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The Calendar Question

by Andrew Bond

Surely, more nonsense has been written about this subject in Orthodox journals than about almost any other ecclesiastical controversy. This year, another jurisdiction, the "Orthodox Church in America," has introduced a change of calendar, so perhaps this is a convenient moment to re-examine the arguments for and against such a change. The official announcement by the OCA merely stated that the New Calendar would be adopted on the Church's New Year Day (1st Sept.) 1982, but gave no actual reasons for this decision. However, the official newspaper of the OCA, The Orthodox Church, in its February 1982 issue published a lengthy apologia.

The gist of the OCA argument seems to be that, although there is only one Julian Calendar, there are four versions of it that have been used at different times. Thus the impression given is that there is no continuous tradition, and that changes to the calendar have taken place before, and that another is, therefore, quite in order. The article is described as a "Memorandum of Explanation by the Holy Synod," and claims that the "data presented are taken from published documents from Constantinople in 1923 and from Moscow in 1948."

Let us examine the data cited in this article. The first item is the "Original Julian Calendar," worked out by the astronomer Sosigenes for Julius Caesar and introduced in 44 B.C. There was an inaccuracy in his calculations of about eleven minutes per year, which nobody disputes. Then we come to something called the "Old Style Julian Calendar." Here it is necessary to quote in full: "The 'Old Style' Julian Calendar dates from A.D. 325. By the fourth century the spring equinox was arriving on March 21st according to the 'Original' Julian Calendar. When the First Ecumenical Council met in Nicea in 325 to settle the date for celebrating Pascha, the Church adopted the 'Original' Julian Calendar and ruled that Pascha shall be observed on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the spring equinox on March 21st and independent of the Jewish Passover. The Council did not correct the calendar, nor did it set the spring equinox date back to March 25th where it was in the first place. By fixing a faulty civil calendar date to a fixed phenomenon in nature, the Church created for herself a calendar problem." [Emphasis mine. A.B.] Having told us that the Council adopted the "Original Julian Calendar" and made no changes, what does the next sentence mean? It says, "The 'Old Style' Julian Calendar dates from A. D. 325 and not from the year B.C. 44, as is commonly believed." Clearly from the evidence given, the "Original" and the "Old Style" are one and the same thing! In any event, this brings us to the question of authority.

In the Orthodox Church we accept infallibility, not in a personal, papal sense, but as the voice of Christ's Church expressed through an Ecumenical Council. Thus, even if a change had been made in A. D. 325, which it was not, it would have been quite legitimate and binding on all Christians, simply because it is only an Ecumenical Council that can order these aspects of the Church's liturgical discipline. This is why Pope Gregory in 1582 and Patriarch Meletios in 1923 acted in defiance of Holy Tradition. They did something they had not the right to do, by usurping and taking to themselves the authority that rightly belongs to a General Council.

The next exhibit in the OCA article is called the "New Style Julian Calendar," but is actually the Gregorian Adjustment named after Pope Gregory XIII, introduced in 1582 and commonly called the Gregorian Calendar. The memorandum notes that this adjustment more or less corrects the eleven minute error, and then goes on to tell us about the "Revised Julian Calendar," which has the curious characteristic that "until about the year 2200 both the 'New Style' and the 'Revised' versions of the Julian Calendar will coincide" (!).

These are all false and misleading distinctions. There is only one Julian Calendar—not an "Original, "Old Style," "New Style," or "Revised." No amount of invented distinctions and superfluous information can mask these facts: 1) The Julian Calendar has remained unchanged and in continuous use for over two thousand years; 2) The other church calendar is called the "Gregorian Calendar,"—not the "New Style Julian Calendar."

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One claim often made in favor of "calendar reform" is that it would be more convenient to have the festivals, such as Christmas, at the same time as they are celebrated by everyone else. But where was the Gregorian Adjustment first introduced into the Orthodox Church? Not in the diaspora, but in places like Constantinople, Greece and Romania, where almost all the Christians are Orthodox. When Pope Gregory XIII introduced his adjustment, he tried to pressure the Orthodox Church into doing the same, but a synod which met in 1583 gave him a very firm reply. Carrying the signatures of Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople, Patriarch Sylvester of Alexandria and Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem, the document states: "Whosoever does not follow the customs of the Church which the Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils have decreed, and the Holy Pascha and calendar which they enacted well for us to follow, but wants to follow the newly invented Paschalion [method of fixing the date of Easter] and the new calendar of the atheist astronomers of the Pope; and, opposing the Councils, wishes to overthrow and destroy the doctrines and customs of the Church, which we have inherited from our Fathers, let any such have the anathema and let him be outside the Church and the Assembly of the Faithful." A very different spirit prevailed in 1923, when an "Inter-Orthodox Congress" was called together by Patriarch Meletios of Constantinople. Its agenda also included proposals to allow bishops to be married and to allow a priest to remarry after the death of his first wife. The congress was attended by delegates from Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia (which rejected the calendar change) and Romania. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem refused to send delegates, the Patriarch of Alexandria did not reply to the invitation and the Church of Bulgaria was not invited.

In the diaspora, a certain tension can exist in a mixed marriage, where there may be pressure on the Orthodox partner to conform to the local custom at a time like Christmas. However, domestic convenience is not the criterion for determining liturgical discipline. Every Christmas time in the West there are heard numerous religious voices lamenting the fact that Christmas is so commercialized. We who are Orthodox do not have a commercialized Christmas because we celebrate it on a day that the world around us regards as an ordinary working day. Why give up this advantage? In this respect, the Jewish community sets us an example. They are deeply involved in commerce in Europe, America and elsewhere, but they have not changed the dates of their festivals to coincide with secular holidays, although doubtless their businesses would profit by doing so.

The desire for astronomical accuracy is just a red herring. If it really were an important consideration, surely the advocates of the Gregorian Adjustment would use the Gregorian reckoning for everything, including Easter. By not doing so, they seek to avoid the condemnation of the First Canon of the Synod of Antioch (A.D. 341) which says that if any bishop, priest or deacon disturbs the good order of the Church by "observing Easter (at the same time) with the Jews, the holy Synod decrees that he shall henceforth be an alien from the Church, as one who not only heaps sins upon himself, but who is also the cause of destruction and subversion to many; and it deposes not only such persons themselves from their ministry, but those also who after their deposition shall presume to communicate with them." No room for doubt there about the attitude of the Church to those who celebrate Easter at the same time as the Passover; yet, think how often the Latin West does just that. But in seeking to avoid this transgression, the Orthodox Christians who use the Gregorian Calendar fall into another trap by celebrating Easter sometimes in May, which is also also forbidden.

It is indeed fortunate that the liturgical order of the Church does not depend on astronomical accuracy. Far more important to us is the unbroken unity of the Church. This has several aspects, of which the unbroken cycle of liturgical prayer is one. By dropping thirteen days in making the Gregorian Adjustment, we break this continuous liturgical cycle and thus violently disrupt the unity of the Church, by which we are at one with all our fellow Orthodox believers now and through the centuries. Which is preferable: unity of prayer with the saints and all Orthodox Christians or, by adjusting the liturgical cycle, unity with Pope Gregory and the Latin/Protestant West?

The OCA memorandum concludes: "If the Orthodox Church is the Pillar of Truth, it cannot afford to ignore the scientific truths discovered by man. How can we claim: I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.... and refuse to accept the truth of the scientific measurements of the length of the year he created?" Yes, the Orthodox Church is the Pillar of Truth, and for this very reason, we must defend the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils as God's revealed and timeless Truth. Scientific truth is much more unreliable. That everything is,composed of four elements, that the sun revolves around the earth, that the earth is flat, and many other things have, in their time, been regarded as scientific truth, but our saving faith has never depended on such "truths. " Make no mistake, the line of reasoning that advocates the adoption of the Gregorian Adjustment will open the flood gates to other and more serious innovations. The Queen of Feasts, Easter, is already under attack. Already, some Orthodox hierarchs are suggesting that we do not really have any objections to a fixed day for Easter, and that we could fall into line with the suggestion of the Pope and the World Council of Churches on this issue. Sadly, some simple souls will be led into believing that this is true, when in reality any such suggestion is utterly condemned by numerous canons.

This whole insidious process leads the faithful, often in trusting naively, further and further away from the Ark of Salvation. First, break the liturgical cycle of the fixed-date festivals, and then settle a fixed date for Easter, all in the name of a spurious unity with those who deny Orthodoxy. Having detached most of the faithful from any true understanding of Holy Tradition and the nature of the Church, it will be quite a short step to destroy a principle of worship that has always characterized the religion of the True God. This is the seven-day or weekly cycle of prayer. Throughout the time of the Old Covenant, as God Himself commanded Moses, every seventh day was a day of prayer. When almost everything else relating to the Old Covenant was superseded by Christ, the resurrection guaranteed that the seven-day cycle of worship would continue unbroken. This also could soon be under threat by the introduction of the "World-wide Calendar." This anti-Christian abomination has been accepted, in principle, by the governments of the world. The only thing they cannot agree upon is when and how to introduce it. Its basic premise is that commerce would be able to plan production schedules more effectively if all holidays were at the same time each year. In other words, the plan guarantees that Christmas Day would always be a Sunday and New Year's Eve, a Saturday. The odd day each year (a year is 52 weeks and one day long) would be disposed of by adding "World Day" at the end of December. So the sequence would be "Saturday," December 31; followed by "World Day;" followed by "Sunday,"January 1. In a Leap Year, a second "World Day" would be inserted between the last day of June and the first day of July. In this calendar the day designated as "Sunday" could actually be any day of the week, and the seven day cycle of worship would be disrupted every year, and twice every Leap Year. Doubtless, the Latin/Protestant West will regard this as being of no importance and accept the change with alacrity, when it comes. If the Orthodox Christians who presently use the Gregorian Adjustment continue to do so, their domestic convenience will again be shattered. They will have unity with nobody, neither with their fellow Orthodox nor with the West and the modern world.

From The Orthodox Word, Sep.-Oct., 1982, vol. 32, no. 5, 45-48.