Sunday, March 16, 2008

The advent of Purim

Today is a date to check the calendars, all three of them. There must be a connection between the Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christian holidays of Holy Week, people reckon. The historical record says that the crucifixion of Jesus took place during the Passover celebration, so most Christians assume that the date for Passover is more or less connected to Easter. The fact is that there is no direct correlation to the two other than they both must be observed during the spring. The date of Easter is observed differently by the Western (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Churches) and Orthodox Churches. In the Western Churches, Easter is decided by the determination of Ash Wednesday, the date that follows Mardi Gras and is always 46 days prior to Easter. The date of Ash Wednesday is fixed according to a formula that is largely based on a lunar cycle (just like that found in the Jewish or Hebrew calendar) and a solar calendar that recognizes March 21 as the vernal equinox. Similarly, the Jewish calendar is not strictly lunar. Because there is a specific admonition in the Torah that the celebration of the festival known today as Passover must take place during the spring, there is a solar aspect to it as well. Similarly, the date of Ash Wednesday (not observed by the Orthodox Church) was set according to dates that were first fixed at the First Council of Nicaea in 365 C.E. when the Julian calendar was in place. Some may be surprised to learn that Easter had not always been observed on a Sunday, for example, prior to this important gathering. Changes implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 determined new dates for observance of Easter and Ash Wednesday for the Roman Catholic world and the Protestant churches which sprang up during the Reformation kept those new dates, the Anglican Church being the last major church to accept them in 1752. However, the Orthodox Church has kept its dates for observance of Easter more or less in line with the Julian calendar. As a result, the observance of Orthodox Easter can be many weeks different from the date set by the ecclesiastical formula used to determine Ash Wednesday and, hence, Easter, in the Western Church. This year the observance of Easter between the Western and Orthodox Churches differs by five weeks. That means that the observance of Passover, which begins at sundown on April 19 will be closer to the date set by the Orthodox Church for Easter, which is April 14. What is unusual is the proximity of the Jewish celebration of Purim, which happens to occur on Good Friday (as observed by the Western Churches) this year. Usually, Purim is closer in proximity to Mardi Gras (or Ash Wednesday), but because the date for Ash Wednesday in 2008 was set as February 6 (the second earliest date it can be set), and because this year the Jewish calendar has an extra month inserted, Adar II (in order to keep Passover in the spring), we have this highly unusual occurrence. If all of this makes your head spin, just think about the nightmare this presents for calendar makers. I don't know about you, but my recommendation is just to go with the flow and take it one day at a time.

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