Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Calendar Question

Lately, for whatever reason, I discovered that clock on my wall was running slow.  It might have been a fading battery, or it might have been gremlins, but anyway it was running slow and needed to be fixed.  One day many, many years ago, scholars and astronomers in Europe discovered that their calendar was running slow—about thirteen days slow per year, in fact, and if it was not corrected, the gap between calendar and astronomical reality would keep on increasing.  When the calendar was first created in the time of Julius Caesar in about 46 B.C., it was not out by much—only by 11 minutes and 14 seconds.  But this little error kept compounding annually, so that it is now out by 13 days.  At length European scholars did the obvious thing—they fixed it.  In 1582, under the patronage of Pope Gregory XIII, they brought out a revised calendar which now ran true and conformed with the actual state of the earth revolving around the sun.
            Scholarship is never done in a vacuum (just ask the scholars), and politics always affects how the work of scholars is received.  Given that the Orthodox East and the Catholic West were locked in deadly battles in the sixteenth century (as were the Catholics and the Protestants), it is not surprising that the West tried to make the most polemical use of their new scholarly discovery and that the East responded in kind by having none of it. (The Protestants of those days also rejected the new calendar as a part of a popish take-over plot.  They weren’t so much rejecting a calendar as rejecting the papacy.)  In those far off days of international fisticuffs, then, the revised calendar was not simply a scientific improvement created by scholars in their studies, but also a weapon used by churchmen in their polemics.  The Orthodox Church’s condemnation of the Gregorian calendar by its local synods was not based on fidelity to its timeless faith, but on the perceived necessities of its struggle to pastorally care for its children and keep them safe from western ecclesiastical aggression.  Happily the worst of those days is behind us, and we are now free to examine the question on its own historical and scientific merits. 
            Part of this calendar question involves examining what commitment the Church has to the old pre-revised calendar of Julius Caesar (the so-called “Julian calendar”).   Did any of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church decree an eternal and binding acceptance of then current secular calendar?  Is use of a different secular calendar as the basis for the Church’s feasts “against the canons”?  Actually, no.  There is not a single canon from the time of the Ecumenical Councils which speaks to this issue.  What we do have is the formula from the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 which mandates that Pascha must be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, but as one can see this has nothing to do with the question of which calendar is used.  All Orthodox today, both those using the old Julian calendar and the new revised calendar (the so-called “Gregorian calendar”) use the same formula for calculating Pascha and therefore celebrate Pascha and the liturgical Paschal cycle on the same dates.  (Perhaps a more accurate terminology for the two calendars might be “the Julian calendar” and “the revised Julian calendar”.)
            The reality is that even those using the old Julian calendar and therefore celebrating Christmas on January 7 do not say that Christmas is kept on January 7.  What those keeping the old calendar in fact say is that December 25 (the date of Christmas) does not actually arrive for them until the day that the rest of society regards as January 7.  The ancient Church’s canons simply never dealt with the details of astronomical calendar.  Its own calendar containing the dates when it kept its feasts was not an astronomical system, but simply a grid and list of dates set over that astronomical system.  The Church’s grid said that (for example) whenever society says that it is December 25, that is when the Church keeps Christmas.  When the world looks up in the morning and says that today is August 6, the Church calendar decrees that its Christians then keep the Feast of the Transfiguration.   It is for the state with its scientists and astronomers to tell us what day it is.  It is for the Church to say that on that day it will keep a certain feast.
          Why then do I keep the revised Julian (or “new”) calendar?  Because the Lord said to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and questions of calendar and banking and date-books belong to him and to the secular world.  Because to use two calendars—a new one to live in the world by and an old out-dated one for Church use—would introduce a kind of liturgical schizophrenia into my life (“What’s the date today?  I mean not in the Church, but really?”)  And because it makes sense to fix the clock on my wall when it runs slow—or the calendar the Church uses when it runs slow too.  The Church uses the best science that it has available, and that science gives us a more accurate calendar to use as basis for our own Church feasts.  And what about those Orthodox churches using the old Julian calendar?  Whatever they decide is fine with me.  I would not presume to correct my friend when visiting his home, and if he has no objection to the clock on his wall running a bit slow, then it is no business of mine.  As we walk side by side throughout the world, there are more important challenges that we both have to face together than clocks on the wall, or calendars giving the dates for our feasts. 

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