How to Understand Our Church Calendar

The late Very Reverend Boris Molchanov (Rocor) composed this study of the development of the civil and Church calendars and of the Paschalion at the end of which study he demonstrates profoundly the indissoluble bond between the Julian Calendar and the Church Calendar. His tone unfortunately is a little biting at times. However, he clearly points out why a compromise between the Paschalion of the Holy Church and the ill-conceived Gregorian Calendar is not possible. It will not be possible to understand, the calendar question, without carefully studying this background material and weighing the conclusions.

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(Scientific and Historical Background)

by Very Rev. Boris Molchanov


In view of the absence of popular literature about the Church Calendar, one must often hear how people who are completely incompetent in this question express dissatisfaction with the “stubbornness” of our Church hierarchy which adheres to the Julian Calendar and which does not desire to know all of its practical inconveniences—especially for our youth which is studying in non-Orthodox surroundings. Their light-minded demands for the celebrating of our holy days at the same time as the heterodox—according to the Gregorian Calendar, to our sorrow and shame, eloquently testifies to the complete lack of comprehension of what a most valuable treasure they wish to forsake. Such incorrect evaluations of our Calendar, subtly taking root in the conscience of members of our Church, can easily become great, catastrophic fractures for us.

The author considers it expedient to exert his modest attempt at a popular explanation of our Church Calendar from which follows all the importance of its preservation… As a basis for this work, the author has used the composition “Church Chronology” by the learned astronomer A. Predtechensky of the Pulkova Observatory… All the calculations and quotations are taken from the original edition of this book.


“The melancholic luminary of our nights, which was created, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘for times and seasons,’ i.e., for the measuring of times, very early attracted man’s attention to itself by the changes of its appearance. From time immemorial it began to serve for the measuring of periods of time which exceeded the full day. The use of the moon for this purpose was most natural and rational until man learned to make complex astronomical observations. To define the duration of time which passes between two full moons is incomparably more easy than to compute the number of days in which the sun returns again to the point of the same equinox or station. Thus, the lunar Calendar was in general use in all the ancient Eastern countries long before the birth of Christ.

Toward the beginning of the fourth century B.C., after the discovery of the 19-year cycle by the Greek astronomer Meton, the lunar calendar was already in such perfect form that it has been preserved without any changes up to the present time. The ancient Greeks adhered to the lunar year throughout their history, and the Jews adhere to it even now. As a biblical calendar according to which our Lord Jesus Christ lived, suffered for us and was resurrected, the lunar chronology entered into the Christian Church calendar from the very beginning.

The duration of the lunar month, then, was defined with great precision. In our Church calendar it is noted that: “each moon has 29 days and a half-day and a half-hour and a fifth part of an hour,” i.e., 29 days, 12.7 hours or 29.52 full days. Now the length of the lunar month, with astronomical precision, is accepted as being equal to 29.530588 full days. Such an astronomical exactness has no significance for the lunar calendar, since in the tabulating not only of days, but also of hours with their thousands of fractions, it would be necessary (with any kind of calendar) to begin each new month in different hours of the full day.

“It was very natural to begin to count months alternately in 29 and 30 days. It is evident that such an alternation of lunar months is more rational than our solar ones which are subject to greater alternation— 31, 30, 29 and 28 days, following one another in a completely arbitrary sequence.”

The beginning of the lunar year is the new moon of the first spring month (this corresponds to March of the solar year. Since this new moon can occur on any one of the days from 1 to 29 March, the beginning of the lunar year seldom coincides with the beginning of the March solar year. The first spring month of the lunar year is called Nisan by the Jews.

The lunar year has 12 months— odd numbered ones have 30 days, even have 29 and it equals 354 days. Being shorter by eleven days than the solar year, one lunar year cannot begin immediately following the end of the preceding one. Therefore, toward the beginning of the solar year, 1 March, there always remains a short tail of the lunar year as an incomplete thirteenth moon. This does not enter into the calculation of the given lunar year.


a. The Sothic Year: Learned Egyptian priest-astronomers began to use, in addition to the lunar year, another method of chronology. Already in deep antiquity, they established the duration of time between two successive floodings of the Nile and of two advents of the vernal equinox (which they calculated at a little more than 365 full days and six hours. The Egyptians did not trouble to introduce the leap year for the correcting of the calculation, but continued to count solar years by 365 days… Thus, every four years their vernal equinox occurred one day later. Because of such an increasing retardation of the Egyptian sothic year, the most pivotal day (the one on which the star Sirius appeared for the first time in the year and on which, with mathematical precision, the Nile’s flooding began) fell on various dates of various months. It returned to the date of departure only after 365 four-year periods. i.e., after 1,461 years. But this space of time consisted of only 1460 true solar years. The Egyptians solved this problem by simply ignoring the superfluously calculated year and beginning all over again, thus correcting the error.

b. The Julian Year: When the Romans conquered Egypt, they became acquainted with the Egyptian chronology which was new for them. Julius Caesar decided to introduce it, in a more precise form in Rome. Among other things, it was necessary to correlate the solar year with the position of the sun in Europe and with the European seasons. “The year which was adopted by Julius Caesar, upon the advice of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosogenes, equaled 365 full days and 6 hours. In order to maintain accuracy in dealing with the extra six hours, it was arranged that three years were counted by 365 days, but on the fourth year, one day was added, composed of the four six hour fragments which had accumulated. This ‘leap year’ was counted in 366 days. This arrangement continues to the present.”

The new Julian chronology was accepted by the Egyptians who began a new calendar with the “Actium Era,” i.e., from the time of the battle of Actium at which the Romans conquered Egypt. This battle occurred in the last days of August—29 August on the Julian calendar. It would seem that it was this circumstance, amongst others, which causes our Church Calendar to be calculated according to the Roman indictions, beginning from 1 September. Therefore, our Church calendar contains within itself vestiges of all the developments in chronology from the very dawn of civilization.


a. The Lunar year in relation to the Sothic Year:

It was not necessary to possess a special talent of observation in order to notice that from one spring to another, from one flooding of the Nile to the other, consisted of more than 12, but less than 13 moons, i.e., lunar months. In order to equalize the calculation of lunar (shorter) years with the calculation of solar (longer) years, the Egyptians decided to count the years alternately, two by twelve months, the third by thirteen months and the next two by twelve months again, and so on. In a nineteen year lunar period, the 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years were counted by 13 months. When we total the sum of days in such a 19 year lunar period and the sum of days contained in 19 years of a solar Egyptian calendar, then the sums are equal. Such an equality of days brought the beginning of the lunar year and the beginning of the solar year to the mutual order of departure, when the first month of the lunar year and the first month of the solar year began in the period of the vernal equinox. This system and the 19-year lunar cycle were made by the Greek astronomer Meton four centuries before the Christian era. (A chart of the 19 year lunar cycle is given in the original, but omitted here.)

“Thus, when the first month of a lunar year coincides with the first month of the sothic year, the coincidence will be repeated every nineteen years, serving as a visible indication of the preciseness of the calculation by lunar years.”

b. The Lunar Year in Relation to the Julian Year:

Thanks to Meton, the concordance of the lunar year with the sothic (Egyptian solar) year was easily accomplished. In the 19 year lunar and solar cycles there was contained an identical number of days—6935.

“The adaptation of the lunar calendar to the Julian one proved more difficult. In the 19-year cycle of the Julian years there were not 6935, but 6939 full days and 18 hours… This meant that, concerning the true calculation of time, the lunar year advanced four days while the Julian Year retarded nearly five days. Thus, if in any year 1 Nisan (the first day of the lunar year) coincided with 1 March (the first month of the Julian solar year) then 19 years later, 1 Nisan would occur six hours before the beginning of 1 March.”

Nevertheless, it was easily observable that such a variation was not incessant, but occurred over a very small period. Indeed, in four 19-year cycles (76 lunar years) there are counted 27,740 days, but in 76 Julian solar years there are 19 days more (as a result of the addition of one day in each leap year), i.e., 27,759 days. As a result, in 76 years, the lunar calculation advanced 19 days (i.e., the vernal equinox took place 19 days later) while the Julian calendar, by the addition of 19 days in 76 years, retarded the vernal equinox 19 days.) Therefore, in 76 years, the beginning of the lunar year coincides in precision with the beginning of the Julian one, so that the lunar phases, calculated by cycle, will occur on those very same Julian dates as they did 76 years before. In 76 solar years, there elapses in precision 76 lunar and 76 Julian years. Seventy-six years from the time when the lunar and solar Julian years begin together, they will end together and just as one cycle, so the other. The 77th year will begin not only on one and the same day, but on precisely the same hour… The result of the calculation of lunar years jointly with the Julian produces exactly the same result as if one had added four days, or better still, had added 19 days upon the completion of 76 years. So in comparison of lunar years with solar Julian ones, in the Metonic cycle, it is not necessary to take leap years into account, but merely to count all 19 years as simple, i.e., 365 days.”


In some ancient icons of the Crucifixion of the Son of God, one can see the depiction of the sun and the moon. This bespeaks the fact that both the lunar and solar calendars, with their unfailing mutual concordance, must participate in the Church’s glorification of the events of our salvation. In our Church calendar which wholly responds to our divine service rubric, both the solar and the lunar calculations participate simultaneously. Certain of the Church service books contain divine services which are performed according to the solar calendar (the monthly and festal menaeons, for example), while in others, there are contained services which are celebrated according to the lunar calendar (the Lenten Triodion, Pentecostarion and the Octoechos).

We reckon according to the lunar calendar our most important feast day, the Resurrection of Christ, as well as all the holy days closely bound to it in content and dependent upon it according to chronology (the Great Lent with the preparatory weeks, Ascension of the Lord, the beginning of Peter’s Fast and its duration, and the whole calculation of Pentecost).

Since the beginning of the lunar year (1 Nisan) seldom coincided with the beginning of the solar Julian year (1 March), the feast of the Christian Pascha occurs on various dates of the Julian months of March and April. The calculations of the time of Pascha according to lunar and solar chronology became a complex science called the Paschalion. In this area of precise and indissoluble lunar concordance with Julian chronology, we have the unsurpassed work of the Alexandrian astronomers (end of the 3rd century) which the Church carefully preserves and which is printed in some divine service books in the form of the Paschal Almanac.


Having studied our Paschalion, we are irresistibly penetrated with awe at the ingenious work of the Alexandrian scientists who attained, in the Paschalion, an unalterable bond of the lunar with the solar Julian calendar. Alexandrian astronomers of the third century well knew the retardation of the Julian calendar from the sun. Nevertheless, they did not reject the Julian calendar, but wisely made use of its errors for a stable concordance with the lunar year, which lies at the basis of our Paschalion. The Julian calendar remains behind the true solar time, and the lunar one also remains behind together with the Julian calendar. “The lunar year is found to be eternally tied to the Julian one and a perpetual retardation of the former from the latter is not possible. The lag of the Julian year is equal to the lag of the lunar one. The equinox retards equally in both chronologies.”

The difference between the lunar and our Julian calendar does not exceed an hour and a half in the lapse of a thousand years. We can see for ourselves how all the Paschal full-moons calculated for thousands of years ahead in our Paschalion fall precisely on all the indicated dates of the Julian calendar, but do not at all coincide with the Gregorian calendar.

The unalterable tie of the lunar calendar with the Julian is made especially vivid by the following constant, periodical phenomena: we know that the lunar cycle equals 19 years while the solar cycle equals 28 years. Let us analyze these numbers by primary multipliers: 19=1×19; 28=4×7. What happens when we cross-multiply them? 19×4=76, i.e., that period of 76 years upon whose lapse the beginning of the lunar year coincides in precision with the beginning of the Julian one (as shown in chapter three).

Now, if we multiply 76 by 7, we arrive at 532, i.e., that period upon whose lapse, Pascha again occurs on the same days and months on which it was celebrated from the very beginning and during the whole length of the indiction.

In view of such a stable bond of the lunar year with the Julian, there can be no talk of any change from the Julian calendar, for otherwise there would unavoidably occur a violation of the entire well-formed and harmonious system of our Paschalion and the introduction of a great confusion in all Paschal calculations.

Sorrowfully, the light-minded experiment of changing the Julian calendar was made in Rome and now one can see its pitiful consequences. (It has made obedience to the holy canons, given to the Holy Church by the Holy Spirit, impossible for Rome which was forced, by the new calendar to abandon the canonical Paschalion).


In the Vatican, in the tower of the four winds, there is a room which has preserved the name Sala del Calendaris—the Hall of the Calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sat in this hall and observed with interest the sun’s ray which passed along the floor on which was drawn a line from north to south.

At that time the Italian scientists Ignatius Dante, Aloysius Lilius, Christopher Clavius and Pietro Cicchone, convinced the Pope that the calendar falls behind the sun and is in need of correction. The Pope demanded proof. Then the scientists drew a line on the floor of the Hall of the Calendar, pierced the south wall for the entry into the room of the sun’s ray. The Pope was invited to become visually convinced of the correctness of their assertions.

They proved to be right: the days of the solstices and equinoxes were removed by ten full days. The sun itself testified to the retardation of the Julian calendar. The Pope was convinced. In 1582, the reform of the calendar was passed. After October 4, it at once became October 15.

If, however, the knowledge of the Italian scientists of the 16th century had even approached the knowledge of the compilers of the paschalion (the Alexandrian scientists of the 3rd century), then they themselves would have rejected their own plan of calendar reform. Unfortunately, they were far from the enlightenment of the Alexandrian scientists who already, in the 3rd century knew very well what the Italian scientists came to understand only in the 16th century—the retardation of the calendar.

The reform itself was instituted primitively and coarsely. For, instead of ordering that October 5 would be, instead, October 15, the reform could have been introduced gradually and orderly over a forty-year span simply by not counting the leap year days, but considering all years to be plain for that forty year period. It would seem, in fact, that, thanks to such a primitive method of reform, the first violators of it were the reformers themselves, namely, the Italian astronomers who were at once met with various practical difficulties. How could they maintain the journal of their astronomical observations in which they had to note not only the days, but the hours and minutes, having created a gap of ten full days? How could they make their calculations after, by means of their reform, they had broken off all bonds with the uniformity of the former calendar? The only way out of this quandary would have been a return to the Julian calendar and a continued use of it in all calculations with a very simple change of the results of their calculations obtained in the dates of the Julian calendar by new ciphers (i.e., the same accuracy of chronology would have been obtained, and unity of the solar and lunar chronology would not have been broken).

Was it worth making a reform of the calendar because of the retardation in the Julian chronology? The most decisive opponent to the Latin reform turned out to be the lunar chronology which could not possibly have any unity with the new calendar. Thus the Italian reformers were forced to change it and the whole Paschalion. The most beautiful work of the Alexandrian scientists was mutilated and distorted. Their ingeniously simple and precise system was replaced by a new and cumbersome system—one neither directed toward, nor attaining, the exalted aim of the former. The harmony of the lunar year with the solar one was violated. “The order of calculation of lunar cycles was changed and the reformers began to calculate the movements of the moon artificially by the introduction of an acceleration by one full day in 310 years. The result was that their Pascha, in some years, coincides with the Jewish Passover—an event which is specifically condemned and forbidden by the First Ecumenical Council… If the overly self-confident compilers of the new calendar, Aloysius Lilius and his colleagues, had troubled themselves to study the Jewish calendar contemporary with them, they would not have introduced the unfortunate lunar alteration.”

The replacing of the Julian calendar by the Gregorian was like replacing a highly artistic creation by a crude, poorly executed wood cut. The Italian scientists of the 16th century, with their new calendar, erected a monument to their own personal, self-confident ignorance.


The Latin reformers, as we have seen, having changed the solar calendar, were forced to alter the lunar chronology as well, and, together with the lunar year, to change the entire Paschalion.

Many Orthodox Christians, while understanding the complete impossibility for the Holy Church to reject the lunar calendar and the canonical rules for celebrating Pascha, do not realize the indissoluble bond of our Paschalion with the Julian calendar. Such misinformed people often speak about a compromise proposal: to leave our Paschalion unchanged, i.e., to celebrate Pascha and all feasts and days bound with it, according to the lunar calendar; but to perform Divine Services according to the new Gregorian calendar. Such a proposal is strengthened by notions about the necessity for our school children who must study in non Orthodox Christian schools, to celebrate all holy days according to the legal vacations of the non-Orthodox, on the Gregorian reckoning. They do not wish the inconvenience of celebrating the holy days according to the calendar of the Holy Church, which is not used by the secular authorities here. We will not argue about some of the difficulties which our school children face in keeping the Orthodox Christian holy days according to our Church calendar. Such difficulties are encountered, of course, but it is necessary not to exaggerate them. Jewish and Mohammedan children find it possible to observe their feast days without changing their calendar. (If even non-Christians have the courage and depth of devotion to maintain their fasts when others are feasting and to maintain faithfully their holy day chronology, what excuse could we possibly have for doing less?) Why is it that only amongst us there arise such desires to surrender our Julian calendar?

Looking at the wonderful accord of the lunar with the Julian calendar, it can be seen that it is completely impossible to change the latter without altering the former. The sad experience of the Latin reform of the solar calendar, which reform could not avoid altering (artificially) the lunar year, must be a constant warning for us.

Authors of compromising proposals cannot discount the completely unallowable situations which inevitably arise from attempts to use the canonical Paschalion in conjunction with the Gregorian calendar. An example of such a situation occurred in 1959. In that year, Pascha was on April 20. Trinity Day fell on June 8 (all dates of the lunar year are indicated according to the dates of the Julian calendar). Eight days later, on June 16, the fast of St. Peter began and continued to the day of the Holy Chief-Apostles, Peter and Paul (June 29). If the Gregorian (new) calendar was used, the beginning of Peter’s fast would have fallen on June 29, the very day of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul and so Peter’s fast would not have been observed at all. This would occur in all cases when Pascha falls from April 20 to 25 (OS). Peter’s fast would disappear under the Gregorian (new) calendar.

The Holy Church can in no way renounce the apostolic ordinances. Consequently, it cannot accept the Gregorian (new) calendar, even under compromise conditions.

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