The Traditional Calendar of the Orthodox Church
Observations About its Meaning
by Archpriest Alexander Lebedeff
Father Alexander is a Priest of the Russian
Orthodox Church Abroad, assigned to the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Los Angeles, CA.
He received his theological training at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, and his
graduate schooling at Norwich University and Yale University. The following comments by
Father Alexander, written in response to specific points raised in defense of the calendar
reform, appeared in August of 1996 on the so-called "SCOBA list," an Orthodox
computer forum. The original "posting" has been slightly revised for publication
I HAVE BEEN deeply interested in the Calendar
question for over thirty years. I have yet to hear even one compelling, or even good
reason for the introduction of the New Calendar and the resultant sundering of the
Churchs liturgical unity. In response to the reasons usually put forth in defense of
this reform, I would make the following observations about the actual significance of the
Church (Julian or Old) Calendar.
THE ISSUE OF ACCURACY:THE OLD CALENDAR IS SUPPOSED TO BE ASTRONOMICALLY INACCURATE, AND THE NEW CALENDAR FIXES THIS
Observations: All calendars are inherently astronomically inaccurate. The Holy Fathers who
established the Church Calendar knew perfectly well that assigning the vernal equinox to a
fixed date was astronomically inaccurate. Yet, they went ahead and did this.
The so-called "Revised Julian Calendar" is
fundamentally flawed. By maintaining the traditional Paschalion while changing the
fixed calendar, the Typicon goes out the window. The Apostles Fast is severely
shortened, or even ends before it begins in certain years. Over the centuries, according
to the "Revised Julian Calendar," the date of Pascha will gradually slip forward
into the fixed year, so that Pascha (and all the moveable feasts) will eventually coincide
with the Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul, with the Transfiguration, with the Dormition, and
even with the Nativity (the last will happen in about thirty-five thousand years, so you
may say, "Whats the big deal?"; but it will occur).
In fact, astronomers cannot use the Gregorian calendar for their
calculations, since it is "missing" the ten days that were "skipped"
in 1583. Computer programmers, moreover, always make their calculations of the distance
between dates by using the "Julian date." Copernicus, among other astronomers,
was also adamantly opposed to the Gregorian Calendar reform. Let us incidentally note, in
this vein, that the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences at the beginning of this century
found no scientific or astronomical reasons for adopting the Gregorian Calendar. [For more
on this see A Scientific Examination of the Orthodox
Church Calendar, by Hieromonk Cassian.]
Finally, as I will point out subsequently, astronomical accuracy was absolutely not one of the reasons that the calendar
change was introduced by Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis in 1924.
THE ISSUE OF OBEDIENCE: ONE MUST NOT COUNTER THE DECISIONS OF ONES
Observations. This is actually a good reason for using the calendar your Bishops say that you
should. It is absolutely not in any way a justification, however, for the original change
of the Church Calendar.
An amazing issue here is the fact that some jurisdictions have allowed individual
parishes actually to vote and choose which calendar they wish to use! Here is a clear
example of Hierarchs abrogating their authority to lead and to teach. Lay parishioners
have no concept of the liturgical and historical issues surrounding the calendar reform.
They are not theologically educated. Yet, they are being asked to make decisions regarding
abandoning a calendar that has been part of the Tradition of the Church for sixteen
Not too long ago, there was an incident that occurred in the U.S. Navy. The captain of
one of the larger vessels offered his crew the opportunity to vote on the place where they
were to have their week of "shore leave," after a long tour of duty. Because of
this, the captain was relieved of his command and demotedhe had abrogated his
authority as commander of his vessel and had given this authority to his subordinates.
This story comes to mind when one reads that the Moscow Patriarchate has allowed its
parishes in Great Britain to choose which calendar they wish to follow, including even the
date of Pascha. Do parishioners really have the authority to overturn the decisions of
OEcumenical Synods and local Councils? This is democracy run amok, in my opinion.
THE ISSUE OF THE CIVIL CALENDAR: WE LIVE BY THE CIVIL CALENDAR, WHICH TELLS US
WHAT DAY OF THE MONTH IT IS, SO WE SHOULD ADJUST OUR LITURGICAL CALENDAR TO BE IN ACCORD
Observations. This seems like an
awfully weak argument. Certainly, the civil authorities regulate standards of weight and
measure, and even time (that is what the atomic clocks are for at the Bureau of
Standards). Do we really think that it is necessary, or even permissible, for the civil
authorities to regulate when the Holy Church celebrates its Feast Days? Whatever happened
to the separation of Church and State? The civil authorities should never be looked to in
questions that concern the liturgical life of the Church. The Church has lived and
functioned under a broad spectrum of civil authorities, with dozens of calendar systems.
Yet, it maintained its own Church Calendar, as it should have. Yes, the Church Calendar
was based on a pagan civil calendar. But once that calendar had been adopted by the
church, it became something different. It was now the Church Calendar, the
mechanism that regulates the "heartbeat" of the liturgical life of the Church in
timethat tells us when to fast, when to feast, etc.
At any time, in any place, the civil
authorities can arbitrarily change things like the calendar. Does this mean that we have
immediately to change the Church Calendar correspondingly? I do not think so. Indeed, the
Jews, Moslems, Chinese, and others have maintained their own calendars and pay no
attention to the civil calendars of the countries in which they live. There is no reason
why the Orthodox should not be able to maintain a Church Calendar, as well.
Also, we never know when the State might introduce some serious change in the
civil calendar. Seriously being discussed is the introduction of a calendar consisting of
thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, plus a "world day" at the end of the
year. This would, of course, ensure that, each year, every date would fall on the
same day of the week, simplifying all kinds of financial operations. If such a
calendar becomes law, should the Orthodox "join in" and throw out their Church
calendar to adopt the new civil one?
The fact is, there was and there is no compelling reason for the calendar change. None of the
reasons usually brought up can serve as justification for the Church abandoning its
traditional ecclesiastical calendar and for causing a rift in the liturgical unity of the
So far, for example, no one has come up with an answer as to why it is permissible to
ignore the anathemas of the three pan-Orthodox Councils held in the sixteenth century
which condemned the Papal Calendar as heretical. Likewise, no one has come up with an
answer as to why it is acceptable to use a "Revised Julian Calendar" that
severely shortens or even eliminates the ancient Apostles Fast or that willalbeit
some time from nowallow Pascha to drift forward through the Church year, until it
will eventually coincide with the Nativity. All of this, instead of an extremely
well-organized and brilliantly executed traditional Church Calendar, where such
aberrations are simply not possible.
The argument, that if one follows the Julian calendar eventually Pascha will occur in
the autumn, is also unconvincing. That happens in the Southern hemisphere already.
Perhaps we will see an argument, in time, that it is only fair that the seasons be
eventually reversed, so that our Orthodox brothersand sisters in South America, Africa,
and Australia will be able to celebrate Pascha in the Spring, as well. By the same token,
the argument that the existence of different time zones keeps Orthodox from celebrating
the Feasts together is specious; the calendar envisions each Feast as a whole day of
celebration: a twenty-four hour period from evening to evening, so that even in different
time zones, all are conceptually celebrating together.
Finally, for all the discussion of astronomical "accuracy," "obedience
to ones bishops," and "making the calendar an idol," or such
inane proclamations as, "there is no time in Heaven," people forget that the
reason that the calendar change, with all its painful consequences, was introduced in this
century is very well known; and it has nothing to do with any of these issues. Patriarch
Meletios Metaxakis of Constantinople, the architect of the calendar reform, was perfectly
clear about his reason for this innovation: it was to achieve unity with other Christians.
Let me repeat this again: The reason the calendar reform was introduced was to foster
We must remember that Patriarch Meletios (who had previously been Archbishop of Athens
and was later Patriarch of Alexandriaso much for the independence of these
autocephalous churches!) was a devoted and self-avowed Freemason and a die-hard
renovationist. In 1923, he recognized the renovationist "Living Church" in
Russia (which had married bishops!) and its deposition of Patriarch Tikhon. Meletios put
together an agenda for a Pan-Orthodox Council that was to include on its agenda not only
the acceptance of the Gregorian Calendar, but also the easing of restrictions for fast
periods, the shortening of services, permission for clergy to remarry, and many other
renovationist ideas. He was an advocate of civil dress for clergy, and most photographs of
him show him in a suit and tie with a bowler hat. [These photographs clearly
confirm Father Alexanders allegation about Meletios Metaxakis, who
found most of the Holy Traditions of the Orthodox Church, to quote him, "outmoded,
old-fashioned, and clear...impediments to Christian unity"Ed.]
This is the man who imposed the New Calendar on the Church.
Now, Meletios may have admittedly had other motives for his reform, as well. It is not
unlikely that the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in the early 1920s, was in danger of
annihilation by the newly secularized Turkish government. The Patriarchate had lost the
protection of Imperial Russia and thus needed the support of world public opinion, in
order to survive. Was the price of this support acceptance of the Western Calendar? Very
possibly so. So, the avowed reason for the calendar change was that of coming closer to
Roman Catholics and Protestants, not a single one of the reasons cited above. It did not
accomplish the goal of union with the heterodox. It did, however,
accomplish the goal of causing a bitter and deep division within the Orthodox Church.
Indeed, Meletios died a horrible and terrifying death, bemoaning the fact that he had
"divided the Church." Is this something we want to support?
There are those who have accused me of making an "emotional" appeal for the
preservation and restoration of the traditional Church calendar. But is the situation in
which we are now living reasonable, where a non-Orthodox coming up to an Orthodox
Christian, say, on the streets of Los Angeles, and asking a simple question"Is
today a fast day?"cannot get a direct answer? Nor can he get an answer to the
question, "What Saint does your Church celebrate today?" An answer like,
"Well, uh, you see, uh, some Orthodox are still fasting for the Dormition, while some
have already celebrated the Dormition," is not a good or direct answer.
Is it rational to cause schizophrenia in our bishops, who, in visiting different
parishes, have to remember which calendar they are on? Is it rational that bishops cannot
be spiritually united with their flockcannot feast with them and fast with them
because of the calendar issue? Some even have to celebrate each major Feast Day twice! Not
a very good way to follow the Typicon! In one parish, they are fasting and
preparing for the Feast; in another, the fast has long passed. Does a bishop who has
already celebrated the Nativity, as a case in point, have to go back and fast for two more
weeks, in order to serve at an Old Calendarist parish? Or does he start all of his fasts
two weeks early, just in case? The whole thing is ludicrous.
The same renovationists who brought us the calendar
reform are busy working on new ones. It is a fact that Constantinople is already actively
involved in discussions leading to a single date for Pascha for all Christians, and even
discussing the possibility of a fixed date. Stay tuned. Maybe we will hear post-factum justifications
for this reform as being more "accurate," as well.
The issue of the Church Calendar is painful and divisive In my opinion, this fact alone
is an excellent reason why the calendar reform should never have taken place, and
especially in a piece-meal fashion. Although I cherish the traditions of the Church and
consider the Church Calendar to be one of the most enduring and sanctified among them, I
would be less upset, had the decision to revise the Church Calendar been made by all of
the Bishops of the Orthodox Church, acting together, with all of the Orthodox Churches
participating in the decision and its implementation. This, however, did not occur.
Obviously, there are three possible resolutions to the calendar problem. One, a return
by all Orthodox Christians to the sanctified traditional Church Calendar. Two, acceptance
by all Orthodox Christians of Pope Gregorys calendar reform, and the ensuing
absurdities regarding the Apostles Fast and Paschal drift, as well as the acceptance
of the ecumenist goals of Meletios Metaxakis and the disavowal of the decrees of three
Church Councils convened to condemn such an eventuality (1583, 1587, 1593). Three,
maintenance of the status quo: a continuation of the division of world Orthodoxy
into two groups which cannot even celebrate the Great Feasts together.
It is clear to me which of these alternatives is consistent with the teaching of the
Holy Councils and Fathers, and which are not. I hope that this is clear for others, as
From Orthodox Tradition, Volume XIV, Nos. 2 & 3, pp. 81-85.