Passover Started to Differ
After all the apostles died, the Early Church divided into the Eastern Church and the Western Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople in Asia Minor governed the Eastern Church, and the Pope from Rome ruled over the Western Church1).
At that time, both churches kept the bread and wine communion on different dates.
1) Eastern Church: Kept the Communion on Passover
The Eastern Church held the Passover Communion on the 14th day of the first month of the sacred calendar. Indeed, this was in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. Other than the Passover, they also celebrated the Day of Resurrection on the first Sunday after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the 15th day of the first month of the sacred calendar).
2) Western Church: Kept the Communion on Resurrection Day
On the other hand, the Western Church did not have the Holy Supper on Passover. Instead, they held it on Sunday (Resurrection Day) after the Passover. Thus, they mixed the two feasts together.
In the Bible, however, we can see that these two feasts are in fact completely distinct. The Passover is to commemorate Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26), and the Resurrection Day, His resurrection.
This non-uniformity among the two churches caused much confusion among the Christians travelling between east and west, since they saw the two churches having differing practices.
The New Covenant Passover Under Debate
1) The First Passover Controversy
Around A.D. 155, Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of Smyrna (Eastern), and Pope Anicetus, Bishop of the Church of Rome (Western), disputed over the Passover. Polycarp emphasised that the Passover was a traditional custom handed down from Jesus, saying that he had been celebrating the Passover every year, together with John—one of Jesus’ disciples—and many other apostles. In this dispute, however, they failed to persuade each other.
2) The Second Passover Controversy
Subsequently, around A.D. 197, Victor the Bishop of Rome insisted that the churches should adopt the Roman practice of celebrating the Holy Supper on the Resurrection Day instead of the Passover. Accordingly, he called it the Dominical Rule (Lord’s Rule) and compelled all the churches to accept it. This led to the second controversy. The churches in the West agreed to follow the rule, but the churches in the East greatly opposed it. Especially, Polycrates, Bishop of the Church of Ephesus, sent a letter to Victor, in which he strongly emphasised that the Passover should be celebrated.
When Victor received this letter, he planned to excommunicate all the churches in Asia by accusing them of being “non-Orthodox”. However, he could not achieve his plan because of objections from many churches around him.
1) The Council of Nicaea
The controversy arose again in the 4th century and this time, the Council of Nicaea finally abolished the Passover in A.D. 325. The Council, convened by the Roman emperor Constantine, decided in favour of the church of Rome. The Passover would be abolished and the Holy Supper be kept on Resurrection Day.
With the Passover (including the Feast of Unleavened Bread) abolished, there was no Biblical standard to determine the date of the Resurrection Day. The Council subsequently also decided in favour of celebrating the resurrection on the first Sunday that comes after the full moon of the vernal equinox. This decision was made under the excuse that it was difficult to calculate the date of the feast according to the movements of the moon.
In addition, the Church of Rome, which had been associated with polytheistic traditions and ideas for a long time, introduced Easter to commemorate the resurrection. Easter was originally a festival in honour of Eostre the goddess of spring. It was celebrated at the vernal equinox in Northern Europe10).
2) Passover disappears from History
The decision made by the council had a significant impact on Christianity. The churches which kept the Passover on the 14th day of the first month, not yielding to the authority of the church of Rome, were persecuted and called heretics. Consequently, this forced many saints to move into deserts and caves.
The Western Church had not kept the Passover till then, but it continued to celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday after the Passover. In other words, both churches had used the Passover in determining the date of resurrection. However, as the Council of Nicaea established the date of resurrection based on the vernal equinox, the meaning of the Passover completely disappeared.