The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Getting Easter Right

How an ancient disagreement about Easter propelled technological innovation forward, and how it's challenging the faithful today

I have never quite understood why the date of Easter travels around from year to year. Unlike December 25th, Easter can fall as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th. Who determines Easter's date and how has always been a bit mysterious too. I simply depended on each year’s calendar, and in truth, even then I never gave it much thought. Then I met Nadia.

Nadia worked at a Panera Bread where I had become a regular. Like clockwork, every Thursday I met friends there for dinner, and like clockwork, every Thursday Nadia worked the same closing shift.

Nadia had an accent. She spoke fluent English, but it was clearly not her first language. After weeks of ordering food from her, Nadia and I had gotten to know each other. Nadia had emigrated from the Ukraine, was enrolled at a nearby college, and was working at Panera until she graduated. Over time I also learned that Nadia attended a Ukrainian church in the city. The church was Orthodox, but I knew very little about that branch of the Christianity or its practices. Nadia seemed to like her church, and I asked her questions about it from time to time. The question about Easter came in a roundabout way, starting actually with Lent.

The first Lent I remember, I was 12. I’d gone with my parents to Long John Silver’s on a Friday. The place was unusually busy, and I didn’t know why. My parents explained that in the weeks leading up to Easter, Catholics fasted from meat on Fridays. Fish didn’t count as meat, which was a boon for the pirate-themed fast food joint. And that was where my knowledge ended, and remained.

I was well into my 20s before I found myself participating for the first time in Lent. Lent: the 40 days starting on Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter Sunday. Lent: that 6-week period in mid-winter or early spring when fast-food joints advertise special fish menus on Fridays. Lent: that Christian season of “fasting”—of abstaining from something, like those good Catholics at Long John Silver’s. I learned, however, Catholics weren’t the only ones who observed Lent; other Christian denominations did as well—including mine (Anglican) and Nadia’s.

With Lent approaching, I had decided to fast for the first time. But instead of fasting from meat, I decided to abandon Facebook for the whole forty days. When Nadia asked, I told her and she was surprised and also a bit confused. The prospect of fasting from something besides food was foreign to her. Her family, she told me, would be fasting from sweets during Lent. To me, this sacrifice seemed undeservedly harsh and ascetic. Clearly, a mutual respect seemed to be growing between us.

The first Thursday of my Facebook fast, I arrived at Panera, and after ordering, I mentioned to Nadia that I had begun my Lenten discipline. Then I asked her how hers was going.

“Oh, I haven’t started mine yet,” she responded. “The Orthodox celebrate Easter a week later than the West.”

I had never heard of such a thing. Can you do that? Apparently, Nadia informed me, the Eastern and Western churches disagree about the date of Easter. So, not only was Easter a week later but Lent started a week later as well.

In other words, not only does Easter roam between March and April, but people also disagree about when exactly it should be celebrated in a given year. The complications seemed to be multiplying.

I was reminded of my conversation with Nadia and these complications when I found myself reading a book titled Christian Worship and Technological Change. As I read, I found that the disagreements weren’t new. Scientists and philosophers, for centuries during the Middle Ages, hotly debated when exactly the Church should celebrate Easter. But what I found most surprising was that these disagreements have had a lasting impact on our lives today. And not in some general way, but in our deep, daily routines.

* * *

Both the fixed date of Christmas and the flexible date of Easter are part of what many Christians call the “Church year.” These holidays hark back to a time when people structured their lives according to a “liturgy.” This Church year liturgy takes the life of Jesus Christ and lays it out in an yearly rhythm—hence Christmas, when Christ was born, and Easter, when Christ rose from the dead. Other seasons include Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost, each representing an aspect of Jesus’ life.

For Christians throughout history, this liturgical Church calendar wasn’t simply a set of dates to remind them of Christ’s life. The year-long liturgy was part of a bigger, more cosmic drama. The whole earth, Christians believed, was caught between Heaven and Hell. It was ground zero in the showdown between these two opposing forces. By observing this Church calendar, Christians aligned their hearts and their world with Heaven. Earth hung in the balance, and by living according to the liturgical calendar, Christians helped tip the scales in God’s favor. The faithful who participated in this liturgy were aligning themselves with God, preparing themselves for his salvation.

Getting the date of Easter right was a crucial detail in this battle. Observing the wrong date would throw earth out of sync with heaven. Getting it wrong meant that the faithful would be tipping the scales in the wrong direction. The destiny of earth and of their own souls literally hung in the balance.

This is why, in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, some of the greatest philosophical minds contributed their own scholarship to getting Easter right. Roger Bacon, “by all accounts the greatest experimental scientist of the Middle Ages,”* was among those who wrote and recommended changes to the date of Easter. But to make their case, Bacon and others had to develop new ways of keeping time.

Image Credit: Flickr User JHerme
A lot of the groundwork had already been laid. By Bacon’s day, the astrolabe and the rectangulus were helping astronomers to more accurately calculate movements of the planets. These devices used precision engineering to construct a mechanical version of the heavens, a solar system.

Using instruments like these, Bacon determined that the church’s Julian calendar was out of sync by four days. The prospect horrified him, and he wrote as much. He proposed adjusting the calendar. But the authorities refused to shift gears, even if Bacon’s arguments made sense; such changes would incite an uproar.

It would be another 300 years before Pope Gregory XIII finally capitulated and embraced a new calendar system. By then the earth was nearly 10 days out of sync in the battle between heaven and hell. The church’s Easter conflict had stimulated more technological innovation, all in an attempt to bring the world into harmony with God’s plans and purpose. Out of it, the Gregorian Calendar emerged and put the world to rights again, aligned with God.

But the technological effects had not yet run their course. Mechanical innovations like Abbot Richard of Wallingford’s rectangulus and horologium had already, by Pope Gregory’s time, given birth to another machine: the clock. And with it, a new sense of time. However, with the clock, the church’s attitude was not so enthusiastic.

For them the mechanical clock was too uniform. It distributed equal portions of time to each segment of the day. Every hour had as much time as the next. This uniformity conflicted with the natural ebb and flow of daylight from season to season—a rhythm that was much harder to duplicate mechanically. For the church, this uniformity was a problem.

It was a problem for the very same reason that the wrong date of Easter was a problem. The mechanical clock put humanity’s rhythms out of sync with heaven’s ebb and flow. By observing the natural rhythms of day and night, the faithful believed they could tip the scales rightly.

Between the Eastern and Western Church, which had already split in 1054, the division grew wider in 1370, when King Charles V of France decreed that churches of Paris toll their bells every hour in keeping with the official royal clocks. While the West embraced these timekeeping practices, some Eastern churches—including the Greek Orthodox—refused them, even into the 20th century. The gap that cut through Panera Bread between Nadia and me was becoming clearer.

Of course, the clock, the descendant of earlier mechanics, didn’t suffer much from the church’s mixed reception. The clock certainly eclipsed its ancestors. Today, the clock determines work schedules, salaries, school bells, deadlines, computer code, music tempo, and more. Today, the clock distributes minutes and seconds to timestamps and alarm clocks, to heartbeats, hand grenades, Olympic records, and efficiency standards. We submit to the tyranny of the clock to organize our jobs and our relationships, to arrange our vacation days and our radio singles. In the late 19th century, a management guru named Frederick Taylor attempted to mechanize the whole workplace and the people inside it, timing each activity and assigning a certain amount of time to each motion. Needless to say, the workers went on strike, leading to a Congressional investigation and subsequent ban of Taylor’s methods, but his methods live on in practices like the modern assembly line, the military, and business management principles. Perhaps the church’s liturgical time had some value to it after all.

Today, the thought that a cosmic drama between heaven and hell might be unfolding inside our day-planners seems absurd—even if coordinating busy schedules does feel like hell at times. Living liturgical lives, for most people, appears inconvenient and far-fetched, if it appears on their radar at all. The idea of organizing life around some perceived religious pattern can seem ludicrous, pitiable, or simply impractical. Yet, no matter whether you have faith or not, remnants of the liturgical life still linger—Christmas and Easter among them.

* * *

Is it possible to recover the meaning of these remnants? While liturgy may seem foreign or antiquated to some Christians, its goal is something much more familiar: Christlikeness. Everything from Sunday sermons to New York Times bestsellers to the long-standing spiritual disciplines, being Christ-like is a hot topic for Christians. Many Christians today no longer see the earth as hanging in the cosmic balance, but being like Jesus is still a real goal. This was and still is the purpose of the Church year. Is it possible to return to a life shaped by Jesus?

Jesus’ life was a life of serving. Easter is the clearest picture of just how deep that serving sometimes goes. Rather than using his power in self-serving ways, Jesus showed us what it meant “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In a season when the global economy is reaping the consequences of system structured around money, time, and selfishness, Easter points us to another way to life, another kind of life.

The church year draws us out of ourselves to see God. It draws us out of ourselves to see others. It draws us out of ourselves to see creation. And it draws us away from the busy toil of productivity toward life of stewarding and celebrating the world and the people God created. If there are other “liturgies” that can cultivate this kind of life—be they sermons, books, or disciplines—God is surely blessing them.

The liturgical life is formed by Jesus’ life. Through the season of Lent and its discipline, our attention is drawn away from ourselves to Christ, and we learn to sacrifice for the good of others—and for the good of ourselves. The liturgical life takes us to the Cross of Good Friday where Jesus loved us “to the very end.” Shaped by the Cross, the liturgical life reminds us that serving others is often hard and painful and self-sacrificing. But this liturgical life also carries us to Easter, reminding us of the life and joy that come through giving our lives in serving others.

With an economic recession draining away the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, the prospects of Good Friday already exist. But in the life of Jesus, Easter shows us that rather than being drained by the patterns of this world, we can choose to die, we can choose to love and serve God and others. Earth is not hanging in the balance. Rather, Easter paints a picture of the world as God had created it to be, and it reminds us of the promise of a world still to come.

* Christian Worship and Technological Change, by Susan White, p. 59.

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