The date of Easter Day is proclaimed on Epiphany after the Gospel….
If I were to ask you for the date of Easter 2014 you would probably go on the Internet – if you’re under fifty – and look in your diary if you’re over fifty. We think nothing more of it than that…but have you ever wondered what men and women did before the printed word became readily accessible and might easily be read?
For most of the two millennia of Christianity, a religion philosophically resting on the concept of the Logos or the Word, the illiterate faithful had no ready access to books let alone possessed of the educational capacity to read them.
The date of Easter has been fixed according to astronomical data – most specifically the motion and orbit of the moon. Despite the attempts of the Celtic church to fix its date, Easter has remained a moveable feast – that is its date changes from year to year.
Epiphany is the last principal feast before the beginning of the Easter cycle in the liturgical or church year. Ever well prepared the Roman Pontifical (Pars III. De Publicatione festorum Mobilium in Epiphania Domini) gives the instruction on how to publish the date of Easter and those of the main movable feasts of the year in cathedrals and other principal churches.
The tradition date of a proclamation dates back to the earliest history of the Church. Alexandria – the great ancient city named for Alexander the Great – with its famed library and lighthouse – was long home to the most skilled astronomers of Christianity and its Patriarch was given the mission to send the date of the Paschal solemnity to the other Eastern Patriarchs and to the Roman Pontiff, who then was to inform the other Metropolitan Archbishops in the Western Patriarchate of the date of the Easter feast.
It is believed that the Council of Nicaea formalised this practice in order to ensure all Christians, everywhere should celebrate the Resurrection on the same day. That said there’s no mention of this mechanism for publishing the date of Easter in the canons of the Council of Nicaea. The issue of Easter day was discussed; there are three relevant texts: a letter to Emperor Constantine; a synodal letter to the Church of Alexandria; and in 369 a letter of St. Athanasius to bishops of Africa on this subject.
In the fifth century, Cyril of Alexandria is said to have written in an Easter letter: “The Ecumenical Council voted unanimously that the Church of Alexandria, because of its illustrious astronomers, should declare annually to the Church of Rome the date of Easter, and by Rome it would be communicated to other churches.” This passage almost certainly post-dates the first Council of Nicaea. Bishops took the practice to publish annually, on 6th January, an Epistola festalis, that is a pastoral letter, in which were announced the dates of Easter and moveable feasts of the coming liturgical year.
There are a number of examples of early church Fathers noting the practice of the announcement of the date of Easter being made on the feast of the Epiphany. The Fourth Council of Orleans in 541; of Auxerre in 578 note the practice. In the old Parisian Breviary, at the end of the office of a prime, a canon from decisions of the holy councils used to be read on Sundays & holidays. Here’s the one for the Epiphany:
The Council, guided by the inspiration of a God full of goodness for men, ruled that the priests will celebrate at the same time the holy Easter, and that every year on the day of Epiphany the people in the church will be informed of this solemn feast… Let the priests before the Epiphany send deputies to the bishop to be informed by him of the beginning of Lent, and to be able to instruct the faithful upon that on the day of Epiphany.
— Fourth Council of Orleans, in the year 541, c. 1, and Council of Auxerre, held under St Aunaire, in the year 578, c. 2.
The Roman rite has a specific formula (the “Noveritis”) to the proclaim the date of Easter, to which there is also added those of Septuagesima, Ash Wednesday, the diocesan synod, Ascension, Pentecost and that of the First Sunday of Advent of the year following. The chant uses the same tune as the Exultet sung by the Deacon at the Easter Vigil ( it may sound familiar to those who have heard in the Mass the Preface chanted by a priest).
In the Roman rite, the “Noveritis” is sung on the feast of the Epiphany in cathedrals (and other principal churches) after the Gospel of the most solemn mass of the day. The proclamation is made by the Archdeacon, or, according to local uses, by the canon precentor or another canon. Bearing a book of gospels adorned with a silk white and dressed in a white cope, whoever is appointed to this office goes to the ambo or pulpit of the Gospel.
Here are the pages of the Pontifical Roman with the singing of the Noveritis:
Know, dearly beloved Brethren, that by the mercy of God, as we have been rejoicing in the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so also do we announce unto you the joy of the Resurrection of the same our Saviour.
Septuagesima Sunday will be on the 16th day of February.
Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the fast of most holy Lent will be on the 5th of March.
On the 20th of April we shall celebrate with joy the holy Pasch of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ will be on the 29th of May.
The Feast of Pentecost on the 8th of June.
The Feast of Corpus Christi on the 19th of the same month.
On the 30th of November will occur the first Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom are honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The old Paris rite had kept a very short form, on a simple recitative, in which only the date of Easter is properly proclaimed: all this has surely a flavor of very ancient use, probably earlier than that – more developed – currently in use in the Roman rite. In this old use of Paris, the Noverit was sung in every parish church by the deacon, facing the East, immediately after the singing of the gospel in the jube, without any change of vestment.
Nóverit cáritas vestra, fratres caríssimi, quod, annuénte Dei & Dómini nostri Jesu Christi misericórdia, die N. mensis N. Pascha Dómini celebrábimus.
I thought this of curious interest as it fills in a gap in our understanding of how a world turned in its own time and how the church dealt within what was after all quite a logistical problem.