Bosco Peters discusses a recently discussed (and probably not going anywhere) proposal to get Christians of various communions to celebrate Easter on a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar. Working toward this common date are Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby, Roman Catholic Pope Francis, the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (of the Greek Orthodox church).
Bosco provides an excellent, brief summary of why figuring out the date of Easter can be such a headache, and why Catholics and Protestants celebrate on a different date than the Orthodox. Along the way, he makes a number of important points about the nature of calendars and how they tie us to the natural world. He writes,
Although I won’t oppose a fixed Easter date, I do think there is quite a loss in doing so. We mix two calendars: A nomad’s calendar, (represented by Abel in the Bible); nomads follow a lunar calendar (with the four lunar phases the most probable source of the weekly cycle that has never been broken for millennia). The solar calendar would be Cain’s calendar, with its annual sowing and harvesting. Christmas is a purely solar celebration. Our planet is essentially in the same spot on our solar orbit each Christmas Day, December 25.
Easter, on the other hand, is essentially lunar – and when we walk out to go to the Easter Vigil, the slightly waned Full Moon shines down, and does so as we gather around the sacred new Easter Fire.
We live in a world where most are increasingly losing touch with nature. Without looking, could you tell someone what phase the Moon is in? Most cannot. Most cannot even tell me which way the Moon waxes and wanes, or identify stars or planets. Fixing the date of Easter will be convenient for our world and its focus on the god of commerce, but we will lose yet another connection with nature, our planet, its moon, and our place in this amazing solar system.
I would love for all Christians everywhere to celebrate Easter (or Pascha) on the same date, but I’m skeptical that this plan, which would place Easter on a set Sunday in the month of April every year, will gain much traction. Though the lunar calculations take a bit of effort, I wonder what we would lose by disconnecting Easter not only from its relationship to the lunar cycle but also its relationship to the Jewish faith—which connection is already lost on many in the church!
If I could wave a magic wand (or crozier), I would decree that Easter always be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover. Period. This rule would have the added benefit of underscoring Christianity’s indebtedness to our Jewish neighbors, with whom we share large portions of our spiritual traditions, not to mention our Scriptures.
Another gem from Larry Hurtado on early Christian diversity:
From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.
This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases….
Nevertheless, in that swirling diversity we also see from a very early point strong efforts to establish trans-local and trans-ethnic commonality. That’s an obvious major aim reflected in Paul’s Gentile Mission, reflected, for example, in his extended effort in the collection for Jerusalem. And note Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, that Jerusalem leaders and he proclaim a broadly shared message focused on Jesus. Of course, Paul also refers to “false brethren,” “false apostles,” etc., indicative of the real diversity and division as well. But the effort to try to form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement didn’t start with Eusebius or Constantine. The impulse was there from very early (however it may have fared from time to time).
…Which is good news for the orthodox. Larry Hurtado explains:
I continue to see some scholars stating as unquestioned fact that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” really only emerged after Constantine, that only with the power of imperial coercion could these categories operate, and that in the pre-Constantinian period all we have is Christian diversity, with no recognizable direction or shape to it. In some cases, scholars will admit that with Irenaeus (late second century) and perhaps even Justin (mid-second century) we may see the early expressions of notions of “heresy.” But a recent study by Robert M. Royalty, Jr., The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), marshals effectively evidence and argument that should correct such views.
Twenty years ago, Cardinal Avery Dulles proposed a ten-point plan of “intermediate goals and strategies” for the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) project. My former Church History professor, Timothy George, has seen fit to remind us of this plan in a recent post at First Things:
- Correct misleading stereotypes. For all our progress toward greater mutual understanding, stereotypes still persist. Often we hear “Catholics worship Mary” or “Evangelicals put private experience above the revelation of God in Scripture.” Such statements may well be true of someCatholics and certain evangelicals, but they represent a departure from, not an authentic development of, the church’s faith.
- Openness to surprise. Part of breaking through stereotypes is coming to recognize how devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and the Gospel are manifest in surprising ways across confessional lines.
- Holy rivalry. By this phrase Dulles meant that Evangelicals and Catholics “should strive to excel each other not in wealth, power, and prestige but in virtues such as honesty, self-sacrifice, care for the poor, faith in God’s Word, and hope of eternal life.” This rule resonates with the counsel of the Apostle Paul: “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Rom. 12:10, NLT).
- Overcome mutual suspicion. Several centuries of mutual antagonism, recrimination, and indeed violence against one another have left deep scars in both communities. We must study the past before we can forgive it. In this way, memories can be healed and friendships restored, not only for individuals but also among entire communities of faith.
- Respect each other’s freedom and integrity. This rule speaks to the important distinction between evangelism and proselytism. An early ECT statement called for Evangelicals and Catholics to practice evangelism both within and across their distinctive communities. But this must always be done in the spirit of Christ—without forceful pressure or tactics that demean and disrespect.
- Ecumenism of mutual enrichment. Shunning any premature surrender of their unique characteristics and heritage for the sake of easy unity, Dulles called on Catholics and Evangelicals alike to affirm what “in faith may be seen as held in trust by them for the wholeoikoumene.”
- Bonds of faith. Even in our present state of ecclesial dividedness, there are many ways Catholics and Evangelicals can express together the common faith of the church. “It is no small thing that we can jointly read the same Scriptures as God’s inspired Word, that we can share in the confession of the triune God and of Jesus Christ as true God and true man. It is a blessing to be bound together by the same essential forms of Christian prayer, based on Holy Scripture, and by common commitment to the way of life held forth in the Ten Commandments as interpreted in the light of the New Testament. We are privileged to share in the same hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.”
- Joint witness and social action. Inspired by our founders Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, ECT has always pursued a dual strategy. We explore the spiritual and theological basis of our common bond in Christ, and we speak clearly to pressing moral and social issues of our time. For example, the most recent ECT statements have focused on the sacredness of human life and religious freedom. Our current project deals with marriage and its importance for the rising generation and our common life together.
- Peace and patience. The quest for Christian unity cannot be measured in terms of immediate success or visible results. The fact that an “interim strategy” is called for indicates that a quick solution is not in sight. We are reformers of the long haul and in the long view. On one occasion Father Neuhaus said to me, “Remember, Timothy, we may well be living in the firstdays of the early church!”
- Pray together. Cardinal Dulles encouraged us to pray, separately and together, “for full realization of Christ’s petition that we may all be one in a manifest way that induces the world to believe.” Thus we join our prayer with that of Christ himself who asked for his disciples to be one as he and the heavenly Father are one (John 17:21).
Though first presented some twenty years ago, Avery’s ten rules remain relevant and urgent today. Perhaps, when taken together, they sound unduly modest to some, small steps toward a distant goal, but they are steps that move in the right direction.
“It can be said, as a general rule, that the greatest saints are seldom the ones whose piety is most evident in their expression when they are kneeling at prayer, and that the holiest men in a monastery are almost never the ones who get that exalted look, on feast days, in the choir. The people who gaze up at Our Lady’s statue with glistening eyes are very often the ones with the worst tempers.” ~Thomas Merton
“This is the standard New Testament designation for saints: the forgiven, who know it, act upon it and live by grace without angling for stained-glass-window status.” ~F. Dean Lueking
“Being a Christian is one of the few things in life you cannot or should not try to do alone; we need help from all the saints–dead and alive, crazy and normal, known and unknown, and especially the everyday, ordinary believers.” ~Daniel Clendenin
“In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” ~Frederick Buechner
“In our era many believe you can be a Christian without the church, and perhaps you can be a better Christian without the hypocritical complications of church life. But the saints urge us to be in the church, engaged with other Christians in prayer, worship, and service. The church has a book, a set of prayers and practices, and its saints; it is our privilege to be shaped by its treasury. The church is a place where we can stand. The church supports us, ennobles, and encourages us.” ~James C. Howell
“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” ~Oscar Wilde“Holiness is the very principle of eternal life, the very beginning of eternal life in the heart, and that which will certainly grow up to eternal life.” ~Jeremiah Burroughs
Christian Piatt is refreshingly honest about this:
- He helps us define who we are.
- He distracts us from working on ourselves.
- He gives us causes to rally around.
- He serves as a common enemy.
- His shortcomings are obvious.
See also a few words of evangelical commentary from Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk.
Scot McKnight has a very handy guide to when to use—or refrain from using—the “H” word.
Let me suggest that the term “heretic” is used in three ways, only one of which (I believe) is justifiable — though I have little hope that the mudslingers will learn to use terms as they are supposed to be used.
Before I get there, though, let me add another point: it is too bad we don’t have such an evocative term for praxis. Jesus’ focus was on “hypocrisy” more than “heresy,” and it might just be an indication of how far we’ve strayed for us to give so much attention to “heresy” and not enough to failure in praxis. As far as we can see, failure in practice is just as bad as failure in theology. But this is not what this post is about. We are concerned here with the term “heretic.”