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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 here.

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 Church’s 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, "What’s 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 ONE’S ECCLESIASTICAL HIERARCHY

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 centuries!

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 demoted—he 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 WITH IT

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 time—that 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?

SUMMARY

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 Church.

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 will—albeit some time from now—allow 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  one’s 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 ecumenism. Period.

We must remember that Patriarch Meletios (who had previously been Archbishop of Athens and was later Patriarch of Alexandria—so 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 Alexander’s 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 flock—cannot 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 Gregory’s calendar reform, and the ensuing absurdities regarding the Apostle’s 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 well.

From Orthodox Tradition, Volume XIV, Nos. 2 & 3, pp. 81-85.