How can you reduce your Priest to a stammering ball of confusion with one, simple question? In two weeks, ask him, “Father, what is the date for Easter in 2016?” Unless your Pastor had the good fortune of looking at his Liturgical Planner a year ahead of time, I can almost guarantee his answer will be, “Uuuum… I think its… ah… late March… early… mid… or late April?” The reason this question can stump the smartest of liturgical chumps is because the date of Easter is a collision point between differing approaches of measured time. The calculation of Easter is done by identifying the Sunday that falls after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Sounds easy enough. However, given that lunar cycles do not match up exactly with our calendars, we can have a spread of dates for Easter. For Western Christians, those dates can occur between March 22 to April 25. For Eastern Christians, the dates for Easter fall between April 3 to May 10 since they follow the Julian calendar instead of the reformed Gregorian calendar. In summary, to calculate the date of Easter, write the Vatican Observatory and request their yearly calendar!
This collision of differing measurements of time begs a question: How do we understand time? When I was at the Faith and Astronomy Workshop this past January, Fr. Paul Gabor gave a fascinating presentation on “leap seconds.” We learned that no two days are ever the same because of the irregularity of the earth’s rotation. Therefore, the correction of “leap seconds” must be made to ensure that your GPS gets you to your destination and bombs using computer guiding systems hit their targets. Since one second of earth’s rotation represents about a kilometer of distance from one point to another, one can see that being off by a second can be deadly!
The measurement of time was not always so mechanical. Fr. Gabor explained that the ancients measured time primarily through significant events that merited religious and cultural celebration we can call “sacred time.” In modern society, our measurement of time has slowly divorced itself from observing these moments of significance. Holy Week, unfortunately, is becoming a prime example of this divorce. Gone, for many, are the days when schools and businesses would close to allow their employees and students the time to observe Good Friday. Instead, the Paschal Mystery must be “fit in” around work schedules and school projects, due to the cultural amnesia toward the greatest event in human history: The Resurrection of the Son of God.
In light of this, we can ask another question: How should we understand time? One may argue that we should only focus on “sacred time,” emphasizing the moments of profound religious and cultural meaning. Others may argue that religious calendars are arcane relics of a dying world view and the mechanical passing of time, divorced from religious significance, is all that is needed. Which of these mentalities is correct? I propose that the Catholic “both and” principle can assist us to find a balanced solution to this debate.
To begin with, I find it ironic that both measurements, sacred and mechanical, are imperfect and need adjustments to properly measure time. In light of this, there is no such thing as a “perfect” day. Yet, we can also affirm that both measurements of time have their place in society. When we lose the sense of the sacred that comes with feast days, we forget a fundamental part of who we are as a people and can drift from joy to cynicism. Yet, these significant moments are sacred in part because of the passing of time that distinguishes the sacred from the mundane (or profane), ordinary living of every day life. In short, the interplay between sacred time and mechanical time helps us appreciate the reason why we measure time in the first place: to reflect on life’s meaning and purpose. Therefore, both measurements are necessary.
Discussion question: How do you find meaning and purpose in a “leap second” world? What are the struggles you face to embrace the “two calendars” of sacred time and mechanical time? Share your thoughts, and may the Lord bless you this Easter, assisting all of us to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
To help us appreciate our celebration of the Paschal Mystery during this Holy Week, here is one of my former Professor’s, Fr. Robert Barron, reflecting on the meaning of Easter.