Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No Joke

I am constantly amazed by the complexity and beauty of the calendar. We humans are mostly stuck moving through time linearly, but we've given that line significant attention and meaning. Seasons and holidays measure our path, break up our monotony, and teach us our culture all at once.

April Fool’s Day, like practically everything else in Western Civilization, has Catholic roots. As part of the Council of Trent in 1563, it was decided that a new calendar was needed in order to properly calculate the vernal equinox. Because Easter occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, this calculation is important in determining the highest holy day, as well as Lent and Pentecost.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar. It was a remarkable scientific feat. Calendars are based on solar and lunar observations, but our sun and moon don’t quite line up. The interval between successive vernal equinoxes (365.2424 days) is approximately 11 minutes less than 365.25 days. The time between each full moon is around 29 1/2 days, so 12 lunar months add up to only about 354 days. The Julian calendar organized time on a 365 day cycle, with leap years to account for the quarter day accrued every year. But over time, it still fell 10 days behind. The Gregorian calendar solved the problem by jumping ahead those 10 days, instituting leap years, and excluding leap years on century markers unless divisible by 400 (so 2000 had a leap day, 1900 did not). Like the Julian calendar, the New Year began on January 1.

Unfortunately, the Gregorian calendar went into effect post-schism and post-reformation. To this day, the Eastern Church still uses Julian dating to determine holy days. Catholic countries adopted the new calendar rather quickly, but Protestant countries wouldn’t, suspicious of a Catholic plot and following dirty, papist traditions. 

England (and its colonies) was one of the last countries to make the switch. While there was the anti-Catholic sentiment, most the concern was down to taxes, annuities, and other financial matters in a year that would skip 11 days ahead (for it had fallen another full day behind between 1582 and 1750). It was only when it got too complicated doing business with foreign nations, including Ireland and Scotland, that England finally switched. However, the Calendar Act of 1750 specifically made no mention of the Gregorian calendar, but just happened to adjust the English calendar and its Easter calculation to line up with what everyone else was using.

Throughout most of history, the new year was celebrated in the spring, when life crept back into nature. This was true for Christian countries as well, who commonly celebrated it on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25). Only under the Julian calendar in Rome (about BC 153-567 AD) and the Gregorian calendar in Europe did the date move to January. Before, the English, like others, celebrated the New Year from March 25 to April 1 (octave of the Annunciation). Once the English finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, those that still celebrated New Year’s Day in the spring were called fools—thus the origin of April Fool’s Day on April 1.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Light and Dark

March 25 is an important date on the Christian calendar that most people forget to acknowledge. It is nine months before Christmas Day, thus it is the Feast of the Annunciation and the date of the Incarnation. It is the day that the Creator entered into his own creation. Mary gave her fiat, a virgin became with child, Jesus came as fully God and fully man. We often speak of his birthday as the day he entered the world, but it really took place here, when he entered Mary’s womb.

However, the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated on April 4 this year, the first day after the Easter Octave. That is because on rare occasions such as this year, the Annunciation takes place on the same day as Good Friday. Incarnation and death, entry and exit, become intertwined. This won’t happen again until 2157, so it’s good to take note of it this year. We often speak of the Incarnation and magical and beautiful: candles and children and cooing and Christmas. But the Incarnation also brought the Passion: betrayal, condemnation, torture, and death. Christ came to serve us and we rejected him. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It is a message of hope and joy because of what he has done for us, but it is also a message of sorrow and guilt because of what we’ve done to him.

The coincidence of the Annunciation and Good Friday brings it all together. We cannot have one without the other. Our faith cannot be solely feel-good stories of manger scenes, miracles, and resurrection. It also cannot be solely dark threats of sacrifice, wrath, and death. Both are needed to grasp the weight of the Incarnation.

As the traditional troparion says, “Today is the beginning of our salvation!”