both of these kinds of feasts.
Mary Magdalene, Mary- the mother of James, and Salome were not in a feasting mood as they headed toward the tomb for that first sunrise service, a service of laying on of hands and prayer. They probably ate very little the day before, since it was the Sabbath and because they were probably still stunned from the crucifixion. At some point during that day, each of them quietly set aside ointments, cloths, spices in a little basket. Not a feast, just little odds and ends to tend Jesus’ body, to mend it, to commend it to God through washing and prayer. Tears pouring down their faces, they crept out of their houses at first light, before their families were awakened. Instructions were given to oldest daughters and daughters-in-law about the morning meal. And then the quiet slap of sandals on hardened dirt streets.
The mother of James probably thought she was the only one, until Salome hurried to catch up to her. They both saw the figure of Mary Magdalene ahead of them and scurried to be by the side of that beloved apostle on the way. Still stunned by how abruptly it had all ended, the ringing of the hammer on the nails in their minds… the feel of Jesus’ body gone cold as they laid it in the tomb… the confusion as to where the disciples had gone… was it true about Judas… how will they move the stone. It was all too much. These women were not ready for a feast of any kind.
But, ready or not, they arrived to hear of resurrection. They come with one task in mind, if they can accomplish it. That task proves worthless, all their planning, their grieved collection of materials. The task they came to do is moot and they are given another task, but it’s too much to absorb. We want to imagine them leaping in excitement and leaving the symbols of sorrow in their wake, a trail of spices, cloths, and broken perfume bottles leading to the empty tomb.
They are stunned and afraid. What if this is a trick? What if Jesus’ body has been stolen? Do they go tell the apostles, who will doubtless come to the same conclusion and, possibly, accuse the women of knowing what happened? What do they do? Only minutes before they had a momentous task, honoring the body of Jesus. Now they have a different, monumental task… becoming the body of Christ. Carrying words as a balm, hope as the fragrance, faith as a spice. They nibble at the edges of this feast, easing the hunger of their grief.
Why does the angel tell them to go his disciples and Peter? Is it because Peter is special, is elevated, or because Peter denied Jesus and it’s important to express plainly that he is still in the fold. He is still a sheep of Jesus’ own flock, a lamb of God’s own fold, a sinner who has now been redeemed. The messenger is clarifying for the women that there are no side tables at God’s feast, no people who wait for scraps in the kitchen, no one who will be turned away from the banquet of resurrection. Even Peter has a place at the Easter feast, when it reaches him through the witness of the women.
That’s the thing about a moveable feast. It comes whether you’re ready or not. Whether you are in your own extended Lenten season, wrestling with crucifixion, lying in the tomb- unable to rise, the moveable feast comes. A moveable feast offers us hope until we can taste joy. A moveable feast offers expectation until we can drink from faith. A moveable feast fills us with courage until we are stuffed from encounter.
Easter is the moveable feast that brings us the food for our souls when we need it and when we can receive it. Sometimes in April. Sometimes in September. Sometimes in December and January. The news of resurrection comes to us in our deep hunger and edges us into fullness, into renewal, into strength.
Who would believe the story of three women who say they saw a heavenly messenger at the empty tomb of an itinerant preacher from the backwater of Nazareth? Who will listen to that story? Who will take their word?
People who are hungry for forgiveness. People who thirst to believe God is still acting in the world. People who believe in the possibility of redemption. People who crave justice and peace. People smell the scent of equality and long to have their fill. People who have tasted of true freedom and want to revel in it again. That’s who will listen to their story. That’s who will believe them. People who are hungry for the feast of Easter. Hungry for it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Hungry for it on the day after. And after that. And after that.
Do you dare to believe that this is a moveable feast for you? That is for the person beside you and beside them? That this feast has moved from an empty tomb to Galilee to Judea to all of Palestine to the entire world? Do we dare to speak up and say this is a feast to which everyone is invited?
Our hymns and our words mainly speak of Easter joy, but that first Easter (and maybe every one since) wasn’t about joy. It was about hope. The hope in the truth of the resurrection. The hope in the triumph of the God of life over the power of death. The hope of grace and forgiveness and the family of God. You may not always feel like feasting on first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but we can believe the feast is there.
The moveable feast of resurrection, of Easter is bound human limitations, then or now.
When is resurrection?
When is Easter?
Thanks be to God that the moveable feast of Easter is always right when the world needs it to be.