Fiala on ethics: Culture has a deep influence on Easter

April 18, 2014 

Political and religious histories give shape to our lives. Holidays like Easter remind us of the deep influence of culture. The power of culture extends even into the way we organize and count time.

Consider the mystery of the date of Easter. The Easter date is determined according to an arcane system, which links the phases of the moon and the occurrence of the vernal equinox. This is based upon the ancient calendar for calculating the celebration of Passover. The Easter dating system, codified in the fourth century, continues to influence us. Secular spring break is linked to this ancient notion of ritual time.

To complicate matters, western and eastern churches celebrate Easter according to different calendars (although they converge this year). Eastern churches rely on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar who instituted it. That calendar does not properly calculate leap years. Over millennia, it slowly became untethered from the solstices and equinoxes. Western churches updated their calendars in the 16th century under Pope Gregory XIII.

Popes and emperors determine how we keep time. Two of our months are named after Roman Emperors. July is named after Julius Caesar. August is named after Augustus. And our calendar is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory.

Our seven-day week appears to reflect the Judeo-Christian creation story: God labored six days and rested on the seventh. But the Genesis story is not the only source. The names of the days of the week commemorate the seven ancient planetary gods: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Saturday is named for Saturn, Sunday for the Sun and Monday for the moon.

The English names for the other days of the week reflect the names of Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is named for Thor. This trace of paganism in our calendar is a reminder that our culture is an impure mixture.

All of this makes one wonder whether we know what we are doing when we commemorate these ancient stories. Does it make sense to celebrate a Christian holiday like Easter on a day named after the Sun in a calendar with Roman imperial residue?

Things could be different. Christians might like to rename the days of the week to purge the calendar of pagan elements. Secularists might want to update the calendar and make it more rational. Is there a good reason for seven-day week that is not connected with ancient theology?

A scientific calendar would fix our odd 12-month year and its irregular number of days per month. A more rational system would make each month exactly four weeks long. We would then need 13 months (plus one day) to complete a 365-day year. (Do the math and you'll see!). But perhaps superstitions about the number 13 would prevent that.

In the 1790s French revolutionaries attempted to rationalize the calendar. They created a 10-day week, along with a decimal system for clocks. The revolutionaries also introduced a decimal system for measuring other things, which eventually became the European metric system.

Unlike the metric system, decimal calendars and clocks did not catch on. Some traditions are apparently woven too deeply into the fabric of our experience. It is difficult to imagine a week without a Thors-day or Easter not falling on the Sun's day.

We inherit a cultural matrix of meaning, language, traditions and symbols. Although our cultural inheritance is not permanently fixed, it does form a nearly immovable background for our lives. Imagine how difficult it would be to change our calendar or time-counting methods.

However, the Easter season reminds us of the possibility of freedom and a new future. The Hebrews escaped from Pharaoh during Passover. Jesus escaped from death at Easter. Whether these stories are true or not, one cannot deny the transformative power they symbolize. This includes the most radical change in counting time: the move from B.C. to A.D. Imagine the difficulty of the cultural shift that led from Roman paganism to Christianity.

We are captive to the great cycles of objective time. The motions of the planet — the equinoxes and lunar phases — are all beyond our control. But human beings give meaning to these changes and create a cultural world that is as real as the stars themselves.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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