The Byzantine Calendar

IN THE MODERN AGE, the world has come to accept one civil calendar which originated in Western Europe centuries ago. Before that, there were many calendars in use in the West, not to mention those employed in Asia and Africa. Many of us are aware that some groups still maintain an attachment to their historic calendars. The Chinese and Vietnamese, for example stage their own New Year’s celebrations according to their ancient calendars, usually in late winter. The Islamic New Year may begin anywhere from mid-October to mid-December. And the Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha-shanah, regularly begins in September.

In ancient Rome, the year was said to begin on the date on which new consuls took office. From the second century bc, that date was January 1. After the time of St Constantine the Great, there were attempts to center the year on the major Christian festivals such as Christmas or Pascha. In Alexandria, March 25, which was computed to be the date of the Annunciation, was chosen as the start of the year. This became the common New Year’s Day in Western Europe for centuries.

Starting in the last half of the fifth century (probably ad 462), the Byzantine Empire designated September 1 as the first day of the New Year. The Byzantine liturgical year was arranged according to that calendar and September 1 remains the first day of our liturgical year. The cycle of the Church’s Great Feasts begins in September with the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8) and concludes in August with the feast of her Dormition (August 15).

Most countries in Western Europe returned to starting the New Year on January 1 when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although our contemporary civil calendar begins on January 1, many of our public institutions effectively begin their year in September also. Congress and the courts, the school year, the theater and concert seasons, fundraisers, and other civic events which have been on hold through the summer start up again only after Labor Day. Perhaps the Jews and the Byzantines got it right after all.


The Indiction

The first day of our Church year is called the Indiction. Originally referring to the start of a tax assessment cycle in the Roman Empire, this word has come to mean the beginning of a cycle in a more general way and may be found in legal or formal documents to this day. Thus in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI issued a formal letter “For the Indiction [i.e. Beginning] of the Year of Faith.” And so, calling September 1 an Indiction simply means that it is the start of a new cycle of the feasts, fasts and other observances of our Church.

On this day Byzantine churches read the Gospel of the beginning of Christ’s public ministry as recorded in Luke 4:16-22: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.”

The Lord is described as participating in the Sabbath service at the synagogue in Nazareth “as His custom was.” The synagogue service chiefly consisted in psalms and prayers its highpoint was the bringing forth of the Torah scroll from the Ark to the bema, in the midst of the assembly. Several portions of the Torah would be read, as prescribed for the day.

After the Torah passages, there would be readings from the writings of the prophets. As the Gospel records, Jesus “… was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’  Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:18-20).

After reading the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 the Lord tells His listeners, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Messiah is at hand: God’s plan is on the move.

The Acceptable Year of the Lord

In the time of Isaiah and other prophets, the “acceptable year of the Lord” referred to the “Jubilee Year” which was observed by devout Jews every fifty years. The Jubilee was marked by the emancipation of slaves and living off the land to express the believer’s reliance on the providence of God.

Interpreting the acceptable year of the Lord in messianic terms, St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “The ‘acceptable year’ is that in which Christ was crucified on our behalf, because we were then made acceptable to God the Father as the fruit borne by Him [Christ]” (Homily 12 on Luke). It is this “acceptable year” which our Church celebrates in its cycle of the Great Feasts.

The “Year of the World”

A lesser-known aspect of the Byzantine calendar is that September 1, ad 2019 is the first day of am 7528! From ad 691 to 1728 the Byzantine Churches followed a system dating years from the creation of the world according to the calculations in the Book of Genesis (am, Anno Mundi, the Year of the World”). In 1700, during his westernization of Russia, Tsar Peter the Great replaced the Byzantine Era in his realm with the Western Christian Era. A few years later the Patriarchate of Constantinople and all the Churches in the Ottoman Empire followed suit. Formal documents of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Mount Athos and some other Eastern Church bodies may still indicate the Byzantine Era date along with that according to the Christian Era.

The Jewish calendar is also calculated from the biblical account of creation but there is a c. 2000 year difference between the two reckonings. The Byzantine Era was computed using the Septuagint text of the Old Testament, compiled in the 3rd to 2nd century bc. The Jewish dating is calculated according to the Masoretic version, used by Jews since the first century ad.

From the Canon for the Indiction

Let us all chant a hymn of victory to Christ, by whom all things were fashioned and in Whom the incomprehensible is perfected, as the hypostatic Word begotten of God the Father, for He has been glorified. Let us all chant a hymn of victory to Christ, who through the Father’s good pleasure appeared from the Virgin and proclaimed to us the acceptable year of the Lord for deliverance, for He has been glorified.
The Bestower of the law, arriving in Nazareth, taught on the Sabbath day, laying down for the Jews the law of His ineffable coming, by which He saves our race, in that He is merciful. (Ode One)
O Good One, establish that which Your right hand has lovingly planted on the earth, pre-serving Your Church as a fertile vineyard, O Almighty One.
O Master, God of all, lead through this year which is beginning those who adorn them-selves with divinely beautiful spiritual works, and who hymn You with faith.
O compassionate Christ, grant me a tranquil year and fill me with Your divine words which You revealed when You spoke to the Jews on the Sabbath. (Ode Three)