Monday, March 4, 2013

Moveable Feasts


If I mention "a moveable feast," does Hemingway spring to mind? Or maybe a squad of people with overflowing picnic baskets? On its own, the phrase seems kind of surreal, like it's halfway on its way to becoming "the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine" or "colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

But it's actually a reference to the calendar for the church year, in which feast days to commemorate the birthdays of saints, and various other observances, are divided into two categories: moveable and fixed. Fixed feasts are like Christmas, which happens on the same date every single year (December 25). Moveable feasts, though, are like Easter, which can change dates. 

Most of this is due to the variability of the date of Easter, in fact, because that date affects the date of all the church holidays attached to it—Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, Pentecost, etc. And the date of Easter is pegged using a lunar calendar rather than a solar one in an elaborate calculation called the computus (not to be confused with the Locutus). That's in large part because the only way to establish the ceremonial anniversary of the crucifixion is with a lunar calendar—because it's not exactly clear what year the crucifixion happened, by the time church ritual became institutionalized, it was impossible to figure out at what time of year it had happened. 

So the only way to identify Easter was to identify it in relation to Passover/Pesach, which is itself pegged using the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. There was lots of nasty, anti-Semitic back-and-forth in the early Church as early Christians tried to establish the independence of their own dating methods (see the computus article above), but as Anthony Grafton has established, there was actually lots of covert interfaith dialogue throughout the Middle Ages, including efforts on the part of Church scholars to check the date of Passover with European Jewish communities.

Also, I have a new essay-review online at Open Letters Monthly! Read it here

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