Thursday, July 29, 2004

Seize the Terms

It's a way of life for the combatants on obligatorily controversial topics to try and take the language away from the other side. I've already talked about that word "denomination", and soon enough I'll have to deal with "faith" and (yes) "truth".

But it's gotten worse. Or at least, funnier. It appears that some newspapers have put macros in their editing software to automatically substitute approved terms when certain no-no self-descriptive phrases turn up. Otherwise, how do you explain this choice morsel from the guys where an opera celbrating life turned into an opera opposing abortion?

The Most. Rev. Boilerplate

It was no news to me that the Most. Rev. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, tends to send out missives that are repetitious and platitudinous. Also, obscure. Well, our good friends at have been kind enough to supply us with this Presiding Bishop Letter Generator. Use with care; the head you befuddle may be your own.

More On the Calendar

A problem with all church calendars is that, by implication, they are trying to calculate when Passover ought to be. They think that Passover should begin on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but it doesn't work quite that way.

All of these calendars rely on the convenient fact that the lunar and solar cycles fall into sync every nineteen years (modulo some fudging about leap years). The Christian and Jewish calendars, however, focus this synchronization on different parts of the year; Judaism concerns itself with the date of Rosh Hoshanah, while Christianity, of course, is concerned with Easter. Therefore the Jewish calendar uses a system of added months, plus some other adjustments, as explained here; but the Christian calendars use a cycle of full moon dates.

Besides this basic difference in emphasis, there are three other sources of inaccuracy. The first and more obvious is the Julian offset, now at thirteen days and growing by a day three out of every four centuries. But the full moon dates aren't accurate either. Some degree of error is inevitable, but as it happens the old paschalion just gives flat-out wrong dates at times. Finally, as it happens the Gregorian calendar is a little off, so that sometimes the equinox actually falls on the 20th instead of the 21st of March.

In an attempt to get all of Christendom on the same calendar, a group met in Aleppo, Syria in 1997 and came up with a new formula. In spite of much Orthodox participation in the conference, this proposal sank like a stone.

Read This Blog

Doug LeBlanc and Terry Mattingly, two of the best religion reporters out there, have a blog together: GetReligion. It's agood starting place for discussion of the kind of religion reporting that gets done (and rather often, done badly).

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Calendar Argument

Give any Eastern Orthodox group a month or so and someone is bound to bring up the church calendar. Now, the calendar has two components: fixed feast/fast days which are tied to some civil calendar, and movable dates in the spring  which are tied to the date of Easter. The date of Easter is determined by a Paschalion, a formula which is in turn tied to the coresponding civil calendar.
Back in the bad old days BC, Julius Caesar suppressed a lot of calendar abuse by forcing the Roman civil calendar into a fixed pattern of months and leap years, in order to keep the vernal equinox on March 21st. This Julian civil calendar was inherited by the early church. One of the issues decided at the Council of Nicea was that the church should observe a fixed paschalion as determined by the church of Alexandria. Contrary to much popular opinion, the current calculation was not dictated. That formula was devised a bit later by Dionysius Exiguus (who is also responsible for our current BC/AD dates) because the church in Rome needed a mechanical calculation.
Here I need to digress a bit. Everyone "knows" that Easter falls on "the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox". The reason for this is that "the first full moon after the vernal equinox" should be the date of Passover, and Nicea decreed that Easter cannot fall on Passover. What the paschalion produces is a date for this first full moon.
The real moon isn't quite so cooperative. Both the Dionysian paschalion and the current Jewish formula follow a 19 year cycle of dates; but they don't use the same pattern and as a result there are years where there is actually another full moon between the equinox and Passover. The bigger problem with the Dionysian paschalion, of course, is that it is coupled to the Julian civil calendar. The Gregorian civil calendar was introduced to fix the drift of the calculated vernal equinox away from the real equinox; Easter as calculated in the Dionysian paschalion is in some years a month "late".
Now the Gregorian civil calendar could be accused of being a little inaccurate in that sometimes the equinox falls on the 20th instead of the 21st. Well, not exactly. See, it matters where you are. If the equinox occurs when it is noon in Japan, it is still the previous day in California.
You might think that the Dionysian and Gregorian paschalions should produce Easter dates that are either identical or are a month part, but they don't. The pattern of full moon dates isn't the same (accounting for the civil calendar difference).
A lot of people think it is a scandal that Christians can't agree on the dates of holidays, but resolving the issue has proven intractable. Catholics and Protestants have inherited the Gregorian calendar and paschalion; the Orthodox will not abandon the Dionysian paschalion unless there is uniform agreement to do so. Some Orthodox churches follow what is called the "revised Julian" calendar, which combines the Gregorian civil calendar with the Dionysian paschalion; they celebrate Christmas on December 25th (Gregorian) but celebrate Easter with the rest of Orthodoxy. This isn't really satisfactory, both politically and because the paschal season (Easter to Pentecost) falls too late in the year and thus runs into some other holidays and fast periods.
So is there hope? Tune in next time!

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Urban Legends

My contempt level goes up when people post the religious versions of urban legends. I'm willing to give a lot of leeway for stuff in the distant past. Modern tales get short shrift.

A few popular ones:

  • "They've seen the ark on Mt. Ararat in aerial photographs!" Well, no, they haven't. A quick Google will show that further investigation revealed all these sightings to be of various lava formations.

  • "Space scientists had to account for the missing day in Joshua!" Well, no, they didn't. Snopes has an entry on this one.

  • "When the Greek patriarch in Jerusalem observed Easter by the New Calendar, the Holy Fire didn't come down!" This one I did a bit of research on. Inevitably the reference is to the same account, and this account follows classic urban legend form of putting the supposed witness somewhere out of reach. Since hundreds of people would have seen this, nobody should have to rely on the word of an obscure monk at an unreachable monastery.

  • "Easter is pagan!" Well, no, it isn't. This can be traced back to a source: Bede says (or speculates) that the word "Easter" comes from the name of the goddess "Eostre". Well, modern researchers (e.g. Ronald Hutton) tend to doubt that there was any such goddess, and point out the obvious common component: the word "East". At any rate, the name for Easter in most languages is derived from "Passover" or "Pesach" (to use the Hebrew).

It's not hard to research tales like this anymore, especially if you're posting from a computer on the internet! While you're at it, you can check on the illustrations in the sermon on Sunday morning.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Has Anyone Ever Convinced Anyone Else?

I can't stand most talk radio. Besides the fact that everyone is always shouting, it hardly seems that anyone ever really hears anything anyone else says. P.J. O'Rourke wrote a column for the Atlantic about this.

On-line religious discussion tends in the same direction, plus the side channel of out-and-out sermons. Well, I suppose there are enough disfunctional people involved who simply don't realize that there's someone at another keyboard to whom they are talking. But all too often I see messages arguing against imaginary opponents. What's the point of arguing with someone if you aren't going to argue with them?

I suspect, sadly, that a lot of the argument is actually about self-righteousness. The point seems to be not to convince anyone else, but just to have stated the Right Dogma, thereby identifying onesself as one of the Elect/Saved/whatever. I say, "Why bother?" God already knows what you believe, after all.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Battle of the Bishops - Round Two

Well, curious things have happened since my last post, and Bp. Gregory has been suspended if not removed from his office. Apparently supervision from Suzdal across a language barrier wasn't close enough.

Now the question is going to be whether fealty to Valentine through the proxy of Fr. Shishkoff will be enough. A quick look at the clergy shows the problem: it is largely a convert creation, and very many of the clerics have little history of Otrthodox experience and are relatively newly ordained. Are they any better clerics with a new bishop?

That's a major reason why Ilhoff, as Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, is not as bad a problem as would first appear. There's a great bulk of Episcopal history and tradition in the diocese, spread out among the laity and clergy; here the control issues work in favor of tradition instead of against it. The naive method of choosing on the basis of a suitable parish tends to work better here.

Meanwhile, the online participants are doing a lot of damage control. Gregory appears to have fled the scene of the crime, as it were, taking with him one of "his" clerics in a classic vagante act. Others about him have seen what side their bread is buttered on and changed their allegiance (or kept it there, depending on how you look at it). Those at a greater distance, and who are not yet really members anyway, have tended to defend Gregory. And in some respects they are bound to him because they have no way to participate in ROAC/AROC except through the agency of Gregory's long-distance recruitment.