A Scientific Examination of the Orthodox Church Calendar
Ch. 4: The Essence of the Church Calendar
by Hieromonk Cassian
God exercised His authority over time through the Holy
Fathers at the cumenical Synods. 24 This is vividly expressed by
Synodal decrees, wherein the words of Holy Scripture are pronounced: "It seemed good
to the Holy Spirit, and to us." 25 Although the calendar is a
human invention, its definitive acceptance by the Holy Orthodox Church elevates its status
to the Divine. Therefore, the violation of the calendar is a sin, and according to the
ordinances of the cumenical Synods, it is a sin against the Holy Spirit, Who inspired
these Synods. Furthermore, following the words of the Holy Gospel of Saint Luke, "And
whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto
him that blasphemeth against the Holy Spirit
it shall not be forgiven," 26 logic dictates that this is the gravest of sins.
Strictly speaking, the Julian Calendar
is not a Christian calendar; it is actually a pagan one. When Julius Caesar
inaugurated his eponymous calendar in 46 b.c., it was intended for general civil
use in the Roman Empire, and so it remained until the First cumenical
Synod (Figure 4). Summoned in Nicaea, a town of Asia Minor, the week before
the Feast of Pentecost in 325, this celebrated Synod not only defended some
of the most important dogmatic principles of Christianity, but also appropriated
the Julian Calendar for ecclesiastical use by conjoining it to the Jewish Calendar
in the establishment of a uniform calculation of Paschathe
Paschalion, a calculation that was to supersede the various local
practices which up to that time had caused liturgical confusion within the Church.
It did so by introducing a universal time-reckoning scheme, the Great Indiction,
or Cycle from the Creation of the
World, 27 which
remains to this day as the basis of all
of the service books of the Orthodox Church. The Divine Services, immutably
determined by the Church Calendar, consist of two concurrent cycles: the immovable
cycle of Feasts, those which are fixed to a specific calendar date, and the
movable cycle of Feasts, those which are dependent on the Feast of the Resurrection,
the date of which is variable. (After the calendar reform, all Feasts
became movable, as will be shown later in the chapter, "Liturgical Havoc
Wreaked by the 'New Julian' Calendar.") Thus, when speaking of the Church
Calendar, we mean both the immovable,
Menaion (from the Greek "men,"
"month") cycle and the movable,
Paschal cycle as well.
The essential role of the Julian Calendar in the Divine
Services lies in its relationship to the first cycle, that of the immovable Feasts. The
Julian Calendar serves as a framework for the Menaion cycle; yet, the two are not
coterminous. The Menaion cycle differs from the Julian Calendar, inasmuch as it
has certain characteristics modelled on Biblical precedents which distinguish it from the
civil reckoning of time. For example, the liturgical or ecclesiastical day always runs
from evening to evening, following the Scriptural reckoning: "And there was evening,
and there was morning, the first day." 28 This is
why the daily liturgical order starts with Vespers.
With the Julian computation of time, however, the civil day runs from midnight to
midnight. This discrepancy is not unimportant, because the difference between the
liturgical and civil reckoning will be an entire day for events between dusk and midnight.
Likewise, there is an analogous discrepancy with the reckoning of annual events: the
ecclesiastical year (i.e., the Indiction) begins on September 1, while the civil year
begins on January 1. Therefore, there will be a difference of one year between the
ecclesiastical and civil reckonings for events between September 1 and December 31. In
addition, the liturgical hours are designated differently than the civil hours of the
Julian Calendar: the First Hour corresponds to 7:00 a.m., the Third Hour to 9:00 a.m., and
so on. Hence, the Menaion (in
Slavonic, "Mesetsoslov" ) 29 is a liturgical book which details the cycle of ecclesiastical celebrations
for the Faithful, while the Julian Calendar reckons time periods in general and is for use
outside of the Church.
Distinct from this immovable cycle of Feasts is the
Paschal cycle, which derives from and is linked to the ancient Jewish Calendar. This
linkage is a result of Christ's Passion having been directly connected to the Jewish
Passover; strictly maintaining the sequence of events described in the Holy Gospel, the
Orthodox Church always celebrates the Resurrection of Christ after the Passover.
From antiquity, the chosen people of the Jews celebrated the Passover in accordance with its lunar calendar, 30 a practice faithfully observed by the Lord
Jesus Christ. The Word of God incarnate was a Jew, Who obeyed the requirements of the Old
Testament, because He did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. 31 As the God-Man, Christ fulfilled what was lacking in the
Law by offering Himself as a Sacrifice for the
redemption of mankind from sin, death, and damnation, becoming thereby a New Passover"the Sun of righteousness" 32 for
all who believe in Him. Thus, the Old Testament Pascha, 33 on which the Jews commemorated
their Exodus from Egypt, was replaced by the New Testament Pascha, on which Christians
celebrate the deliverance of their souls from slavery to the noetic Egypt, that is, sin. 34 Saint John Chrysostomos draws a theological parallel
between the Old and New Testament Passovers:
The Jewish Passover was a foreshadowing,
while the Christian one is truth.... The former was a deliverance from corporeal death,
while the latter brought an end to the wrath of God, under which the whole universe had
fallen; the former was a deliverance from the Egypt of old, the latter was a ransom from
idolatry; the former did away with Pharaoh, the latter with the Devil; after the former, the Promised Land followed, while after the latter,
The Church Calendar is thus a combination of two
harmoniously interwoven cycles, the Menaion cycle, which utilizes the solar
Julian Calendar, and the Paschal cycle, which relies on the lunar Jewish Calendar, and it
is only under these names that the Church Calendar is encountered in service books. The
fruit of the ingenious efforts of numberless scholars and theologians, the Church Calendar
alone fulfills the canonical and dogmatic requirements of the Orthodox Faith. All other
calendars are unable to fulfill these requirements practically, because the combination of
the movable and immovable cycles is univocal and unique. The Church Calendar is
inseparable from the cycles of the sun and the moon, in much the same way that a replica
of a picture is inseparable from its original: without the original, the replica would not
exist, and in the same way, the Church Calendar reflects the solar and lunar cycles.
Therefore, every effort to replace the Church Calendar is doomed to failure, for the
Church Calendar is, by definition, never at odds with the Biblical, canonical, and
liturgical dictates of ecclesiastical life. But let us prove this.
In the immediate centuries after Christ,
Christianity quickly spread throughout the Empire (and beyond). The impediments to
communication at the time, however, allowed local traditions to develop an undue strength.
So it was that the early Christians did not necessarily celebrate Pascha at the same time.
It thus became imperative to formalize the Apostolic teaching concerning the celebration
of this Feast of Feasts as an inviolable rule. The Seventh Apostolic Canon proclaims:
"A Bishop, a Presbyter, or a Deacon who celebrates the Holy Day of Pascha before
the vernal equinox, together with the Jews, shall be deposed from his sacred rank."
This strict rule is the fundamental criterion of the Christian Paschalion. It
stipulates that Pascha be celebrated after the Jewish Passover 36 and after the
vernal equinox. The Passover is always celebrated on the fourteenth of Nisan
(March/April), which is the date of the first full moon of spring in the Jewish Calendar.
Therefore, the Paschal full moon is determined by the lunar calendar, while the vernal
equinox is determined by the solar calendar. The Nicene Paschalists faced the problem of
how to combine the lunar and solar calendars in compliance with the requirements of the
Seventh Apostolic Canon. Their primary objective was to link permanently, both in theory
and in practice, the cycle of the moon with the cycle of the sun, thereby obtaining an
indivisible and harmonic bond between the two differently-based calendars. This would
preserve the sequence of events in the last days of our Lord Jesus Christ as they are
described in the Holy Gospel.
In order to appreciate the ingenuity of the
Church Calendar, it is necessary to evaluate it from the perspective of the Nicene
Fathers. We must consider their explicit goal in composing a Christian calendar, the
problems they faced in undertaking this task, and the manner in which they tackled these
problems. For the Synod of Nicaea, the overriding concern was how to fulfill canonical
requirements in the composition of the Paschalion. Its goal, therefore, was to
harmonize the rhythms of the lunar and solar cycles exactly. This type of
exactitude is quite different from that which the Gregorian reformers sought. Unlike the
Holy Fathers of Nicaea, the latter set as their goal the attainment of an
"astronomically accurate" calendar, as stated in the Papal bull "Inter
Gravissimas." 37 As we shall see later, the concept of "astronomical
accuracy" is wholly relative and extremely uncertain. Contemporary science readily
admits that the composition of a calendar which is "astronomically accurate" in
relation to the reckoning of fictive time, such as the Gregorian Calendar, is unfeasible.
Thus, the Gregorian reformers ultimately failed to achieve their goal, whereas the Nicene
Fathers entirely succeeded in achieving theirs, which was again, a different one.
Let us now consider how.
In order to synchronize the two differently-based
calendarsviz., the Julian Calendar, which is solar, and the Jewish
Calendar, which is lunar, it is necessary to determine a period of time after which
the dates of each calendar will "realign." For example, let us say that a cycle
begins with the day on which March 1 ( Julian Calendar) occurs simultaneously as Nisan 1 (
Jewish Calendar). This cycle will be considered complete when March 1 and Nisan 1 fall
once again on the same day. We have already discussed the nineteen-year cycle ascribed to
Meton of Athensa cycle which several ancient civilizations, Eastern and Western
(Babylon, Greece, China, et al.), had discovered independently in the middle of
the first millennium b.c. The chief merit of the Metonic cycle resides in its
determination of the least common multiple of the lunar and solar cycles. Again, as
explained earlier, in the Metonic cycle, the lunar year has 354 days, while the solar year
has 365 days. The addition of seven embolismic months, each having thirty days,
"realigns" the lunar and solar years after a period of nineteen years. This
lunisolar harmonization appealed to the Nicene Fathers, because they needed just this sort
of link between the lunar phases and the vernal equinox, in order to conform to the
dictates of the Seventh Apostolic Canon. However, for their purposes, the Metonic cycle
had a slight drawback: it was designed for a solar year of 365 days, whereas the Holy
Fathers intended to use the Julian Calendar with its solar year of 365.25 days. When the
Metonic cycle is applied to the Julian Calendar, the extra six hours of the Julian solar
year add up to four days and eighteen hours over the course of nineteen years.
Thus, the First cumenical Synod faced a quandary. If, in
a given year, Nisan 1 coincided with March 1, after nineteen years, Nisan 1 would
apparently begin six hours earlier than March 1, though the actual difference between the
two dates would be four days and eighteen hours. Here, again, the least common multiple of
this difference had to be found. This was easy enough: after four nineteen-year cycles (i.e.,
seventy-six years), the apparent difference of six hours quadruples, adding up to an
entire day. In reality, however, the actual difference of four days and eighteen hours
also quadruples, meaning that the vernal equinox occurs nineteen days later, i.e.,
at its original starting pointand thus a full cycle is completed. These simple
calculations were carried out in 330 b.c. by the Greek astronomer Callippus, who
discovered an astounding natural phenomenon: Thus, by quadrupling the Metonic cyclea
Callipic cycle, the Jewish lunar year is synchronized to the Julian solar year.
Although the Julian Calendar has some imprecision, this imprecision is found to almost the
same extent in the Jewish Calendar. Thus, the vernal equinox, which moves ahead by the
Julian calculation, moves ahead according to the Jewish one as well.
The Callipic cycle, therefore, made it possible to
calibrate the Metonic cycle to the Julian solar year. But in order to make this adjustment
work properly, it was imperative to know the average lengths of the lunar month and of the solar year. 38 It is unreasonable to assume, as some
modern scholars do, that the Nicene Fathers were ignorant of the accurate measurements of
these intervals, for these measurements were already known from very ancient times. For
example, by the middle of the third millennium b.c. in Babylon, and by 104 b.c. in China,
the precision of their determination nearly matched the accuracy of contemporary
scientific methods. Furthermore, considering the computations of the American astronomer
Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) in regard to the change in the day during the millennia, the
correspondence between ancient and contemporary data is astounding; we can only guess what
astronomical means were used by the ancients to accomplish such precision. In any event,
for the purposes of Christian chronology, the Holy Fathers of Nicaea accepted the length
of the lunar month to be approximately 29.53 days and the length of the solar year to be
365.25 days. (Later, we will elucidate how the exactitude of these figures is often deemed
satisfactory, even for the most up-to-date astronomical research.)
These figures are crucial to the formation of the Great
Indiction, the aim of which is, as we have shown, the combination of the solar cycle with
the lunar one. We have already discussed the fact that after a period of nineteen years,
new and full moons fall on the same dates as they initially did. Analogously, after a
period of twenty-eight years, the sun completes a cycle in which the calendar dates fall
once again on the exact same days of the week as they did at the beginning of this cycle.
Thus, the Great Indiction, a period of 532 years, is established by joining the
nineteen-year lunar cycle with the twenty-eight-year solar cyclein the language of
arithmetic: 19x28=532. In other words, the Great Indiction can be considered either as
nineteen twenty-eight-year solar cycles
or as twenty-eight nineteen-year lunar cycles. 39 This, then, is how the
unique astronomical, mathematical, and Paschal rhythm of the Church Calendar was obtained.
Whenever the Great Indiction elapses, the cycles of the sun and of the moon and the days
of the week revert to their initial order. Since 1941, we have been in the Fifteenth
Indiction; Pascha of that year was celebrated on the same calendar date as Pascha in
1409, i.e., 532 years earlier. Likewise, Pascha in 1998, April 6 (Old Style), was
celebrated on the same date as the years 402, 934, and 1466.
Nineteen Julian solar years exceed nineteen Jewish lunar years by one hour, twenty-eight minutes, and fifteen
seconds. 40 This means that
after the passage of nineteen solar years, the lunar phases occur again on the same dates
of the month, only they do so one hour, twenty-eight minutes, and fifteen seconds earlier;
and after the passage of sixteen nineteen-year cycles (i.e., 304 years), they occur almost a day earlier. 41 This is
the reason that the Paschal full moon since the
time of the First cumenical Synod has been appearing earlier and earlier, with respect
to its appearance in 325. At that time, Nisan 14 coincided with the vernal equinox;
now it is lagging behind the vernal equinox by about ten days. In other words, the
earliest Paschal full moon at the time fell on March 21 (Old Style), while it now falls on
March 18 (Old Style). Likewise, this lagging behind the vernal equinox can be observed in
the Julian Calendar: in 325 it fell on March 21 (Old Style), while today it falls on March
8 (Old Style). The amazing thing is that the Nicene Paschalists succeeded in linking
the two calendarsinexact in themselves, so that ultimately they obtained a
nineteenyear cycle which is of great scientific merit, one that unerringly reckons,
even to this day, the lunar phases and their connection with the vernal equinox.
Moreover, when the Evangelical sequence of events between the
Jewish Passover and the Christian Pascha is maintained as it is in the Nicene Paschalion,
over the course of time, the Jewish and Christian feasts gradually move apart from
each other, precisely because the lagging of the Julian Calendar behind the vernal
equinox is slightly greater than that of the Jewish Calendar. This lagging of the Orthodox
Pascha was called "an advantage" by the prominent Byzantine canonist, Hieromonk
Matthew Blastares of Thessalonica ( fl . 14th cen.). His claim is the antithesis of
that of contemporary ecumenists, who call this lagging "a defect." The
phenomenon demonstrates the acceleration of the relative velocity of the moon in relation
to the earth through the course of centuries. It is a complicated problem for scientists
undertaking the compilation of an exact lunisolar calendar, which we will deal with in
detail in the chapter "ScienceIn Support of the Church Calendar." One can
only marvel at the ingenious solution of this complex astronomical problem. Furthermore,
the drawing apart of the Jewish Passover from the Orthodox Pascha has deep theological
significance, clearly indicating the proportionally increasing hostility over the
centuries of Judaism towards Christianity. This brings to mind the words of the
Savior: "...For the prince of this world
cometh, and hath nothing in Me." 42 By the same token,
this chronological distancing of the central Orthodox Feast from the Jewish one
providentially signifies the spiritual distance between these faiths, viz., that
Orthodoxy has nothing in common with Judaism. For the adherents of the Gregorian Paschalion,
just the opposite is the case, since they often celebrate their Easter together with, or
before, the Jewish Passover.
Thus, in practice, there is an indefectible natural
phenomenon, observable within the course of a human life, which serves as the basis of the Church Calendar. 43 Our aim is not to show in detail how this was accomplished, for those who desire to know
this can consult the textbooks of the Orthodox Paschalion; rather, our purpose is
to demonstrate that given the elementary knowledge just presented, an understanding of the
Orthodox Church Calendar is quite easy. From an ecclesiastical viewpoint, a study of the Paschalion
does not require astronomical detailssuch are not necessary to the goal of theology.
It is enough to be acquainted with the structure of the Church Calendar and to grasp the
synchronization of the movable and immovable cycles, readily apparent in the Typicon
of the Church, which establishes the proper ordering of the Divine Services. It is
unnecessary for the ordinary Priest to investigate highly technical matters, which are
hardly intelligible to the average person. For an Orthodox Priest, what is essential is
the ability, upon opening the service books, to apprehend the immovable Feast of the day
and its relationship to the Paschal cycle, so that he can celebrate the Divine Services in
accordance with the requirements of the Church Typicon. For example, in order to
determine the appointed Epistle and Gospel readings for the Divine Liturgy for every day
of the year, it is necessary to know how many weeks have passed since the movable Feast of
This conscious overlooking of the
astronomical aspect of the Orthodox Paschalion is often a source of
doubt in rationalistically-inclined minds. Such doubts, however, are a manifestation
of an ignorance of the essence and goal of the Paschalion. The perennial
tradition of the Holy Fathers has established an extremely simple, yet exact,
method for the calculation of Paschawithout calendars, one based
on the most important criterion: that expressed by the Seventh Apostolic Canon.
This method is so perfect in practice that even until the present, the determination
of the vernal equinox, the full moon, and the Jewish Passover based on it corresponds
to real events. The consistent coincidence between theory and practice achieved
by the Church Calendar, from antiquity to modernity, inspires confidence that
it is not the mere fruit of rationalistic human philosophizing, but is sanctified
for liturgical use by God Himself, according to the words of the Holy cumenical
Synods: "It seemed good to the Holy
Spirit, and to us." 44
The fact that the Orthodox Church has released Her
Faithful from an obligation to know the astronomical technicalities of the Paschalion
is not a flaw; on the contrary, it is a strength. Just as schoolchildren need not reinvent
letters and numbers anew, so it is for Orthodox who possess the Paschalion.
Without delving into a semeiological analysis of alphanumeric figures, schoolchildren take
these conventional graphic symbols for granted, once they have learned them; in the same
manner, the Church Calendar, since its development and subsequent testing by the Holy
Fathers, has been handed down to each new generation of Orthodox for practical, liturgical
purposes. Quite simply, it is impossible to create another, similar calendareven the
smallest change would lead to a discrepancy with the cycles of the sun and the moon, and,
more importantly, would allow for human infringement in the Divinely-inspired liturgical
texts. This is neither permissible nor exigent. Therefore, any Orthodox who thinks that
the Faith must be "corrected" proves that he does not wish to obey his Holy
Mother, the Orthodox Church, but rather that he desires to "reform" Her; that
is, he does not accept Her as She is, protesting instead against Her essence. Such an
individual may be called a "reformer," a "Protestant," or whatever,
but he may not be properly called Orthodox. An Orthodox is one who observes diligently and
immutably the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church, which long ago sanctified the
externals of our Faith, releasing us from the need to "reinvent" these
Orthodox Christians have much more pressing concerns than
astronomy, the chief of these being the mastering of the science of spiritual life, viz.,
the struggle with sin and passions, both those found internally within a man and those
found externally in his surrounding environment. This science of sciences directly
involves one in the future, eternal life, and is infinitely more important than the
present, temporal life, despite the fact that it is unfortunately neglected and forgotten
today. The Holy Fathers discharged us from the onerous task of composing a liturgical
calendar and accompanying services, so that by utilizing what they have passed on to us,
by way of Holy Tradition, we might be able to pursue the universally essential fight for
salvation unencumbered by technical distractions. With the eternal salvation of the human
soul as the focal point, the imaginary problem of "meticulosity" posed by the
Gregorian calendar reformers not only pales, but literally vanishes, as a consideration,
in the same way that in mathematics every finite number in relation to infinity is equal
to zero. Therefore, even if the "concern" of the Gregorian Paschalists were well
grounded, if it displaces our most important concern and objectivesalvation,
it becomes groundless and senseless. What need is there to "reinvent" that which
has already been established once and for all times?
The natural phenomenon which forms the basis of the
Orthodox Church Calendar impressed the brilliant German mathematician and astronomer, Carl
Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855 ), so much that he constructed his own "Paschalion,"
reproduced herein as Addendum 2, "The Gaussian Formula for the Orthodox Calculation
of Pascha." As far as modern science is concerned, Gauss' method is purely classical
physics. However, the theory of relativity, first introduced in the realm of physics,
revolutionized our thinking by its discovery that there are no constant phenomena in
nature. Yet it is wondrous to observe how the orderly Paschal theory of Orthodoxy stands
up to all such new discoveries, and, furthermore, not only does not contradict them, but
just the opposite, serves as the basis for the most modern astrophysical and
chronometrical measurements. Perhaps this proves that genuine science merely rediscovers
Biblical truths and should thus be guided by them.
23. Resurrectional Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos, Tone 2, Ode 3, Troparion 1.
24. An cumenical Synod is a convocation of Bishops from
all of the local Churches for the resolution of matters concerning the Church as a whole
(T. Koev, Orthodox Catechism and the Epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs on the Orthodox
Faith [Sofia: Texim Ltd., 1991], p. 34 ).
25. Acts 15:28.
26. St. Luke 12:10.
27. The starting point of the Great Indiction is Sunday,
September 1, 5508 b.c.
28. Genesis 1:5.
29. "Menaion" is used as a collective
name for the Menaia, the twelve volumes corresponding to the months of the year, in which
the Feasts of the immovable cycle are set forth.
30. [The ancient Jewish Calendar was the product of the
spiritual and scientific insight of Saint Moses the God-seer (
ca. 1430 b.c.). This Holy Prophet lived
for 120 years: his first forty years he spent as a prince at the
court of Pharaoh, where he received the best education available, including studies in the
sciences of astronomy and chronology; after having slain an Egyptian who was beating a
Jew, he spent his next forty years as a fugitive in Midian, where, laboring as a shepherd
for his father-in-law Jethro, he had ample opportunity to hone his abilities as an
astronomical observer; and after his encounter with the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai, when
he received his Divine commission to lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land, he
applied his knowledge of celestial motion to construct the Jewish Calendar, while
wandering through the wilderness with the chosen people for his last forty
31. Cf. St. Matthew 5:17.
32. Malachi 4:2.
33. [In Holy Scripture, the word used to denote the Jewish
Passover is the same as that used for the Christian Feast of the Resurrection: "Pascha"Eds.]
34. St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Church Sermons (Thessaloniki:
1991), p. 120.
35. St. John Chrysostomos, Works, Vol. i (1985 ),
36. Although the explicit wording of the Seventh Apostolic
Canon only forbids the celebration of Pascha "together with the Jews," Patristic
interpretation has always taken this to include a celebration of Pascha before the
Jewish Passover as well. Great Friday, the day of the Crucifixion of
Christ, fell on Nisan 14, the day of the Feast of the Passover, at the very time when
the Paschal lamb was being slaughtered. To celebrate His Resurrection before the
Jewish Passover would thus destroy the important theological connection between these
37. The history of which is discussed in Chapter 5.
38. But not the length of the lunar year, since it does not
have a constant number of months.
39. The Callipic cycle occurs seven times during the Great
Indiction (76x7=532), corresponding to the number of days in a week.
40. Nineteen Julian solar years (each containing 365 days
and six hours) equals 6,939 days and eighteen hours, whereas nineteen Jewish lunar years (i.e.,
235 lunar months) equals 6,939 days, sixteen hours, thirty-one minutes, and forty-five seconds.
41. The actual difference after 304 years is twenty-three
hours and thirty-two minutes.
42. St. John 14:30.
43. Contemporary scientific research shows that over the
course of millennia, the velocity of the earth is slowing down, whereas the velocity of
the moon, in relation to the earth, is speeding up; however, this difference
is so minimal that it in no way affects the goal of exactitude in
the Church Calendar.
44. Acts 15:28.
From A Scientific Examination of the Orthodox Church Calendar, by Hieromonk Cassian, eds.
Archbishop Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Gregory (Etna, CA: Center
for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), Ch. 4.