Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Date of Easter

The quirky study of the chronology of the Passion recently published by Sir Colin Humphreys claims that his "discovery" that the real date of the crucifixion was April 3rd solves the problem of the variability of Easter. Of course, as soon as Humphreys adds "Easter Sunday should be the first Sunday in April", you realize it was never going to be quite that easy. The first Sunday in April might well be before April 3rd, after all?

The date of Easter has been controversial almost ever since there has been an Easter. In the second century, at any rate, the first serious dispute erupted when Christians in different parts of the Mediterranean realized they had been interpreting the meaning of Jesus' death in two different ways. One group simply continued to celebrate Passover, but with the new meaning provided by the passion and resurrection of Jesus. This practice gave precedence to the lunar calendar which provides the months of the Jewish year, and on which observance of Passover must be based. Since they celebrated on the 14th day of the month Nisan (or its local equivalents), these Christians became known to others as Quartodecimans, "fourteenthers".

The other practice suggested that the days of the week, which roll forward independently of months and years, also needed to be accounted for, since Jesus was raised on the first day of the week, Sunday. Hence the celebration should be on the Sunday after the celebration of Passover. This pattern won the day, doubtless at some cost to the sincere and reasonable commitments of the losers, as well as with the loss of the more immediate connection with Passover - in fact, a desire to distinguish the now predominantly-gentile Church from Judaism may have been influential in this process.

The relationship between months and years, as well as months and weeks, has made the date of Easter complex. Since months in Roman reckoning lost their connection to the phases of the moon but were calculated variously according to local customs, it was deemed necessary to specify that the date of Easter not fall before the equinox (as well as to reiterate that it was a Sunday) - this was one of the results of the famous Council of Nicaea. Hence the familiar pattern: Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon (the 14th day of the lunar month) after the vernal equinox. However since the equinox and/or the moon might be observed differently depending on your location, the problem did not go away entirely until standardized tables were developed and circulated.

This held as a more or less universal way to set the date of Easter until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the West in the 16th century. The Eastern Churches generally retained the older Julian calendar, with the result that Easter can again be on different days in the eastern and western Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Attempts to find a common date continue, but conservative elements of the Eastern Churches have already fulminated and split over modest attempts to re-align the calendar.

The idea of a fixed date is therefore doomed to founder on the lack of agreement that would arise among Christian groups. A fairly serious attempt to fix the date of Easter was made in the UK in 1928 but was abandoned as impractical - it is no closer to being realistic or appealing today.

There are, I suggest, at least three reasons Colin Humphreys' suggestion will be quickly ignored. One has already been given, i.e., that any fixed date will only find limited acceptance. A second is that his research is unconvincing, based on mistaken premises about the character of the Gospels as history and about related issues concerning Jewish sources. Third and most important, I suspect, is that Easter is not commemoration of an "anniversary" - it is the Christian interpretation of a feast more ancient than the death of Jesus, from which Jesus derived part of the meaning of his death. The obscurities of calculating this date are a reminder of the world from which this feast comes - not one of bank holidays, but of harvests, full moons, and the remembrance of ancient liberation.

Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

By the Book: The Bible as Artefact in Christian Liturgy

The arrival of various hand-outs, bespoke orders of service and other small pieces of printed liturgical ephemera brings good and bad things to liturgical practice. Percy is not sure why, in an otherwise environmentally-sensitive context, there is so little thought given to the paper being consumed, for one thing. Yet there is no doubt that having all the elements needed by the congregation for full participation in one single printed form makes for ease of use and engagement.

Many will also point out that the full provision of the lections - assigned readings from the Bible - in such forms assists their reading and understanding by the people. It is also probably a reasonable hedge against the temptation to leave something out, which I have commented on elsewhere!

Yet some readers might well raise the objection that these photocopied excerpts are a poor substitute for the use of a Bible.

I tend to agree, if perhaps not for the same reasons as some of my more protestant readers. I do not, for instance, think it is particularly necessary or even helpful to bury one's head in either a Bible or a pewsheet when Scripture is read at the Eucharist. The Bible is designed to be heard as well as read, and the liturgy assumes a community willing to open ears, as well as eyes, to what the Word might reveal to us.

In fact for most of the history of Christianity, most Christians have not been literate, let alone owned Bibles; and hence, while we may be glad this is not the case for the average follower of Percy's thoughts today, it suggests that any view of liturgy or of Christianity that makes "Bible reading" an essential discipline is questionable, historically and theologically as well. Christians have heard the Word first and foremost, and the liturgy reflects this.

Yet the Book itself has a liturgical place which should not be lost. In classical protestant worship as well as in liturgy of self-consciously catholic traditions, the Bible has been not merely a source of the day's readings but a visual symbol, a key object in the work Christians do when coming together to remember, listen, pray and praise the God of the Bible. That Book ('B' for emphasis) is not the various books (i.e, Bibles) individuals might bring to Church, even if their contents are the same; for the Christian does not - should not - engage with the Bible as a personal tool of revelation via private judgement, but as the corporate gift of challenge, encouragement and more.

For this reason the actual use of literal physical books in liturgy is significant. The Book or Books from which Scripture is read liturgically should reflect that corporate and public function - meaning that above all, such Books should actually be used, and visibly.

How exactly the Book is used depends a great deal on the space and the specifics of the liturgy. A large Bible visible on an ambo or lectern makes a clear statement (and shouldn't be visibly pushed aside for a preacher's folder, pewsheet, or iPad). Visibly reading from photocopied sheets leaning against that Bible is also not a good look. Pewsheets are not intended as a hedge against biblical illiteracy, and if necessary readers should expect to be trained not only in how to read aloud, but in where in the Book to find what they are supposed to read.

In some contexts different Books are used, most obviously when a Gospel book or Lectionary is carried in procession. This makes a point about the (generally overlooked) centrality of the Gospels in the Christian canon for interpreting Scripture as a whole, and the proclamation of the Gospel to the world. There are quite a few places where the idea of this procession appeals just because it involves some pomp and circumstance, but where the point gets lost. Such a failure is ritualized, for example, where a plastic binder or the mere pewsheet gets hoisted by a deacon or other offender, to general bemusement. The liturgical proclamation "This is the Gospel of the Lord" is not meant to be so implausible.

Of course there are times when a set of readings has to be prepared for a set of readers, in ways that make the idea of endless bookmarks or post-it notes in one Book on the lectern impractical. In that case, there are various possibilities. The assembly of set readings in Lectionaries - not originally lists of readings only, but the actual texts - has a venerable history. Yet these books have traditionally been treated with the same respect and prominence as Bibles and Gospel Books, and there is no reason they can't be made or decorated to make their dignity match their amenity.

The basic principles about using books are thus those of the liturgy as a whole. The Gospel itself, Christ himself, are the centre. Our actions should make this as clear as possible, and we should minimize or avoid things which distract from what is important. The Bible is important. Words can make this clear, or undermine it; so too can objects and actions.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Bible

This page links to posts concerning the liturgical use of Scripture, Lectionaries, and related matters.

In Read It! Percy laments the tendency to omit set lections at eucharistic celebrations.

In By the Book the use of the Bible in liturgy as an actual book, as opposed to pewsheets, plastic folders etc., is discussed.