We Look at Time a Little Differently

This post was originally published on Aug 9, 2019 and updated on Sep 19, 2019 at beautyfirstfilms.com

Before 43 BC, the Romans employed a lunar calendar. Lunar calendars had been widely used since very ancient times in many cultures because the phases of the moon are clearly visible to even a non-astronomer. To calculate the passage of time according to the phases of the moon we only need to look up to the sky.

There is a drawback to lunar calendars, however, in that there are more than twelve and less than thirteen lunar months in every solar year. Lunar calendars therefore don’t match with the annual progression of the earth around the sun. As the years progress, months corresponding to lunar cycles will wander across the solar seasons. The month of March, for example, when calculated solely according to a lunar calendar, would variously fall in summer, autumn, winter, or spring as the years progress.

Thus, purely lunar calendars are of little use for planning events related to seasonal weather. In particular, they are of no use to farmers, who seek guidance about planting and harvesting that is of life and death significance for their societies. But they also offer poor guidance to builders and warriors, who are also concerned with the seasons.

In 43 B.C. Julius Caesar enacted a reform of the Roman lunar calendar. He had just returned to Rome after a series of military campaigns in foreign lands, including his clash with the Greek Ptolemaic kingdom that by then had been ruling Egypt for almost 300 years.

Cleopatra’s clever manipulation of Caesar had managed to preserve for a few more years the freedom of Greek Egypt, and in the midst of his time there, Julius Caesar had come to admire the observatory (or Lighthouse) of Alexandria.

When he returned to Rome after almost ten years of successful military adventures abroad, Caesar summoned Greek astronomers from the Lighthouse and began to set the Roman lunar calendar in order. Adding days to months, adding months to the year, and adding weeks needed to bring the Roman calendar into alignment with the sun, he made 43 B.C. “the longest year in human history” and created a Roman calendar that was closely in sync with the solar cycle. March, for example, would forevermore be the month in which spring begins.

In the United States, the switch from the Julian Calendar to an even more accurate Gregorian Calendar occurred in 1752, so that the Founding Fathers of our nation were mostly born according to “Old Style” dates, but all died on “New Style” ones. Caesar’s calendar, the Julian Calendar, still governs parts of the world today; the Orthodox communities of Russia, Mt. Athos, Serbia, Jerusalem, and the more than 100 parishes of the Orthodox Church of America’s Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska are still on the Julian Calendar.

The Julian Calendar had to be reformed because it calculated the length of the solar year with a slight imperfection. It was not “true” to the seasons in the way it was intended to be. Its months were slipping across the seasons at a rate of about one day per century.

But there was a larger flaw in the Greek and Roman made Julian and the Gregorian calendars that the Christian Church, coming from a Semitic background, had always known.

The Roman calendars are fully solar calendars, whereas in some deep way human life is meant to respond to lunar as well as solar time. The ancient myth-makers saw the sun as masculine and the moon as feminine, and somehow a calendar that is purely solar leaves something imbalanced in human life. For example, midwives and experts in animal husbandry even today have no choice but to be sensitive to the lunar cycles as indicating when mothers will give birth.

In the Roman calendars, whether Julian or Gregorian, “months” – which were originally designed to match the length of the lunar cycle – no longer have a coherent connection to the moon’s phases. Our months are only vestigially lunar, cultural remnants of an era when Roman time was lunar time. Being pinned and frozen to the sun’s dictates, our months are somehow “dead.” Our secular calendar summons us to live under the bright, hot glare of purely solar time, with only a hint of lunar softness, of feminine counterbalance, to mitigate its orderly masculine progression through the ages.

The Jews, by contrast, observed an alternative to time that balanced the solar with the lunar. They employed a lunisolar calendar in which a lunar month was regularly added to the lunar year, so that the lunar calendar and the solar calendar would stay in close alignment with each other. Nor were the Jews the only people to respect lunisolar time.

For our feast of feasts, Christians also follow a lunisolar calculation of time. In 325 AD at the First Ecumenical Council, the Church decreed that Pascha (Easter) should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It moreover advised that both the lunar and the solar cycles be drawn from the calculations of the Alexandrians. Today in 2019, almost one thousand and seven hundred years later, the Orthodox Church still follows these dictates of the ancient Church for the calculation of Pascha.

Pascha is thus a feast anchored in both lunar and solar time. It is preceded by 10 weeks in which the consciousness of the Church is dictated by the calculation of Pascha according to lunisolar time. Pascha is followed by a further seven weeks of rejoicing and expectation as we anticipate Pentecost, and two more weeks devoted to a celebration of All Saints and then All Local Saints, so that in total the liturgical observances on 19 of the 52 weeks of the year are dictated by the lunisolar calculation of Pascha.

Pascha also represents a kind of “new year” liturgically, in that at Pascha we hit “reset” on three other Church cycles: Our daily and Sunday scripture readings; the progression of the eight ancient musical tones; and, the 11-week eothinon cycle of Gospel readings and hymns at Orthros/Matins all begin again at Pascha each year.

Finally, the length of one fast fixed in solar time, the Apostles Fast, is influenced by where in the year Pascha falls.

Our experience of time as Orthodox Christians reflects this balance between a masculine solar and a feminine lunar time. Pascha swings across the lunar year, back and forth, like a giant candelabra set in motion during key moments of an all-night vigil in a monastery church, casting its light into every shadowy crevice of human time.

Respect for lunisolar time, then, is one hallmark of a culture that respects the feminine while also respecting the masculine. A culture that loses all connection to lunar time, by contrast, may be troubled in this regard, as our culture is today.


Thus, the calendar of Beauty First Films Calendar of Liturgical Seasons was born; a calendar observing the Solar Year […], but arranged with respect for the lunisolar liturgical time centered on the feast of feasts, Pascha.

Dr. Timothy Patitsas earned his doctorate in systematic theology from The Catholic University of America in 2003 and has been Assistant Professor of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross School of Theology since 2005. Before joining the Seminary faculty, he taught at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Seminary in Seoul, Korea and at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. In 2006 he became the director of the St. Helen’s Pilgrimage, the School’s study abroad program in Greece, Mt. Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.

In 2020 he was named the Interim Dean of Hellenic College, America’s oldest Orthodox Christian liberal arts college. His dissertation, The King Returns to His City: An Interpretation of the Great Week and Bright Week Cycle of the Orthodox Church, combined interests in complexity theory, liturgy, and, the political and economic writings of Jane Jacobs. In 2014 he held a research fellowship at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His book The Ethics of Beauty, published in 2019 with St. Nicholas Press, presents a comprehensive Orthodox worldview in contemporary language. In 2019 also, he co-founded Beauty First Films, whose mission is to produce films that transport the viewer to a place of awe, beauty, and holiness.

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