Thursday, September 01, 2016

Byzantine New Year

Although the First Sunday of Advent is generally considered the start of the liturgical year in the Roman Rite, this is purely a matter of logic and convention, and is in no way formally indicated in the liturgy itself. In point of fact, many ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite, such as the early sacramentaries and lectionaries, began with Christmas Eve, and placed Advent at the end of the temporal cycle. The liturgical texts for the feast of the Circumcision on January 1st do not refer explicitly to the civil New Year, although there are some oblique references to the riotous pagan celebrations thereof. Many places in the Middle Ages kept the feast of the Annunciation as New Year’s Day, a custom which lasted in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1749, but this is also not mentioned in the liturgical texts of the feast.

This inscription records the abolition of the “Tuscan New Year”, as it was often called, by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Francesco II. (This is displayed in the famous Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, one of the many Italian monuments that seems to be eternally under restoration, so I had to take this photo from an odd angle.)
In the Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, the liturgical year has a formally designated beginning on September 1st, a custom which has its origin partly in an ancient Roman cycle of taxation known as the Indiction. I say “partly” for the following reason. The Byzantine tradition distinguishes twelve feasts, eight of Our Lord and four of Our Lady, as “Great Feasts”, with Easter in a category of its own as the Feast of Feasts. The first of these twelve to occur after the Indiction, and the first to occur in history, is the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8th; the last to occur before the Indiction, and the last to occur in history, is the Assumption. It seems very unlikely that this arrangement is merely coincidental.

Medieval liturgical calendars from the West often note a variety of different historical events in March, with the beginning of the Creation frequently marked on March 18. Theologically, this indicates that the old Creation was completed on the same day that its renewal began in the Incarnation, and for the same reason, many calendars mark the Passion of Christ on that day, with the Resurrection on the 27th, even though the liturgical celebration of these events is movable. (This year was in fact the last time that any man now alive will see the coincidence of Good Friday and the Annunciation on the Gregorian Calendar, but on the Julian, it will next take place in 2034.)

The calendar of the Sarum Missal for March, from the 1882 critical edition of Francis Proctor and Christopher Wordsworth. Note the “Entrance of Noah in the Ark” on March 17, (one day before the anniversary of the beginning of Creation,) the creation of Adam on the 23rd, and the Resurrection on the 27th.
In the Byzantine tradition, however, the Creation of the world is considered to have taken place on the Indiction, a fact to which the liturgical texts of the day refer repeatedly. For example, the tropar at the Divine Liturgy reads as follows.
Maker of all creation, Who settest times and seasons in Thy power, bless the crown of the year of Thy goodness, o Lord, keeping in peace Thy kings and Thy city, by the prayers of the Mother of God, and save us.
And likewise these two kontakia:
Maker and Master of the ages, God of all things, and truly greater than all, bless this year, saving in Thy boundless mercy, o Compassionate One, all that serve Thee, the only Master, and cry out in reverence: o Redeemer, grant a bountiful year to all.
O Thou that created all things in unspoken wisdom, and settest the seasons in Thy power, grant victory to Thy people that loveth Christ, blessing the going and coming of the year, and guiding our works towards Thy will.
The connection between the Indiction and the Virgin Mary is highlighted by the addition of a second troparion to Her, with some common themes and vocabulary.
Rejoice, o full of grace, Mother of God and Virgin, safe harbor and defense of the race of men. For from Thee the Redeemer of the world was incarnate. For Thou alone art Mother and Virgin, ever blessed and glorified. Pray to Christ God to grant peace to all the world.
An 18th century Russian icon of the Creation of the World.
Many early Christians attempted to calculate the age of the world, as the Jews had before them, working from the relevant statements of the Bible, and, not surprisingly, coming up with varying results. According to the reckoning most commonly accepted in the Byzantine world, the creation began in 5509 B.C, making this Annus Mundi 7525. (The traditional Roman reckoning as stated in the Martyrology on Christmas Eve puts the Birth of Christ in the 5199st year from the creation of the world, making this year only 7215.) This reckoning is still used by some Orthodox Christians in conjunction with the Anno Domini system for things like ecclesiastical calendars and the inscription of dates on the cornerstone of a church. September 1st was celebrated as the civil New Year in the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and in Russia until in 1699, when it was changed by Peter the Great as part of his Westernizing reforms.

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