I’ve always thought TV Newscasts had it backwards. It’s a New England tradition that polite conversations begin with the weather, then gradually descend into the gritty news at hand. But TV news does just the opposite, at least in New England.
Folks up here are so interested in the weather that the newscasters hold it until last to keep viewers’ attention on the news. I’ll follow the more polite social tradition, however, and begin with the weather, then sneak in – here and there – the things I really want to convey.
By New Hampshire standards, this was one of the mildest winters on record. In early March last year, I wrote “The Spring of Hope: Winter in New England Shows Signs of Thaw.” The wonderful site, Catholic Lane, liked it and re-titled it “Of Lent, Spring, Hope . . . and Jail.” On the day I wrote it, the view from my cell window was bleak. A mountainous snow bank had for months completely obscured my view of the Ballfield door – the door that opens upon the source and substance of my relative prison sanity. As I wrote in that post, much prison stress has been left behind along that Ballfield’s quarter-mile walking track, but it’s only open from May to October. For the other seven months, there is simply no place in this prison to walk.
There’s a photo of the prison building where I live, found by TSW’s Editor in a magazine article. It became part of my post, “Holidays in the Hoosegow.” In the photo, you can see the high prison wall stretching around the rear of this building. The cell in which I am typing is far in the back just under a looming guard tower, a part of the landscape of prisons everywhere.
The building I live in is one of six housing units in the Concord prison. I have been in this building for seventeen years. For the first six years, I was on the top floor in a unit holding eight prisoners per cell. I described why I was in that situation for so long in my post, “The High Cost of Innocence.” It debunked the notion, popular among those who know not what they say, that most prisoners claim to be innocent. Those who do pay a steep price for it, so most don’t.
It was interesting - though more than a little irritating - that after my recent new appeal was exposed in the news, some SNAP and Voice of the Faithful members posted snide comments on the secular news sites with items such as “Of course he maintains his innocence. All prisoners claim to be innocent.” Well, they don’t.
By the way, Ryan MacDonald has a terrific post on his A Ram in the Thicket blog about some of the more contemptuous reactions to our recent news. Have a look at “Why Do SNAP and VOTF Fear the Case of Fr. Gordon MacRae?“ It’s a puzzling question, but he brings both justice and light to it. I’m glad he wrote it, and I’m also glad he wrote it without becoming contemptuous himself. Ryan says he took his cue about responding with grace from my “Potholes on the High Road: Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us” which I am shocked to see was posted a year ago this week.
Oops! I didn’t mean to change the subject. I’m still on the weather. This winter we had only two significant snowfalls. The first was on Halloween day. The second was on the first day of March. There were a few cold days in between, but for the most part this winter behind the walls in Concord, New Hampshire State Prison was just a long drawn out harbinger of spring.
Shoveling snow at night in this prison is meted out as a punishment for various infractions. I used to often volunteer to shovel snow just to get outside for some solitude late in the cold of night. Rumors would always abound when I was seen shoveling snow. For days afterward, prisoners and guards I passed in the prison yard would ask me what I did. It took me awhile to catch on that they thought I was shoveling snow as a punishment. In fact, I am in my 18th year in this prison without ever being cited for a rule infraction. Those who know prisons think that’s nearly impossible.
Anyway, there was so little snow this year that the extra duty punishments haven’t been used up. When I tried to go out to shovel at night after the last storm I was sent back inside. “We only want people who DON’T want to shovel,” a guard said. Welcome to my world!
THE ASTRONOMY OF EASTER
We’re done with the weather, stormy and otherwise, so onto some other news. Spring is now officially here, at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the Sun crossed the celestial equator on March 20th marking the point at which day and night are of equal length. The vernal equinox – from the Latin, “equi-noctis” meaning, “equal night” - was a very big deal when human culture was largely agrarian as I wrote awhile back in “February Tales.” When we were more attached to the land, signs of spring were very important. Lent marked winter giving way to spring, a ritual for shedding the baggage of the long, cold, dark night of the soul that was winter, with Easter as spring’s crowning glory.
Saint Bede the Venerable, a Doctor of the Church, wrote early in the Seventh Century that Easter takes its name from “Eostre,” an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. It’s true, in part, but with all due respect to Saint Bede, I think there might be more to it. The word “East” itself is ancient, and has retained the same form since long before English evolved from its Old Frisian and Germanic roots. In my post, “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden,” I pointed out that East is the direction to which flawed and disobedient human kind was barred from Paradise. It is also the direction from which the Sun rises every day since.
TIME ON OUR HANDS
In my post, “New Year’s Resolutions, and a Remembrance from East of Eden,” I wrote of the vast changes that took place in our calendar when Pope Gregory XIII first introduced it in 1582 in Rome. It was adopted In Scotland in 1600, but the rest of Britain and Wales needed another half century to adopt something so Catholic as the Pope’s proposed calendar.
East of Istanbul – called Constantinople until 1453 – the Gregorian Calendar was more slowly adopted. Russia didn’t embrace it until 1918. Until the Gregorian Calendar fixed the mathematics of measuring time, New Year’s Day was on the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th (which this year is on March 26). From the time of Roman Emperor Constantine in the Fifth Century, the year began with the Blessed Mother’s fiat to God.
The basic problem that Pope Gregory sought to fix in 1582 was that the Julian Calendar, enacted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, calculated that an average year was 365 ¼ days. Its accuracy was close, but not quite. The solar year was calculated by Pope Gregory’s astronomers to be exactly 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 11 seconds. Of course, this was also during the time when Galileo caused a stir by publicly embracing the Copernican System of a century earlier. Copernicus, to the consternation of the Church, declared that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. No matter what was doing the revolving, Pope Gregory’s calculation of the solar year was correct – or, at least, a lot more correct than Julius Caesar’s whose rougher calculation in the Julian Calendar made the year 11 minutes and 10 seconds too long.
Americans might scoff, and see this as nitpicking, but current American society is just a few hundred years old. In such a relatively adolescent culture, this discrepancy would be barely noticeable. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is a global community just beginning its third millennium of existence. Remember this age difference before deciding on whether your government should be instructing your Church on what constitutes a moral ideal.
Anyway, by the time of Pope Gregory’s calendar revision in 1582, our measurement of time was off by 12 days , 15 hours. Bear with me. I’m getting to the point as fast as I can.
In the early Church, until the beginning of the Third Century, Easter was linked with the Jewish celebration of Passover, and was seen as its Christian counterpart. In its earliest expression, Easter was a celebration of the “Paschal Mystery” which included both the death and the resurrection of Christ. The word, “Paschal” comes from the Aramaic, “Pasha,” meaning “Passover.”
Late in the Second Century, as the Church grew away from being seen as a sect of Judaism, the link between the Church’s Paschal Mystery and the Jewish Passover diminished. The celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the combined Death and Resurrection of Christ – then began to be observed separately from Passover and was divided into Good Friday with Easter Sunday on the Sunday after Passover. Passover was fixed in the far more ancient Jewish Calendar to fall on the 14th day of Nisan – which stretches between our March and April.
The Council of Nicea, in the year 325, determined that Easter will be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox was on March 20th, and the first full moon this year is Good Friday making Easter Sunday observed on April 8. So, the key to celebrating the central salvific event of all Christendom came to depend on an accurate determination of the vernal equinox, which by the time of Pope Gregory XIII was twelve days off.
Looking at these dates, I realized that my birthday is on the day after Easter this year, April 9. When our friend Pornchai noticed this, he started telling people that since the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D, my birthday falls on the Monday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. He says I like history so much because I was there for most of it!
Back on point, when I last mentioned this calendar history in “New Year’s Resolutions and a Remembrance from East of Eden,” a TSW reader, Mary, asked in a comment why Easter is observed on a different date in some Eastern Orthodox churches. The reason has nothing to do with Easter itself. It’s because they have adopted the Gregorian Calendar – like most of the rest of the World - but still use the Julian Calendar to mark the vernal equinox, placing Easter and Pentecost one to two weeks later than in the Roman Church.
The sacred night when Christ passed over death into life is a summons to us issued from the highest court of all. It’s a summons to not just observe Easter and the Paschal Sacrifice it enfolds, but to live as though it were so. Living with the knowledge of a life sacrificed for mine changes everything. It reprioritizes everything, and if I ignore this, it would be to the peril of my soul.
“The battle wages over the human soul; heaven and hell wrestle for it. If we could see this soul in its loneliness and need, conscious of its way only in dark distress, its way shrouded in foggy night, if we could witness its struggles, its fallings and recoveries, we would be engulfed by a trusting certainty that the soul is signified in the hand of God, that its way and end lie clear as day before the gaze of the Almighty, and that He has commanded His angels to lead it from error to light.” (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein).