Our Mission follows the Byzantine liturgical calendar — that of the Great Church of Constantinople-New Rome — with local variations as celebrated by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which we belong. The Byzantine calendar, while celebrating many of the same great feasts as the Roman calendar, is nonetheless considerably different in detail. For example, the Church Year begins not at Advent but at the Indiction of 1 September (the old Byzantine new year) while Advent itself — known as the Nativity Fast — lasts 40 days rather than four Sundays. There are several more fasting periods throughout the year, such as the Dormition Fast two weeks before the Dormition (Assumption), the Apostles’ Fast between the second Sunday after Pentecost and the feast of Saints Peter & Paul and, of course, the Great Fast of Lent, which begins two days earlier than in the West. But, while Pascha (Easter), the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas), the Dormition, the feast of Saints Peter & Paul and many more feasts are celebrated on the same nominal days as in the West, others vary. For example, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on the second Sunday after Pentecost, while there are five Saturdays of All Souls served throughout the Church Year.
Twelve Great Feasts
After Pascha, the feast of feasts, there are twelve more days which are of especial importance in the Byzantine calendar. Often these are depicted on an upper row of a church’s iconostas (icon screen). They are: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September); the Exaltation of the Cross (12 September); the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple (21 November); the Nativity of the Lord (25 December); Theophany (6 January); the Entrance of the Lord in the Temple (2 February); the Annunciation (25 March); the Entry into Jerusalem (Sunday before Pascha); the Ascension (forty days after Pascha); Pentecost (fifty days after Pascha); the Transfiguration (6 August); and the Dormition of the Theotokos (14 August). In Ukraine, the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos (1 October) is also given precedence just behind the twelve great feasts, and is celebrated on the same day as the Defenders of Ukraine.
Thirteen days behind
At present, the Mission also uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar to calculate its liturgical year; this is in common with the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. What this means is that all liturgical dates occur 13 days after the corresponding civil dates. So, for example, while the Nativity of the Lord is celebrated on 25 December, the old Julian calendar calculates 25 December to fall on what we know as 7 January. This is also why ‘Orthodox Easter’ is usually celebrated on a different date to that in the West — because the starting point for the calculation of Easter, 21 March, actually falls on 3 April in the old Julian calendar.
The old Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and continued to be used in the West for more than 1,600 years until the more accurate Gregorian calendar we use today was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (though this ‘Papist Calendar’ continued to be resisted in Britain until 1752!). While Caesar’s calendar, designed by Greek mathematicians and astronomers, was far more accurate than that which preceded it, its calculation of the length of the solar year as lasting 365.25 days (observed in a cycle of 365 days for three years and 366 for the fourth) overshot the length of the astronomical solar year by 11 minutes, causing it to fall behind by one day every 128 years. This is why the calendar is currently 13 days behind and will be 14 days behind by 2100.
For some, being out of sync with the secular world comes as a benefit, particularly with regard to the frenzy of commercialization around Christmas and Easter in modern times. However, the Church Year has been designed to honour God’s Creation by following its rhythms and cycles, sanctifying them with a rich spiritual significance. This is why Pascha is calculated from the vernal equinox — after which there are more hours of light than darkness — and why the Nativity falls nine months later (specifically, nine months after the feast of the Annunciation) only a few days after the winter solstice — the shortest day — which symbolizes the darkness before the dawn. These celestial phenomena herald the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the birth and rebirth of the Light, the twin axes on which the entire Christian calendar spins. The further the liturgical calendar drifts away from them, the weaker their mystical symbolism becomes.
Could this change?
We are a mission point of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London. While diaspora communities are free to celebrate according to either the old Julian or Gregorian calendars, the cathedral primarily serves Ukrainian expatriates, so aligns itself with the Church in Ukraine. We, too, serve English-speaking members of this community so will continue to use the old Julian calendar for the time being. It is significant, however, that while Patriarch Sviatoslav has made clear he will not switch the calendar of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church unless the Orthodox Church of Ukraine does so also, the latter gave permission in October 2022 for the Nativity to be celebrated on 25 December. This would be according to the revised Julian calendar, used by about half the Orthodox Churches, and which corresponds to the Gregorian calendar until 2800, as it is actually more accurate. However, even Orthodox Churches which use the revised Julian calendar continue to calculate the date of Pascha using the old Julian calendar, in order to respect the instruction of the First Council of Nicæa that all should celebrate on the same day. So, while it is possible we could soon move to ‘Gregorian’ dates for fixed feasts like the Nativity, moveable feasts such as Pentecost would continue to be ‘out of sync’, except in years in which they align, such as 2025. Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are both enthusiastic about returning to a common date for the celebration of Pascha, and have recently reiterated this desire, but it remains to be seen whether this will come to fruition.