Saturday, July 06, 2013


"Time has been transformed and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration" Khalil Gibran

I first realised that our traditional way of looking at time was different to that of the West when I viewed an Orthodox icon of the Birth of the Panagia. In that icon, Panagia is depicted in two places at the one time: in the midwife's arms, sitting on the floor by the bed and also, in her mother. Whereas time in the West is linear, and infinite, in the East, time is temporal, transient, limited and defined by He who set it in motion and who will, at the Second Coming, bring it to an end. As such, eternity is not a concept defined by time but rather, a state that exists without it and thus, is rendered incomprehensible to all theories of chronology.
The above notwithstanding, the earthly interval between the incarnation of God's design and the Second Coming had to be measured somehow and I came to the realisation that the way in which we did measure the ebb and flow of the years had somehow gone awry when I pondered the following line from the traditional Greek Christmas Carol lyrics: «Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά, πρώτη Ιανουαρίου, που μπαίνει ο μήνας του Χριστού, τ' Αγίου Βασιλείου» and «Αρχή που βγήκε ο Χριστός,» How could it be claimed the January was the month of Christmas, when said festival was celebrated on 25 December?
These Carols are in fact, lasting evidence of a shift in the calendar that took place in the Greek world in 1923. Until that date, the Greek state followed the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the western or Gregorian calendar. In an attempt to conform to this reform, in 1924, the Synod of the Church of Greece voted to accept an altered form of the Gregorian calendar that both maintained the traditional Julian calendar for the purposes of calculating the date of Easter and all of the moveable feasts dependent on it, but adopted a system of dates which will agree with the Gregorian Calendar dates until 2800, when the two will start very slowly to diverge, due to slightly different methods of calculating leap years.
The fallout from the institution of the revised Julian calendar was extreme. The patriarch of Jerusalem and all of the Slavonic Churches except for Bulgaria remained steadfast adherents of the "Old Calendar," celebrating Christmas on 7 January and in Greece, a schism was created by the unwillingness of the more conservative elements of the Church to follow the revised calendar. After years of bitterness, recrimination and ultimately, the marginalisation of the Old Calendarists from the mainstream, as well as the paradoxical situation where the adherents of the same religions celebrate festivals on different dates, the best one could say about the calendar reform is that if one enjoys a particular feast, such as the Annunciation, one can enjoy this in the Greek church on 25 March and then, replay the experience in a Russian or Serbian church thirteen days later. As for namedays, the probability of abuse may just be one of the reasons why such days are not customary in the Slavonic tradition.  Viewed in this light, all these manipulations of time seems rather complicated and trivial.
Critics of the Orthodox Church's adherence to the Julian calendar, which presents various errors, use it as an example of that Church's reactionary conservatism and antiquated perspective. They point to the fact the necessary calendar reform was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII as far back as 1582. They also point out that Greece was the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar, a staggering three hundred and forty one years later.
It would surprise proponents and detractors of the Gregorian calendar alike to learn that some two hundred and fifty years prior to the institution of Pope Gregory's calendar reform, a Byzantine astronomer, Nikephoros Gregoras,  in a treatise that still remains in existence, proposed to the emperor Andronikus II Palaeologos that exactly the same reforms be made to the calendar. At that time, the Emperor refused to make those reforms, owing to the fear that these would incite civil disturbances and throw an already beleaguered Empire into turmoil.
Gregoras, born in Heracleia of Pontus in 1295, is perhaps of one of the more fascinating figures in Byzantine history, in that he is a rare example of a scientist assuming a large amount of influence in the running of public affairs. A student of the eminent Grand Logothetes of the Empire and Platonic philosopher, Theodoros Metochites, who is considered as one of the forerunners of the Renaissance, he was taught philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. Through Metochites' patronage, he was presented to the Emperor  as an adviser and 'Grand Teacher'.
It was Gregoras who founded the "Moni tis Choras" ("Monastery of the Country"), a distinguished school where he started to teach philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to
a large number of Byzantine and European students. The church attached to that school survives o this day.  In that capacity he was able to publish his "Roman History" dealing with the Byzantine Empire between 1204 to 1320, in 37 books, an invaluable historical resource.
It was however as an astronomer that he achieved greatest renown, publishing such works as:
"About the Revilers of Astronomy", "Entreaties For Astronomy","How Should an Astrolabe Be Constructed" and various others. It was in this context that he realised that the current calendar in use was incorrect and desperately needed reform.
While engaged on such pursuits, he also was sent on various diplomatic missions on behalf of the Empire. His writings and observations on medieval Serbia, during his mission to the court of King Stefan Uros, are of immense historical importance.
Any hope Gregoras had of gradually wearing down the Emperor's resistance came to nought when his patron was dethroned by his grandson. Forced into retirement, he emerged briefly in order to engage in philosophical disputations with the Aristotelian monk Barlaam of Calabria.
It was his besting of Barlaam that convinced the Empror to restore him to his position of "Grand Teacher." Soon after, he was appointed to conduct the unsuccessful negotiations for a union of the Greek and Latin churches with the ambassadors of Pope John XXII on 1333. He subsequently played an important role in the Hesychast controversy, strangely on the side of his erstwhile opponent Barlaam, against St Gregory Palamas who believed in the possibility of seeing the uncreated energies of God.   After the doctrines of Palamas were recognized at the Council of 1351, Gregoras, who refused to acquiece, was practically imprisoned in a monastery for two years. While in prison, he worked on commentaries on the wanderings of Odysseus and on Synesius' treatise on dreams; tracts 'on orthography and on words of doubtful meaning; a philosophical dialogue called Phlorentius or Concerning Wisdom, astronomical treatises on the predictive calculation of solar eclipses and on the calculation of Easter.
It is said that when this universal man died in 1360, a fanaticised crowd of Hesychasts desecrated his body, though the sources that claim this are considered unreliable. He died unmourned, misunderstood and his greatest work, the reform of the calendar, totally ignored. In the centuries that would follow, the tottering Byzantine Empire would fall, ushering in a dark age that would prove inimical at least at the outset, to scholarship and science in Greece. Yet if anything, Gregoras' work serves to prove to conservative elements that calendar reform is not a product of western imperialism, but rather a native, homegrown development arising from the culture they are so passionate about preserving. The west on the other hand would do well to acknowledge the forerunners of the renaissance and give them their due, for it is undoubted that Gregoras was a man before his time. The Gregorian calendar should in actual fact, be named after him. Who knows, in time, the wounds of the past will heal, permitting conservatives and progressives alike to seize the future, for after all, in the words of Heraclitus: "Time is a game played beautifully by children."
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 6 July 2013