Monday 16 March 2015

D is for Dating Easter

A Muse on Dates in General and Greek Easter in Particular

Marilyn Monroe: “I've been on a calendar, but never on time.”

Marilyn had a point. Calendars are our way of trying to both manage and understand Time on this planet and, after we do our best and create one, we often make the mistake of thinking that the results are immutable, infallible, and intrinsically important. Sometimes science puts us right and adjustments are made; sometimes we just don’t want to know. Two powerful instincts, conservatism and tradition, are always in full play in human history and this is especially true when religion is involved. As Easter approaches, I decided it was time to have a closer look at the place of Greek Easter in the Human Time Continuum.

This year Easter in Greece falls on Sunday April 12th in the Year of our Lord 2015. Mind you that is the date for Orthodox Easter. In most years Orthodox followers do not celebrate on the same days as Roman Catholics and Protestants. This year ‘their’ Easter falls on April 5th.  The difference between Easters can be as much as five weeks and only occasionally is Easter celebrated jointly. So much for pinpointing the day…What about the year?

 Of course this is 2015.  But who says so?  It turns out that some 1500 or so times before our planet’s most recent orbit around the sun was completed, a fellow named Dionysius Exiguus came up with the idea that every solar year should be counted forward or backward from the year that he had calculated Christ was born. That gave us the handy BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) divide. The BC-AD idea started out small but gained ground over time. It was officially adopted by Charlemagne in the 9th century and was widespread in England by the 12th. Today it is in use all over the world and, in order to make it seem more religiously neutral, BC and AD have often been replaced by BCE (before the common era) CE (the common era). It takes God out of the years but still celebrates Christ’s birthday.

Let’s just gloss over the fact that most scholars today believe that, even using his own Calendar, Dionysius was wrong and Christ was born in 4 BC (or 2 BC) and go on to consider that, if the term BC and Ad did not come into use until after the 500s what was ‘ground zero’ on the calendars of early Christians?  And on what day of the week was Easter first celebrated?  

Early Christians

Keeping in mind that Christians began as a Jewish breakaway sect, and given the early Christian dislike of all things Roman, it is natural that the early Christian dating system would bypass the calendar in use by their oppressors and follow the Jewish one which counted the years from the time they calculated that God had created the world. And since, Christ’s sacrifice occurred during the feast of the Passover, Easter fell neatly into that time slot as well. (1)

Enter Constantine the Great
When Constantine decided that Christianity was a perfect fit for his new regime on the Bosphorus, he decided that Christian time needed a tweak or two. The Romans were already following the Julian calendar – a solar based calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in January 45 BC (our time). Constantine decided that the Julian calendar would continue to be used but that counting the years of the calendar would henceforth start from his experts’ calculations of the creation of the world by God.  Therefore, 330 was for the Byzantines the year of our Lord 5838–5839.(2)  He also decided that each New Year in the empire would start, not in January, as did the Julian calendar, but on September 1st, the traditional start of the Christian liturgical year. 

He had a couple of other adjustments in mind as well. Firstly he declared that the Sabbath which until that time had often been celebrated on Saturday (Savvato, Σάββατο) would be celebrated on Sunday (Kyriaki Κυριακή)  the day honouring  Sol Invictus his hitherto personal god. You may think what you like: was he hedging his bets, nervous of Sol’s reaction to his abandonment, trying to separate Christianity from Judaism, or all of the above?  In any case, Constantine’s decision gave Sundays to God and the Christian saints the sun god’s halo.


Sol Invictus hands over his halo to Constantine when he became an Orthodox saint

  At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (our time) Constantine had a few thoughts about the date of Pascha (Easter to us(3)) as well. He did not want Easter to coincide with the Jewish Passover-ever. Or as he put it:
It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way."
To avoid the Passover date it was decided that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. And if that full moon should happen to coincide with the Passover festival, then Pascha or Easter should be commemorated on the following Sunday. This, of course, officially and throughout his empire made Easter and all of the feasts attached to it, forever as moveable as the ‘inconsistent moon’(4)
The Upshot

Easter would occur according to the Julian calendar’s calculation of months, the Old Testament’s  calculation of the beginning of the world, on a date following the vernal equinox and after a full moon.  Thus, Constantine managed to get in a nod to the solar and lunar year, the Old Testament, the Julian calendar, and weave anti- Semitism into the very fabric of Orthodoxy’s greatest feast day.
This was good enough for Christendom for over a thousand years until it became obvious, even to the unscientifically minded that the Julian Calendar was somehow out of whack with our own small corner of the universe. 

The Julian Calendar and the Solar System Beg to Differ

The Julian calendar was intended to approximate the tropical solar year. It therefore had a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months. A leap day was added to February every four years. The Julian year is 365.25 days long. It did not exactly reflect the actual time it takes the Earth to circle once around the Sun because the tropical year is a few minutes shorter than 365.25 days.  As a result, the calendar year gained about three days every four centuries compared to the observed equinox, - not a bad seat of the pants calculation but problems arose.  After a thousand years or so, there were ten days too many in the calendar year.

In 1582 this discrepancy was corrected by Pope Gregory Xlll who introduced the Gregorian Calendar, the one we all know, love, and use today. The improvement was made by inserting leap days according to a different rule and by skipping 10 calendar days in 1582 to restore 21st March as the date of the vernal equinox. (5)
It Didn’t gain Acceptance all at Once

Not everyone accepted the Gregorian calendar at first. The Orthodox Church in 1582 was under the sway of the Turks who saw no good reason for such a reform and didn’t give a fig about Easter anyway. The Orthodox Russians, who did, were not enthusiastic about changing entrenched tradition.  So the Orthodox world and many other parts as well stuck with the Julian calendar and adapted piecemeal and only very slowly to the siren song of the Gregorian model. Just to give you an idea: France, Italy, Portugal and Spain accepted it in 1582, Prussia in 1710,  England and Canada in 1752, China in 1912, the Russian government (Bolsheviks) in 1918, and finally Greece in 1923 when 13 days (Wednesday February 15th 1923 was followed by Thursday March 1st 1923) had to be dropped instead of 10. Greece was the last ‘European’ country to conform to the calendar which was by that time in general use worldwide. 

The Russian Orthodox Church had not accepted their own government’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1918, nor had any other Orthodox churches or countries.  So there was a neat Calendar divide in place between the Orthodox and other Christian denominations when the Greek government finally accepted the Gregorian calendar.  It was not an easy sell to the Greek Church. After all, the calendar calculations accepted at the Council of Nicaea had the approval of the Holy Spirit and tampering with that decision in any way smacked of heresy. The fact that a pope had introduced the new calendar did not help either. Aside from that, there was a real danger that once the Gregorian calendar was accepted in Greece that the Orthodox in the country (virtually the entire population) would then be celebrating Easter, the most important feast of the liturgical year, out of sync with the rest of the Orthodox world. 

In 1924, after a little think about the unhappy consequences of a two-tiered calendar system, the Holy Synod of Greek Bishops with the approval of the Patriarch voted to accept the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar on March 10/23 of that year, but insisted that they would maintain the ‘old’ Julian calendar’s dating of Easter and all of the moveable feasts dependent upon it. 

Under this compromise, we in Greece celebrate Christmas (not a moveable feast) with the Roman Catholics and Protestants, but Easter and its attendant feasts with the Orthodox world.  That compromise was, of course, a nod to the Council of Nicaea’s edict on Easter. 

It seems like a pretty good compromise to me. But this decision caused a furor in Greece back in 1924, a furor whose repercussions have caused bitter divisions right up until the present time.

The Old Calendarists versus the New Calendarists

Dissent encouraged by countless conservative priests and monks from all over Greece immediately arose. Mount Athos monks were particularly incensed and, in fact Mount Athos uses the Julian Calendar to this day. In 1935, three Bishops of the Church of Greece returned their dioceses to the Julian calendar thus creating the church of the "Genuine Orthodox Christians" (Greek: Εκκλησία των Γνησίων Ορθοδόξων Χριστιανών) and declared that the official Orthodox Church of Greece had fallen into schism. Priests were defrocked by the Church of Greece over this and the relationship has remained bitter and the issue unresolved. This topic needs its own entry but suffice it to say that there is still a strident group of Orthodox believers in Greece and elsewhere who proudly regard themselves as Old Calendarists and function quite separately from the Church of Greece and even refuse to honour the Patriarch in Constantinople.

That a schism could occur over a calendar date seems absurd since, as Marilyn knew, no calendar is in perfect sync with Time. (6)
There have been efforts to synchronize Easter. A meeting organized by the Council of World Churches (in Aleppo, Syria, March 5–10, 1997) proposed the solution that both methods of calculating the equinox and the paschal full moon would be replaced with the most advanced astronomically accurate calculations available, using the meridian of Jerusalem as the point of measure. Since that meeting, however, no further progress has been made and the problem remains.

Emily Dickenson, one of my own favorite calendar girls, wrote a profound ditty that nicely encapsulates our attempt to capture and bend time Time to our all too human will.

Look back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature’s west!
Happy Easter, no matter when it occurs…..


(1)    I am ignoring many local variations and opting for the broad picture here so as not to get too bogged down. Suffice it to say that by 300 Christians did not always agree amongst themselves on dates for Easter and neither did the Jews for Passover. That is why Constantine wanted to set things straight for the empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

(2)    The Byzantine calendar based its epoch on calculations from data found in the Septuagint text (3rd century BCE our time) , a Greek translation of the Old testament that was made by Alexandrian Jews and adopted by Christians. It was based on the Julian calendar but it proposed that the creation occurred 5509 years before the birth of Christ so its epoch is equivalent to 1 September 5509 BC on the Julian calendar. Visitors are often flummoxed by strange dating they find written in Byzantine churches in Greece, but all becomes clear if, for example, someone pens 6937 or 6936 in the Pantanassa in Mystras because it was built in 1428 (our time).  Just in case you were wondering, dates converted from either the Julian or Gregorian calendar have to be double barreled because the Byzantine year, by starting in September straddled the other Calendars which began on January 1.

It’s nerdy but fun. Check out to convert any calendar date to any other calendar.

(3)    The origin of word Easter has been hotly debated. The most credible explanation seems to be that she was a northern goddess whose spring festival got attached to the Christian ‘Pascha’ in the 7th or 8th century. Ask Google if you are curious. ..

(4)    Moveable Feasts: All feasts whose timing depends on Easters date are moveable feasts and part of the so-called Paschal cycle. The beginning of great Lent, the Ascension, and Pentecost are the big ones.

(5)    The Gregorian reform modified the Julian calendar's scheme of leap years as follows: every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the year 2000 is.

(6)    There is no such thing as a perfect Calendar so far. They are off by seconds, minutes, hours or days every year, when compared to the tropical year which varies slightly because of the influence of other planets. Even the Gregorian calendar will need some adjustments in a few thousand years or so because it is off by 1 day in 3236 years.

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