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A Year in our Life

Where does Easter come from?

For many, the passage of time only impinges on daily life at anniversaries, birthdays and New Year celebrations. These events have just one thing in common - they are strung together through the passage of a single year, twelve months, 365 days. The Church calendar seeks to graft meaning into this, basing its festivals and holy days explicitly on the life and times of Jesus Christ, as defined by tradition. The Jewish calendar is also locked into Jesus, but it doesn't realise it. It is also thoroughly Biblical. A journey through the Jewish year is a series of Bible studies, spanning the Old and the New, with added fun, activity and plenty of food and drink. But first, we pause.

You may think you are ready for this journey through time, but perhaps you are not. This is because we have to make some mental preparations first, as the passage of time that we call a year depends on what heavenly body we use as reference. The Christian calendar that regulates our lives is governed by the Sun. We take a note of how long the Earth takes to travel once around the Sun and we call that a year. We also take note of how long it takes the Earth to revolve once around its axis and we call that a day. Now this would be a neat arrangement if an exact number of days exactly fitted into a year. In fact a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds. Can't we just round this down and sweep the odd bits and pieces under the carpet? Unfortunately not, because that would give us slippage, we'd always be starting a fresh year nearly six hours early. The problem will be that certain landmark days would keep shifting through the seasons and the big problem was the key Christian festival of Easter.

The dating of Easter is complex enough to demand an article to itself but I'm going to simplify it by stating that it is determined by the position of both the Sun and the Moon and is a different day every year. The whole point is to anchor Easter in the correct season of spring, so that the Church calendar remains relevant. Even with the complex calculations that the Church uses to determine the date of Easter, it still doesn't work out on the same day every year. Surely Easter happened on a particular date in history, why can't we just celebrate it on the nearest Sunday to that date? Isn't God a God of order? So, if Easter was so important and it was linked closely with the position of the Moon, why not go the whole hog and base the whole calendar on the Moon? This brings us nicely to the Jewish calendar. Let us now begin our journey.

Our journey starts on a speed bump, a hiccup to slow us down, as it's not just the Sun that messes up our calculations, but the Moon too. The Jewish year is based on the movement of the Moon, called the Lunar Month, the time between the appearance of the first sliver of Moon in the night sky until its eventual disappearance. The year is made up of either 12 or 13 of these months, which will have either 29 or 30 days. I told you it was messy! Whereas the Christian calendar uses the addition of days on leap years to keep things stable, the Jewish has leap months, an extra month shoved into the year every now and again. OK, so it's a load of maths again, but there's a crucial difference between the Christian and Jewish calendar. If Easter were Jewish then at least it would fall on the same day every year. But it isn't Jewish and that leads us nicely to the start of the Jewish year.

We will start on that journey next week ...

Steve Maltz
August 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again)

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