Thursday, March 8, 2007

Irish Easter

The old Irish celebrated Easter on a different date from the continental Church for two centuries or more during what is known as the Dark Ages. This has fascinated me ever since I did a book report on the Synod of Whitby (664) in college. It was at Whitby that the conflict between the different customs of Celtic and Roman Christians in the British isles came to a head. Most of the north of Britain had been converted by the zealous Irish monks, led by Saint Colum Cille. The Irish monks wore a tonsure different from the Roman monks; the Irish had their foreheads shaved from ear to ear, with long hair trailing down their back, while the Roman custom was to shave the crown of the head. The Irish claimed that their tonsure came from Saint John the Evangelist whereas the Romans claimed to have inherited their tonsure from Saint Peter. The tonsure, however, did not cause nearly as much problems as the date of Easter. Members of the same family, depending on whether they followed the Celtic or Roman practice, would keep Lent and Easter at different times. This caused no end of inconvenience for those who had to cook the meals.

According to Edmund Curtis in A History of Ireland (1936):

Under the papal authority the Paschal date had been fixed for the Church by Victorius in 457, but the Celtic churches adhered to the Paschal term as fixed by Anatolius in the third century. As a practical result the Irish were found keeping Easter from the fourteenth to the twentieth of the lunar month and the Continental church between the sixteenth and the twenty-second. On this matter of controversy many letters had passed between the Irish leaders and Rome. Popes Honorius and John IV had urged the Irish to conform and had been answered by Cummian and by Columbanus. The latter, writing to Saint Gregory the Great, boldly maintained the Irish position over Easter, but conceded to the Holy See a primacy of honor and a measure of supreme authority, adding, 'it is known to all that our Savior gave Saint Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and that Rome is the principal seat of the orthodox faith.'

By the middle of the seventh century southern Ireland had accepted the [Roman] Easter and only northern Ireland and Iona, strong in the name and memory of Columba, stood out. (pp.15-16)

Iona finally gave in around 716 and northern Ireland followed suit. After the Synod at Whitby had brought most of northern Britain into the Roman calculation of Easter, the Celtic monks in Scotland and northern England had withdrawn to Iona. What intrigues me about this controversy is that there were great saints who vehemently disagreed with each other on ecclesiastical matters.


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