11 January 2018
This version of a 19th engraving by an unknown artist shows a traveler putting his head under the edge of the firmament, depicting the gap between the earth and the heavens. The movement of the earth through the heavens continues to guide the Church’s seasons. (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
At the start of the new year, we all start following a new calendar, as Earth charts another course around the sun. It’s a good opportunity to look at how the Church marks the year — and that can get complicated.
For the Catholic Church and many other churches in the West, the liturgical year is divided into several sections or “seasons.” Two great seasons dominate the year. In order of chronological appearance, the first great season is the just-concluded Advent-Christmas Season, which runs from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany. The second — but more important — season is the Lenten-Easter Season, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day after Pentecost Sunday. Although Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and from the day after Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent, once had different names, those Sundays are all now referred to as “Ordinary Time.”
As is the case with so many things we humans consider “ordinary” or “normal,” a closer look at world-wide Christianity reveals that “ordinary” and “normal” really mean “how we do it” and not “how everyone does it.” This is certainly the case with the Christian calendar. The difference in observances and traditions begins in the Christmas season. For example, while most Christians in the West celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December, Armenian Orthodox celebrate it on 6 January and many Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 7 January.
But the differences become more noticeable and important when it comes to the celebration of Easter.
After centuries of discussions and arguments on when to calculate the date for Easter, the Western Church opted to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring). The problem arose from the fact that the existing Julian calendar estimated the year to be 365 days and 6 hours long. The calculations, while good for the time, were off; the year is really 10 minutes and 48 seconds shorter than the Julian calendar reckoned.
Of course, that did not make a great difference at first. But over centuries it made a big difference. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, was falling on 11 March and not 21 March. Pope Gregory moved to reform the way we calculate our days, and instituted what we now call the Gregorian calendar. On 24 February 1582, the new calendar was inaugurated and 10 days were just dropped.
Even though it was far more accurate than the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was not immediately accepted around the world. That fact that it came from Christians made is suspect to some non-Christians; the fact that it came from the pope, made it suspect to non-Catholics, both Protestant and Orthodox who were not about to let the pope of Rome tell them what to do.
What this means is that in many, if not most, of the countries where CNEWA serves, Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter (and to some extent Christmas) on different days.
Eventually the entire world took over the Gregorian calendar. Other cultural and religious calendars like the Muslim, Jewish, Iranian, Chinese, etc. remained. The Gregorian calendar. however, became standard for all “secular” transactions.
But then there’s Easter. The calculation of Easter is, however, most definitely not a secular transaction. As a result, the Orthodox churches, existing in countries which accept the Gregorian calendar, nevertheless continue to use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter. Since the vernal equinox is central to the calculation, the problem is that the two calendars have different times for it. The Gregorian calendar, as we noted, has the first day of spring on 20 or 21 of March. The Julian calendar has it 13 days earlier and it gets earlier ever year. By 2100 the Julian first day of spring will be 14 days earlier than the Gregorian.
So once again, what is “normal” is normal for us and not normal for others.
The problem of Christians celebrating Easter at different times — sometimes almost a month apart — is seen by some as a sign of disunity among Christians (it is) and a weakening of Christian witness to the Resurrection (it might be) to the non-Christian world. As a result, there have been several recent attempts to “normalize” Easter Sunday so that Christians all over the world might celebrate it on the same day. Still, despite support from popes and patriarchs, the attempt has met with mixed success at best. Consensus has been impossible to achieve. Easter still awaits a unified date.
For Catholics, “Ordinary Time” in 2018 began on 7 January. Recognizing that what is ordinary for us is not ordinary for all Christians provides us with an ecumenical challenge. Instead of “ordinary” here being ho-hum, run of the mill, it can provide us with a challenge — a challenge all the more important since the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18-25 January. Ordinary time — by the very fact that it is not “ordinary” — thus challenges us to work together so that once again Christians all over the world can celebrate the Resurrection of the one Lord on the same day.