Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lyrics for Holy Thursday

From the album Wandering Strange

The Last Song

After the supper was over
     and the table had been cleared away
When the last bottle was empty,
     there was nothing much left to say
Jesus started humming an old tune,
     everybody fell right in
They sang the last song, the last song

Matthew started singing the low part,
     John grabbed the high harmony
Their voices filled up the night air
     all the way to Gethsemane
Judas walked some distance behind them
     like he had forgotten the words
They sang the last song, the last song

Just before they got to the garden
Just before they all fell asleep
Just before Barabbas was pardoned
And Jesus was nailed to a tree

I reckon it was some kind of soul song,
     maybe kind of sad and slow
All about how we get weary,
     all about holding on
Only Jesus knew what was coming,
     still he never said a thing
He sang the last song, the last song

He could have made a toast to the good times
     and only the best for his friends
He could have stayed up late reminiscing
     about the long strange trip it had been
But he went just like a lamb to the slaughter
     knowing it was part of the plan
And sang the last song, the last song

Kate Campbell and Walt Aldridge
© 1999 Large River Music (BMI) /
April Music/Waltz Time Music (ASCAP)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dating the Crucifixion

The Synaxarion readings we use at my church during Holy Week have one feature that strikes me as very odd: they assign Roman calendar dates to the days of the week of Christ's death and resurrection. Last night at Bridegroom Matins, for example, the Synaxarion that I read to the congregation said that the day when Judas agreed to betray Jesus was Wednesday, which corresponded to 21 March. Counting forward, this implies that the Crucifixion occurred on the 23rd, and the Resurrection occurred on the 25th. I have been unable to track down the source of this chronology.

I am aware of two dates that were assigned to the Crucifixion by early Christians. The first was 6 April. Later on, for some reason, this date was displaced by 25 March. (It is no mere coincidence that these dates precede Theophany and Christmas, respectively, by nine months, but the dates of those feasts were based on the date of the Christ's death, not vice versa. I'll skip that tangent for now and save it for a separate post in December.)

Modern scholars have attempted to determine the date of the Crucifixion by reconstructing the Jewish lunar calendar for the range of years in which Christ might have died. Following Luke 3:1-2, which places the beginning of Christ's ministry with respect to the reigns of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias, the range of plausible years can be narrowed to AD 29-36. In addition, St. Paul's conversion is usually dated to AD 34, which restricts the range further. Then it becomes a matter of extrapolating the lunar cycles backwards to the first century and seeing which years, if any, fit the chronology presented in the gospels. In performing these calculations, allowance must be made for the imprecision of Jewish reckoning. Sometimes the month might have begun a day after the new moon if the moon was not visible, and occasionally an error might be made in determining when to add an intercalary month (a 13th month to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar) at the end of the year.

One complication is that the gospels present two different chronologies of Holy Week. The Synoptic gospels, which present the Last Supper as a Seder meal, imply that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, 15 Nisan. John, however, tells us that Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover, 14 Nisan. So both chronologies must be considered.

The first person to do these calculations was Sir Isaac Newton, in 1733. Newton narrowed the dates down to 3 April 33 and 23 April 34. He then chose the latter date based on a correspondence between the grain-plucking episode from the gospels (Mark 2:23) and his understanding of the growing season for grain. However, his selection of AD 34 was based on rules of the Jewish calendar that were not yet in effect in the first century. Therefore, Newton's work was not taken very seriously.

Scholars of the 20th century returned to this question. They settled on two plausible dates: 7 April 30 and 3 April 33. Note that both dates correspond to 14 Nisan, and are thus consistent with John's chronology, not with the Synoptics.

For many years, AD 30 was the consensus favorite. I suspect there were two reasons for this. First, it had become accepted the Christ was born in 6-4 BC. Many people were attached to the notion that Christ had died at the age of 33. If he had died in AD 33, that would have made him nearly 36-38. Therefore the earlier Crucifixion date was favored. Second, based on the erroneous belief that Christ was born in AD 1, in conjunction with the idea that he died at age 33, it was popularly believed that Christ was crucified in AD 33. Scholars tend to enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from dismissing such popular beliefs. (I'm not sure why they did not think, rather, to question the death-at-age-33 theory . . .)

In the last decade, however, the consensus has shifted with near unanimity to AD 33 as the year of the Crucifixion. In AD 30, Christ's ministry was still in its early stages. AD 33 has astronomy, history, and tradition going for it.

In addition, further astronomical research has found that there was a lunar eclipse on 3 April 33. This is consistent with Peter's quotation from Joel (Acts 2:20): "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood." In addition, the late-second-century apocryphal Report of Pilate to the Emperor Claudius claims that at the Crucifixion "the moon appeared like blood." This was a common description of lunar eclipses in that era, and it might very well record a memory of an eclipse on the day of the Crucifixion. This is the icing on the cake for AD 33.

Unless something forces us to make a radical re-evaluation of the era in which Christ lived or the correspondence of the days of his death and resurrection to the Jewish Passover, the consensus in favor of 3 April 33 is unlikely to change. In the meantime, I will continue to try to get to the bottom of the dates in the Synaxarion.

The Tao of the Cross

As I mentioned early in Lent, I have been slowly reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. Actually, I’m not sure the term translation captures what Mitchell has given us. His work is often highly paraphrased, and sometimes it goes way beyond paraphrase, becoming a fresh expression of his interpretation of the gist of a chapter. Chapter 50, on the subject of life and death, is a difficult chapter, and even attempts at literal translation can vary widely. Most translations involve the number thirteen, tigers, rhinos, and armor – like these three translations. But Mitchell skips all of these. Instead he gives us a description of the Master who accepts the inevitability of death and is therefore not afraid to live. It reminds me of nothing so much as Christ in his last days. Without further ado . . .

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dating Easter

Most of North America's Christians are now three weeks past Easter. Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans, as well as members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, all celebrated Easter very early this year, on 23 March. Meanwhile, it is still one week until Passover and two weeks until Orthodox Easter. I am still looking at two more weeks of fasting, while my Anglo-Catholic friends are already half-way to the Ascension!

It has long been a principle of the Church that all Christians should celebrate the Resurrection on the same day. A number of councils, such as the Synod of Whitby, tried to get all the Christians in a region on the same page with respect to the date of Easter. How did we get to the current anomalous situation?

The early rule adopted by the Churches of Rome and Alexandria was that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday after Passover. Passover, the 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, would normally fall on the day of the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. At that time the date of Passover, as observed by rabbinical Jews, depended upon observation of nature, not computation.

The Roman version of the rule ensured that Easter would always be observed after Passover. If Passover fell on Sunday, then Easter would be celebrated on the following Sunday. This was motivated in part by history: According to the Gospel of John (e.g., 19:31), the Crucifixion occurred on Friday, Passover was observed on Saturday, and the Resurrection occurred on Sunday. Therefore, they reasoned, Easter should be observed after Passover. But it might also have been motivated in part by an anti-Jewish attitude that was prevalent among Christians of some regions, who preferred to separate the Christian Passover (Greek Pascha) from the Jewish Passover (Hebrew Pesach).

To complicate matters, around that time, the Jews reformed their calendar to simplify the determination of when to add an intercalary month (a 13th month to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar). Formerly, the Sanhedrin would announce the insertion of the extra month based on four factors: the equinox, the ripeness of the barley and of the fruits of trees, and the birth of sufficient lambs for the Passover sacrifice. The new calendar, traditionally attributed to the 4th-century rabbi Hillel II (though more likely adopted gradually between the 1st and 9th centuries) was rule-based rather than astronomical. The dispersion of the Jews all over the Mediterranean world made it difficult to communicate the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year (1st of Nisan) to everyone. The new calendar was intended to ensure that all Jews could start the new year together, and thus celebrate Passover and other festivals together. But the rule-based calendar sometimes departed from the celestial calendar, resulting in the observance of Passover before the equinox. Some Christians, especially in the East, followed the new Jewish determination of Passover, while others rejected the Jewish calendrical innovation and made their own independent determination of the Paschal full moon. (Local variations in calendrical practice among both Christians and Jews make the picture somewhat more complicated than I have described here.)

The Council of Nicea, in response to Constantine's request, addressed the issue of when to celebrate Easter. The council decided that Easter should be observed by all Christians on the Sunday following the full moon on or after the vernal equinox. That is really all the Church said about the date of Easter at the time. If you read much about this issue, you will no doubt encounter various claims that the Council of Nicea mandated more detailed formulae for determining the date of Easter (e.g., basing it on the Julian calendar or employing a 19-year lunar cycle), which just happen to coincide with the writer's biases. But such claims are entirely unfounded. Variant lunar cycles, for instance, persisted until the 9th century in some places.

A few decades later, with some Eastern Christians still taking their cue from the Jewish observance of Passover, the Church again addressed the matter in an appendix to the Apostolic Constitutions. Canon VII of the Holy Apostles states, "If any bishop, priest, or deacon celebrates the holy day of Pascha before the vernal equinox with the Jews, let him be deposed." The key phrase here is not "with the Jews," but, rather, "before the vernal equinox." The implication is that Christians are to ignore the new Jewish calendar. The Church had little choice but to make this ruling. The contrary ruling would, essentially, have given the Jews the power to determine when Christians celebrated their most important festival. Here the Church proved more conservative than the rabbinical Jews, retaining the ancient Jewish practice long after the Jews had abandoned it.

The Jews have not observed Passover before the vernal equinox since the 9th century. Their rule-based calendar has drifted, so that now they sometimes observe Passover later than the astronomically determined date, but never earlier. Like this year, for instance. The vernal equinox took place on 20 March, and the moon was full on the following day, 21 March. But the Jews will commence their celebration of Passover at the next full moon, 20 April.

Many Orthodox Christians, perhaps including most of the clergy, seem to believe that the reason we Orthodox Christians observe Easter so late is because the canons require us to observe Easter after the Jews have observed Passover. This year, for instance, Orthodox Easter falls on 27 April, a week after Passover, which is consistent with this claim. But while this might be a useful rule of thumb, it is not an actual rule, let alone a canon. The Passover date that Easter must not precede is that determined by the ancient method – 21 March this year. Far from requiring Christians to celebrate Easter after the new Jewish Passover date, Canon VII of the Holy Apostles actually requires us to ignore the innovative Jewish dating of Passover.

It is easy to demonstrate that the Church has no rule requiring Easter to follow Passover. A number of times in the 6th through 8th centuries, the Church actually celebrated Easter on the same day when the Jews were beginning their celebration of Passover. This last occurred in AD 783. It has not happened since then because the Julian calendar, which came to be used by Christians, drifted even faster than the Jewish calendar. Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar for determining the date of Easter. That is the real reason why Orthodox Easter always follows Passover.

It is common knowledge that the Julian calendar currently runs 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. (Most European Catholic countries and their colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, as decreed by Pope Gregory XIII. Other countries were slower. Britain, for example, did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. Greece was the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar, in 1923.) What is less well known is that the Orthodox also follow a different calculation of lunar cycle, which runs a few days behind both astronomical reality and the Gregorian lunar cycle. This year, for instance, the astronomical full moon will occur on 20 April, while the Orthodox lunar tables assign the Paschal full moon to 25 April.

The difference, then, between Orthodox and Western Easter dates occurs because 1) the Julian solstice occurs 13 days after the Gregorian solstice, and 2) the Julian full moon occurs 3 to 5 days after the Gregorian full moon. (Both calendars use virtual solstices and full moons based on computation, rather than on actual astronomical observation. In practice, the Gregorian computations are usually closer to physical reality.) By my calculations, based on these two facts, Orthodox Easter should coincide with Western Easter about 20% of the time; it should fall one week later 50% of the time; it should fall four weeks later 10% of the time; and it should fall five weeks later 20% of the time. I think that is pretty close to the actual pattern of variation in recent history.

The Julian calendar, however, continues to drift away from physical reality. After the present century, the two Easters will never again occur four weeks apart. Beginning in 2437, they will sometimes come six weeks apart. And after 2698, the two Easters will never again coincide.

I have referred numerous times to the "rule-based" reformed Jewish calendar. Lest I give an incorrect impression, let me reiterate that, since at least the 5th century, Christians have also used rule-based calendars. Currently, no church determines the date of Easter through direct astronomical observation. In the early first millennium, when these calculated calendars were being devised, communication was not what it is today. Determining the date of Easter by rules, rather than by astronomical observation, was the most practical way to ensure that all Christians celebrated Easter together. But it also embodied a bit of humanistic hubris – a pride in the growing power of human reason to model the mechanics of the universe through its own ingenuity, without further reference to God's physical creation. It would seem to me that a religion based on the Incarnation should hesitate to separate itself from physical reality.

And, indeed, the men who devised the Church's calendar had no such intention; rather, they intended for their calculations to anticipate the physical reality that would eventually obtain. In reforming the Roman calendar, Julius Caesar had been attempting to implement a calendar that would conform to astronomical reality. While the Julian calendar was a vast improvement over its predecessor, it did not quite succeed in matching the movements of the heavens over the long term. The Fathers who argued for various lunar cycles (e.g., 19-year, 84-year, 532-year) did so on the basis of how closely they would conform to reality. If they were here today to see the outcome of their work, I'm sure they would want to have another go at it, to see if they could improve their methods.

And what of those who insist that the Church must retain the Julian calendar? I will never be persuaded that the measurement errors of a pagan Roman emperor constitute an irreformable element of Holy Tradition.

In the centuries following the Council of Nicea, the Church converged on a consensus of using the Julian calendar with a 19-year lunar cycle. Its leaders saw this method as the best way to implement the decision of Nicene Fathers regarding the date of Easter, given the options available at the time. And it worked pretty well for a while. Now it is not working so well, and we see that rigid adherence to these unadjusted formulae results in a growing divergence from the ruling of Nicea.

Together with the Orthodox Theological Society in America, I support the Aleppo Agreement, under which churches would abandon their virtual calendars and extrapolations, and instead base the date of Easter on actual astronomical observation. The OTSA clearly states the Orthodox rationale for Aleppo: "We endorse this proposal on the basis that it reflects most faithfully the norms for calculating the date of Pascha as set out by the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council." You can't get more Orthodox than that.

For those who want to know more, here are some suggestions for further reading:

Archbishop Peter:
Concerning the Date of Pascha and the 1st Ecumenical Council

Wikipedia: Computus

This Easter/Passover Calculator allows you to plug in a year, and it gives you the dates of Julian Easter, Gregorian Easter, and Passover.

I decided to add a list of actual dates for 2008, which might clarify things for those who think concretely, rather than abstractly.

Ancient Jewish (Astronomical) Calendar
7 March – New Moon / New Year / 1 Nisan
20 March – Vernal Equinox
21 March – Full Moon / Passover / 15 Nisan

Reformed Jewish Calendar
Year 5768 – 11th year of 19-year cycle
6 April – New Moon / 1 Nisan
20 April – Full Moon / Passover / 15 Nisan

Julian Calendar (with Gregorian dates)
3 April – Vernal Equinox
25 April – Paschal Full Moon
27 April – Easter / Pascha

Gregorian Calendar
14th year of 19-year cycle
21 March – Vernal Equinox
22 March – Paschal Full Moon
23 March – Easter

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Charitable Solicitations

I get a lot of charitable solicitations in the mail. In fact, they account for about two-thirds of all the mail I receive. In 2001 I decided to track my communications from charities. That year I received 862 communications from 240 different charitable organizations. Of these, 264 arrived in the first quarter, and 116 in March. Two different Catholic-related charities sent me 22 solicitations each.

This year, I am repeating that exercise. In the first three months of 2008 I received 233 communications from 106 different charities – 186 solicitations, 24 newsletters, and 23 receipts or thank-you letters. One organization has already sent me 8 solicitations. This is about a 3% decrease from 2001.

In determining which organizations to contribute to, my first filter is to drop any organization that sent me more than 12 solicitations in the past year. Actually, any more than 2 a year is excessive and wasteful, as far as I'm concerned. The extra letters not only waste their money on printing and postage, but they waste my time opening, sorting, and recycling them. They actually slow down my charitable giving, since the time that I could spend writing checks must instead be spent sorting excess mail.

My second filter is to check their ratings on Charity Navigator, which evaluates most American charities. It gives every charity it rates two ratings, one for efficiency and one for capacity. Each rating is on a scale of 0 to 4 stars, with sub-components rated on more detailed numerical scales. I find it especially useful when a number of organizations with the same mission want my money. I can determine which of them will use my contribution most efficiently and direct my dollars accordingly.

I'll report back again at the end of the year with the 2008 totals.