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Why I Am an Old Calendarist

 

‘They who audaciously changed the church calendar in our days, assuredly did not take into account the gravity (of the anathemas), and for the sake of astronomy they paid no heed at all to the venerable tradition and spirit of the Church; and though occupying themselves with ecclesiastical matters, they used science only as a pretense to conceal the innovating inclinations that possessed them’.  - Patriarch Christopher of Leontopolis 1939 –1966*

 

            The question why anybody should write an article defending his following of the Old (Julian) Calendar appears especially moot. Articles, books and volumes, if not tomes, have been written defending and explaining the Old Calendarist position in the Orthodox Church today. However, insofar as it is the responsibility of every Christian to appropriate his faith and his belief, this article serves as my personal theological appropriation and internalisation of a question that has painfully split, and continues to split, the worldwide Orthodox community.

 

            In order to better understand the issues involved in this discussion, it does us well to re-consider carefully the origins of the Old Calendarist problem (as it were) with particular reference to the motives of the principal actors who initiated decisions regarding the ecclesiastical calendar. Despite popular belief, our discussion does not begin in the year 1924 (although this date will have important bearing in subsequent discussion), but rather 1590 years earlier, in the year 325 A.D. when the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea was held under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine. In a Synodal Letter issued to all Churches at the end of its sessions, the Council ‘forever’ fixed the date of the Christian Easter (Pascha) as being ‘the first Sunday after the full moon after spring equinox’.        This, undoubtedly, seems to be a rather quaint and obscure method of fixing a liturgical feast and may be relegated to a queer penchant on the part of the Fathers for number-counting. However, the decision was motivated by concerns more theological, than the merely banal. Firstly, as is explained in the Synodal Letter itself, the decision to celebrate Pascha on this date was made so as to coordinate the celebration of the Feast (the Brightest of all, commemorating as it does Christ’s resurrection from the grave) among all the various churches of Christendom (some of whom, understandably, were celebrating Easter on the same day as the Jewish Passover). The Council intended the fixing of this Feast to be a manifestation of the unity of Faith in Christ Jesus possessed by the Church. It was therefore meant to be a demonstration of love and unity that would, in turn, serve as an evangelical tool, manifesting the oneness of faith, oneness of baptism and eucharistic assembly that bound Christians, wheresoever they might be, from East to West, together.

            Also, theologically, the date of reckoning Easter was deliberately chosen as a theological exposition of the Church’s faith that the in Jesus Christ, the hope of the Old Israel had been realized. Jesus the Christ was the True Passover promised by God to Israel, the True Lamb of the feast by whose blood all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, like the Israelites in Egypt, may be saved from spiritual death. The Council believed that the conflation of the Christian feast of Pascha, expressing as it does the fulfillment of salvation for God’s people, through the death and saving resurrection of Christ, with the Jewish feast of Passover, which is only its type and prefiguring (and which, until today is impregnated with prayers for the coming of the Messiah) would serve as a contra-witness to the Gospel. The Council, therefore, decreed absolutely that the Church was not to celebrate Easter together with or before, the Jewish people, but rather, at least a week after, in order to prevent any confusion on so central a doctrine of the Faith. The other parts of the liturgical year, together with the reckoning of moveable feasts, were to be ordered from this calculation of the date of Pascha.

            This decree has been, by and large, ignored and overturned by the Churches of the West (most particularly, by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, which still profess to follow a liturgical calendar). In all fairness, all Orthodox Churches, even the New Calendarist (with the glaring exception of the Finnish Church), have kept intact this ordering of Pascha (otherwise known as the Paschalion).

            Sadly, before we can take much comfort from this fact, one needs to understand that the liturgical year works as a cohesive whole. For 1,600 or so years from the Council of Nicea, the Church had ordered its feasts in accordance to the decree of the First Council, arranging both moveable and non-moveable feasts (Saint’s Days etc), into a undivided whole that made logical and temporal sense insofar as the liturgical calendar was to re-present year after year the chief events pertaining to our salvation. In other words, the re-ordering of the non-moveable feasts was bound to have an impact on the rest of the liturgical year, even if it is kept unchanged. Fasts are often turned to feasts and vice-versa, in an almost perverse manner. (The prime example is the Apostle’s Fast – the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is fixed on June 29th but the fast depends on the date of the ‘moveable’ Pentecost. This has lead to an extremely silly situation where in some years, the fast is non-existent. Or for that matter, Orthodox of the New Calendar are often celebrating the feast of the Nativity when the majority of Orthodox are fasting for the same event!). However, let us first consider how this re-ordering of the non-moveable feasts, or in other words, the introduction of the New Calendar, was effected historically. Before we do this, it is important to remind ourselves throughout this discussion that the liturgical calendar as a whole is a possession of the whole Church. As pointed out earlier, its change may not be affected in an arbitrary fashion, to satisfy theological and/or political fads and fashions.

            The New (Gregorian) Calendar was first introduced by Pope Gregory XIII of Rome in the year 1582 on the advice of his astronomers who (quite rightly) pointed out that the Old (Julian) Calendar was out of sync with the natural year by about 11 days (now it is 13 days). The Pope of Rome, secular ruler of the Papal States as well as Bishop of Rome, used his supreme power (plenitudo potestatis) as Pontiff to simply declare that a new ‘updated’ calendar would come into effect on a certain day. This, of course, threw the entire liturgical order of the Western ecclesiastical calendar out of order with the rest of the Christian world, contravening at the same time the decree of the First Ecumenical Council. This explains why the Papal Easter celebration (as well as that of the rest of the Western heterodox Churches, which have all adopted the papal calendar) often falls on or even, before the Jewish Passover. But by this time, the Roman Church had fallen into schism and heresy and no longer considered herself bound by the decisions of the God-bearing Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils. Her sole rule of faith was the word of the Sovereign Pope who could order and re-order matters of doctrine and discipline by his simple fiat.  Pope Gregory thus accomplished his proposed calendar change with no too much trouble within the Papal Church. {However, not all countries in the West accepted this innovation eagerly. England did not change to the new calendar until late in the 18th Century.) Before we proceed further, it is also important to ask ourselves just why the Pope was so keen to change the calendar. Was it purely a love for science that inspired this change? Hardly. In the Papal Rome of the time, astronomer was just another name for astrologer. The ‘astronomers’ who proposed the change in calendar were studying the stars in order to predict the future. (There was a great fashion for astrologers in Renaissance Italy, including Papal Rome. Anyone who tells you that the Popes were keen astronomy enthusiasts are obviously lying. Ask Galileo Galilei.)  There you have it, the calendar that the Pope proposed and imposed on his church by a simple decree, overturning the decision of the councils and Sacred Tradition, was the work of astrologers. It had never been discussed by Bishops, nor priests, nor men learned in Sacred Theology.

            Pope Gregory XIII, in keeping with his universal ambitions, next tried to interest and persuade the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II (called the ‘Illustrious’) to accept and promulgate the Papal Calendar in the Orthodox Churches. In 1583, the Patriarch convened a local Council in Constantinople which was attended by Sylvester, Patriarch of Alexandria and Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. This Council issued a Sigillion, in which Papal pretensions as well as the newly-invented Papal paschalion and calendar [emphasis mine] were anathemised.

  This anathema was repeated by a Pan-Orthodox Council in Constantinople is 1593, by Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem and his Synod in 1670, Ecumenical Patriarch (of Constantinople) Agathangelos and his Synod in 1827, Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos VII and his Synod in 1895, and Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III and His Synod in 1902, Patriarch Damianos of Jerusalem in 1903 and the Holy Synods of the Churches of Russia, Romania and Greece in 1903.

  This was the calendar that was imposed (with the exception of the papal paschalion) on the Orthodox Church by an encyclical bearing the sole signature of Archbishop Chrysostom Papadopoulos of Athens on March 10/23 1924. The question begs to be asked: why? Why was the Church of Greece so eager to overturn centuries of anathemas to introduce a liturgical calendar constructed by the Pope’s astrologers and imposed by him on the Roman Church into the Orthodox religion?

            The answer is simple: an overwhelming zeal for ecumenism. This is borne out by an encyclical issued by the Church of Constantinople in January 1920, addressed ‘To the Churches of Christ Wheresoever They Might Be’*. In this encyclical, issued by the Synod under the presidency of Patriarchal locum tenens Metropolitan Dorotheos of Prusa, the Church of Constantinople expressed hopes that “love should be re-kindled and strengthened among the Churches, so that they may no longer consider one another as strangers and foreigners, but as kinsmen, and as being part of the household of Christ and ‘fellow heirs, and formed of the same body and partakers of the same promise of God in Jesus Christ (Eph 3:6)’”. Among the practical actions that was to achieve this, the encyclical proposed a 11-point action, the first of which was a common calendar ‘so that great Christian feasts may be everywhere celebrated simultaneously’.  This, in brief, was the programme that led to the introduction of the new calendar into Orthodoxy in 1924. But by the time of introduction, the hierarchs of the Church of Constantinople had already undertaken even more radical actions to realise their vision of ecumenism. In February 1921, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Meletios Metaxakis visited Washington, where he ‘vested, took part in an Anglican service, knelt in prayer with the Anglicans, venerated their Holy Table, gave a sermon and later blessed those present.’ Moreover, under pressure from the same Patriarch, the Patriarchate of Constantinople accepted the validity of Anglican orders in 1922. No one can accuse the Church of Constantinople of not being true to its word as far as ecumenism was concerned!

            Thus, it was ecumenism in its most indifferent variety that motivated the change in calendar. The encyclical and the subsequent actions of Constantinople and Athens bear out that that they were willing to go far, very far indeed, to foster ecumenism. As pointed out in the encyclical, the re-ordering of the calendar (in other words, the acceptance of the papal calendar) was done with the specific aim of fostering a dubious kind of unity among the various churches, most of whom were positively heretical. [As St Mark of Ephesus said, ‘We have cut the Latins off from us for no other reason that they are not only schismatics, but also heretics. For this reason it is wholly [emphasis mine] improper to unite with them. This is the sort of Church the 1920 encyclical called ‘kinsmen’ [to] and ‘of the same body’ as, the Orthodox]. Let there be no mistake, this encyclical was not motivated by a wish for the heterodox to come to the true Orthodox faith through which there is salvation. It was merely an attempt to reach a ‘lowest-common denominator’ Christianity, where ‘you compromise a little, I’ll compromise a little – and we’ll sweep the rest under the carpet, and lo and behold! we have union in sacraments – no matter how much we disagree on the essentials of faith.

            It is the precisely the same sort of Christianity that the Church of Rome has traditionally offered to the Uniate Churches in Orthodox lands – the choice to keep their Orthodox traditions, even permission not to include the Filioque in their Creed – all as long as they commemorate the Pope and submit to Rome! Lowest-common denominator satisfies all. (And one would have thought that if they broke from the Orthodox Church over the filioque, they would at least insist the Uniates say it!). This is exactly the sort of Christianity the 1920 encyclical envisions. The calendar was the first compromise offered by the Orthodox, and they expect us to accept it!

  

  Let us now consider the major objections to the New Calendar:

1.      Theological – The calendar in the minds of the Fathers was the expression of unity in faith and sacraments. This was the basic reason for the Synodal Letter of the Council of Nicea quoted above. By introducing the new calendar, the New Calendarists have ruptured unity, forcing vast sections of the Orthodox people to pray separately in a purely temporal sense. As stated earlier, some sections of Orthodoxy keep a feast when the rest, fast. This is lamentable, especially when one considers that the new calendar was introduced so that the Orthodox may instead keep feast with heretics and schismatics.

 2.       Also, by tampering with the calendar, the New Calendarists have destroyed the internal rationale of the Church year, built up over 16 centuries, making an absurdity of the order of liturgical celebrations (consider the example of the Apostles’ Fast as quoted above). The Orthodox Church has, in its wisdom, decreed a period of time to prepare for the celebration of certain feasts. Similarly, there is also a period of time where we ‘take leave’ of the Feast. Both these periods are there to enable us to reflect more deeply on the mystery of the salvific events wrought by our God and Saviour, and thus, not merely to ‘plunge in and out’ of a Feast for a day, and then to promptly forget about it. This, the new calendar destroys, destroying at the same time, the usefulness of the liturgical year as a tool for instruction in, and preparation for, the spiritual life.

 3.      Ecclesiological – The very form of the introduction of the New Calendar has been anti-Orthodox in spirit.  The hierarchy of Greece employed largely papistical tactics and arguments [and brutal state power] to ‘impose from on high’ the new calendar reform. This method may have worked well for Gregory XIII with his false and heretical notions of Papal supremacy, but for a Church that has ever defended the concept of ‘conciliarity’ (or as the Russians call it ‘sobornost’ – ‘togetherness’), this action cannot be called anything but unconscionable. In the introduction of the new calendar, the bishops were not consulted. The priests and theologians were hardly asked for their opinion. No other local Churches were asked for their assent. As noted earlier, almost all Patriarchates and local Churches had anathemised the new calendar. But to overturn all this, only the signature of the Greek Archbishop was necessary. How is this compatible with what Orthodoxy teaches about authority in the Church?  

4.      Moreover, even if all Bishops were to agree, doesn’t Orthodoxy teach that is has to be received by the lay faithful before it can be ratified as a true teaching of the Church? One needs only to call to mind the many Arian and Iconoclastic Councils of the past, and Patriarch John Beccus’ ill-fated union with the Latins to realise that no matter how many Bishops may agree to heresy, the Orthodox Church as a whole, in its priests, monastics and laity has always been vigilant to guard the truth of the Faith. However, none of these, the true Orthodox ‘kinsmen’ and ‘fellow-heirs in the promise of God in Jesus Christ were consulted.’ What force in Canon Law can the arbitrary act of one small segment of Pan-Orthodoxy have on the Orthodox faithful as a whole? Can one local synod overturn the decisions of Fathers, Councils and the teachings of theologians and the faith of the laity in one stroke of the pen? All in the name of ecumenism? 

5.      Lastly, one cannot accept the new calendar because it was motivated by the banal desire for compromise with the heterodox. In other words, there was, and is, no reason for introducing the new calendar. if the new calendar advanced the worldwide cause of Orthodoxy, if by its adoption, the Pope of Rome were to recant his errors, then one can claim (within limits) that it is an expression of charity that reconciles sinners to the Church (economia) – as enunciated by St Basil the Great. However, the introduction of the new calendar has done nothing like that. It has merely alienated Orthodox people among themselves. Other than that, it has been largely ignored by the other churches, which have no desire to learn about, or embrace Orthodoxy. In short, it was a bad decision, made criminal by intransigence after the fact. It approaches liturgical fratricide because it has set brother against brother, and all for nothing.  

            There are some who will claim that in the final analysis, one must not spend too much time on ‘thirteen days’. True, and we agree with that. However, as stated above, it is the motivations and circumstances that surround these thirteen days that worry us.  One realises that the circumstances and motivations behind the introduction of the new calendar are inimical to the very fabric of Orthodoxy that has preserved through the efforts of countless hierarchs, martyrs, ascetics and faithful. If one has to lose the very conciliarity of the Church, its sobornost, a reflection (as the Fathers say), of the internal relations between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, in order to preserve external unity, then what use is this unity? 

            There are also some who would counsel obedience, stating that we must not oppose hierarchs who have made the decision to adopt the new calendar. To these one must point out that the ideal of ‘Obedience above truth’ is the motto of Papism. As pointed out earlier with regards to the Uniate Churches, Papal Rome has always elevated external unity to a supreme virtue, subjecting even truth to it. Anyone who counsels obedience to those who in conscience oppose the new calendar are in fact, suggesting a ‘Roman obedience’ that is blind and opposed to the freedom guaranteed by Holy Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, by its very definition, is concerned with truth, rather than preserving an external, totalitarian unity. We are not Romans, nor Jesuits! If Maximos the Confessor, John of Damascus and Mark Eugenicus had thought like the supporters of the ‘Roman obedience’, Orthodoxy would have long ago been subsumed and deformed beyond recognition, by heresy.  

            Lastly, it is worth highlighting that the new calendar was imposed brutally on Orthodox faithful through the use of state power. Countless Old Calendarist priests and monks were forcibly shaved, nuns insulted and faithful attending services battered by police working for the state. Holy Gifts were trampled upon and altars overturned, all in the name of installing the new calendar. The persecution reached its high points in 1927 and 1951. One remembers especially New Martyr Catherine Roustis, who was killed by a blow from a rifle butt while defending a old calendar priest in 1927. She reposed on 15/28 November 1927.

            This persecution of Orthodox Christians was unleashed by the very same people who had introduced the new calendar innovation to Orthodoxy, in order to ‘re-kindle and strengthen love among the Churches’. 

            So, the reason I am an Old Calendarist is very simple: I choose to be so because it is logical to be so. It enables me to be faithful to the traditions of the Church as taught by the Fathers and the subsequent local Councils. Old Calendarism (for all its misadventures) possesses the grace of forming saints and martyrs. Most importantly, the new calendarists have failed to give one good reason why I shouldn’t be so.

 

  * Quotations from p46 and pp 23-24, The Struggle Against Ecumenism, The History of the True Orthodox Church of Greece from 1924 to 1994, Boston, Massachusetts, 1998