Of Calendars and Christians


This year the Gregorian Calendar and the Julian (and the Revised Julian) differ on the date of Pascha (Easter) by about as much as possible. The story of the calendars, both in the East and West is a very convoluted tale, sometimes requiring a knowledge of math (hence my reluctance to go into the matter). We know that even in the early 2nd century there was a difference on when the Pascha of our Lord was to be kept (apparently St. John the Theologian was a ‘Quartodecian’ which was a calculation that did not win out). Later, missionaries from Rome encountered Celtic Christians in the British Isles and had a small dust-up over the dating of the Feast of Feasts. Many of the Orthodox were more than a little chagrined when a Patriarch of Constantinople, in the 20th century, convened a modest council, and adopted the Revised Julian Calendar, thus shattering the unity of the Orthodox Church in matters of time (with the exception of the date of Pascha and all things that are dated by Pascha).

I do not have an opinion, other than to obey the Bishops of my Church – and I hold that “opinion” as virtually as close as I hold my salvation. But if they told me tomorrow that the Holy Synod had adopted something else, I would lose no sleep. I do pray continually for unity among Orthodox on the Calendar (and secondly with the rest of Christendom). My own family (which counts three priests in its number) has two Calendars. I’d like less complexity in planning an extended family vacation.

But as I drove around Oak Ridge and Knoxville today, doing my priestly chores leading up to our second Sunday of Great Lent, the atmosphere of things around me was clearly different than the usual Friday. Some businesses were closed. People would greet me with “Happy Easter,” which either received a reply in kind, or, time-permitting, a short dissertation on the difference between Orthodox and Western calendars, followed by a “Happy Easter” as well. Would that everybody celebrated our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection as sacred, holy days.

But it is part of the strangeness of being Orthodox in America, that you are frequently out of sync with the culture (not nearly as much as my Old Calendar Son-in-law and my daughter, his wife). It underlines the differences that exist between East and West and adds the additional problem of the feasting of others surrounding your fast. But the unity of Orthodox Pascha (which includes the dating of Lent) brings a season’s worth of Orthodox unity that reminds me of how things ought to be, and, God willing, shall be.

But for the many readers I have who are Protestant, Anglican or Catholic or keep the Gregorian Calendar for Easter – may God bless you on this holy weekend! May you unite yourself with the crucified Christ and remember His descent into Hades to rescue us all! May you know the joy of His resurrection!

And (as is always appropriate to say) I greet you: Christ is risen!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



17 responses to “Of Calendars and Christians”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I have a question about this. I have always understood that one of the reasons for the calendar difference between East and West is that the East adheres to a canonical requirement that Pascha be celebrated after Passover. But my new priest says there is no such requirement. Can you shed light on this? I’ve just never heard that before.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve heard it, too, and there is an Orthodox debate over the meaning of the Canon. It’s speaks of not having passover with the Jews, which may mean that it not be a Quartodecian (14 of Nissan) celebration. Though there are some who cite a canon that says “first the old” then the “new.” But the Jewish calendar has altered slightly since the canon and some argue that we should be keeping Christ Resurrectional feast without regard to how Judaism may alter its own calendar (theirs is lunar and works differently).

    One of the problems of the Revised Julian (the New Style) which most jurisdictions in America keep, is that the Feast of the Annunciation will never fall on Pascha. Traditionally and according to the Typicon, this is the greatest of all possible feasts (it does happen when you use the Old Calendar, and would happen on the new, but we would have to date Pascha like the West). It’s a rare occurrence. Both feasts are celebrated at the same time. I’ve been told that theologically, it’s a wonder to behold, truly a feast that transcends all understanding.

    The Church could resolve the matter in a Great Council and eventually probably will. A Great Council can alter the canons as needed. One has been planned since the 1970’s but seems no nearer taking place than it did then. Patience is always a requirement for the Orthodox

    Primarily the difference between East and West is that the Vernal Equinox (Spring) is calculated according to an ancient table from Alexandria, which does not sync with the Vernal Equinox that now exists (the Old Calendar has no leap years). This is what accounts for the 13 days difference between the two calendars and the different calculation of when Pascha should occur. Occasionally they are the same day (Pascha), very often only one week apart, but this year the difference is almost as great as it can ever be.

  3. Troy Avatar

    I think that is true because Pascha always falls on the Sunday after the beginning of Pesach (Passover.) I even did a little research of my own and for then next 3 years our Pascha is in sync with Pesach.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    A good article with correct scholarly information can be found here.

  5. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the greeting to us who will celebrate Easter tomorrow.

    Truly, He is risen!

  6. mattandcat Avatar

    Father bless!

    I was reading your post about how the Orthodox Church continues to use the Julian calendar for the dating of Pascha (Easter), and at the same time admiring your beautiful picture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I’m sure you know (and I only learned in the last 2 years) the miracle of the Holy Fire (or the Holy Light) happens there every year on Holy and Great Saturday – the day preceding Pascha – and that many people from all over the world – Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, non-believers, atheists, etc. – visit this most holy place in order to witness God’s great miracle which has continued for at least the last 17 centuries or so (?).

    As I’m sure you know (though some of your readers may not) the miracle always occurs on the Orthodox Church’s dating of Pascha (as opposed to the modern Western calculation of it), and that the miracle is always received by the hands of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. (Maybe your readers will be familiar with the pillar in the church that still exists today that the Holy Fire split in order to come to the Orthodox Patriarch when the Armenians once tried to lock him out and receive the miracle of the Fire themselves.)

    Anyhow, I was just pondering something that I’d never really thought of before, which is: would the miracle just switch dates if the Orthodox did? (I mean by switching to a “more accurate” dating of Pascha according to the Vernal Equinox). I don’t really have an answer, nor do I expect one exactly. For if I know and believe as St. John the Baptist and Forerunner said that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”(Matt. 3.9); how much more so, then, can He perform miracles when and how He wills – or change their manner if he so chooses. Glory to Thee, O God!

    But it just struck me in a way that I’ve never thought about the Calendar before. (I am also an Orthodox Christian who follows the New Calendar, and can appreciate your words about the blessed unity we get to experience at this time of the year with our fellow Orthodox brothers and sisters!)

    In closing, a few other questions, which are maybe really the same, are rolling around in my head. In the miracle of the Holy Fire, given each year at our Lord’s Sepulchre and always on the Orthodox Church’s dating of Pascha according to the Julian calendar, why does the miracle occur exactly? Seeing that it occurs clearly on the Orthodox dating and only to the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem , is the miracle a witness to the Orthodox Church as the Theanthropic Body of Christ – and therefore will change to be in-step as the Orthodox Church does (or doesn’t) decide to alter the dating of Pascha? Or is the miracle a witness to the fact that the Orthodox Church does preserve the traditions and teachings handed down to it in the face of the changing world, and could an altering of this tradition – whether for sake of scientific and astronomical accuracy or not – lead to an end of this miraculous testimony? Or is the purpose of the miracle something else altogether?

    Do you have any thoughts on this, Father?

    I don’t know if this last bit made any sense or not! Like I said, I don’t have any answers, and maybe we can’t have any until (or if) the Orthodox Church ever takes such a step. It just really struck me – especially today on the Western world’s celebration of Holy Saturday, the day on which (though according to the Orthodox dating) the miracle of the Holy Fire occurs each year. I just thought it was interesting to consider the calendar in light of the miracle.

    Sorry this is so long – a particular problem of mine! I’ll just add a link to information on the Holy Fire, seeing as I know many may be unaware (as I was myself, growing up in Canada) of this great and continuous miracle of God! http://www.holyfire.org/eng/

    I pray that you, Father, and all your readers have a blessed Great Lent (and a blessed Easter for your non Orthodox readers) as we approach the celebration of a great luminary and pillar of our Orthodox Faith this Sunday, St. Gregory Palamas. May we all have God’s blessing at this glorious time of year! forgive me.


  7. FrGregACCA Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    Thank you for your kind wishes and prayers. As Lent continues for you, may it be increasingly fruitful.

    A slight correction regarding the Old Calendar. It indeed has leap years; in fact, a major part of the change made with regard to the new calendars has to do with centenary years as leap years. According to the Old Calendar, all years divisible by four are leap years; however, with the new calendars, a centenary year, such as 1900 or 2000, is a leap year only if it is divisible by 400. Hence, 1900 was not a leap year according to the new calendar, but was on the old calendar. Again, 2100 will be a leap year on the old calendar, but not on the new calendars. Hence, after February 29, 2100 (OS), the old calendar will be 14 days behind the new, instead of the current 13 days, a situation that has prevailed since 1900.

  8. FrGregACCA Avatar

    Further clarification of the above: what is said concerning new calendar leap years applies only to the Gregorian calendar. The rules for the revised Julian calendar are more complex, but the result is the same until the year 2800, which will be a leap year according to the Gregorian calendar, but not on the RJC, this according to the Wikipedia article on the Revised Julian Calendar.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Matt – the church transcends the calendar, surely. If the Orthodox Church decides in Council to change something (and the date of a feast is not the same as an Orthodox dogma) God will bless her. She does have the power to bind and loose. If the Patriarch is there to receive the fire, then the fire will be there with Him. I do not draw conclusions about our Holy Faith based on the many miracles that surround it, but because it is the Truth, unchanged. We do not worship the Holy Fire, but Christ Crucified and Risen, to which the fire bears witness.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Greg,

    thanks for the correction on leap years. I told you all I’d get in trouble if I got into the math of this thing!

  11. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Father bless! After looking into the calendar situation, I came to the same attitude as you hold. However, I will say that I read about “holy fire” and according to what I read, the year the Ecumenical Patriarch changed the calendar, the Jerusalem Patriarch also changed to the new calendar (Mt. Athos kept to the original old calendar dating and still does), and that year and that year alone, the miracle of “holy fire” did not occur! After that happened, the Jerusalem Patriarch reverted to using the old calendar and the miracle resumed the following year. I do not know whether the information I read was factual or not. Perhaps there is someone more in the know than I am. If it is true, it seems to me to indicate the will of the Holy Spirit (at least in that particular historical circumstance). It is my understanding that the Church is obligated to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not vice versa (though I’m sure you did not intend to imply otherwise with your comments). I understand your comments as an expression of your faith that the Holy Spirit does and will guide the Church it its conciliar decisions, and does confirm that guidance by His miracles.

    Meanwhile, our faith is not in calendars and miraculous phenomena per se, but in the Risen Christ, and we must not lose sight of that! I am far more distressed by the prospect that the primacy of faith in Christ Himself expressing itself in a humble love toward one another may be (and too often is) overshadowed by these areas of difference over the calendar and other variances in interpretation and application of the canons, than I am by any anomalies of the new calendar or the differences in and of themselves. May we all be drawn more deeply into the humble mind of Christ, and in that may we find our unity, both spiritual and practical. My prayer here is profound and fervent because I see all around me a world of lost and hurting people, who couldn’t care less about our calendar and canon disputes, but desperately need to see a clear witness to the reality of the living Spirit of Christ in our love for one another. May the Lord have mercy upon us all!

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The story of the disappearance of the holy fire would seem flawed, since the change in calendar has never made there to be a difference between when Pascha is celebrated among the Orthodox.

    The Elder Cleopa of Romania, of blessed memory, used to chide those who refused the new calendar.

    If my bishop said tomorrow we’re going to the Old Calendar I would not bat an eyelash. Obedience is good and I look for nothing more than obedience to Orthodox Bishops. It is among the joys of my life. More than you can imagine.

  13. Richard Collins Avatar


    I agree with your observation about our calendar being ‘out of sync’ with the surrounding culture. This is interesting since the advent of the calendar and feasts, in part, was an attempt by the early church to redeem the surrounding pagan cultures and to transform formerly pagan festivals towards the Truth. Festivals which celebrated the ‘rebirth’ of the pagan sun god in the depths of winter acquired their fulfillment in the truth about the Nativity of the true Sun of Righteousness.

    With the calendar not only falling out of sync with the festivals of the surrounding culture but also increasingly falling out of sync with the very seasons themselves (old calender Nativity occurs long after the longest night) we are left with a curious development that the feasts of the church reduce their ability to ‘resonate’ with the surround culture (albeit only reduce – they are still powerful witnesses to the fullness of our faith).

    As you say, this really is something that a great and holy council would/must address.

    In the meantime I have the additional experience of my wife and children keeping to the Anglican liturgical cycle whilst I attempt to keep to our new calendar. Oh well, at least I will experience the joy of singing ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ tomorrow 😉

  14. David Bryan Avatar

    A question, Father, simply out of curiousity: where (or, rather, in which jurisdiction) does your son-in-law serve using the Julian Calendar?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    My Son-in-law serves in the Russian Deanery of the Diocese of the West, OCA, which uses the Old Calendar.

  16. Dave Wells Avatar
    Dave Wells

    As a Catholic with close friends and family members who are Orthodox, I would love to see us celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection on the same Sunday. This is one of those things that we, on our end, could fix rather easily – the Pope could simply issue a decree, moto proprio, that changes the reckoning of Easter to conform to the Orthodox practice. I hope and pray that he does that someday.

  17. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    We do celebrate it on the same day – every Sunday! But we commenorate the day of HIS Resurrection on different dates.

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