Sunday, March 31, 2013

Looking back to Easter Sunday’s earthly and celestial foundations – Redux

For your Lenten Season reading, I am posting here “Matters of Faith,” an essay that first appeared in my column in The Manila Times a decade ago—on April 15, 2003, to be precise. I wrote the essay after being taken off balance when my then nine-year-old son asked me why Holy Week wasn’t being held on the same date like that of Christmas Day, which is always December 25. Why, he asked, have the church authorities made the scheduling of Holy Week so complicated and ever-changing? I simply didn’t know the answers then, and my abysmal ignorance compelled me to do some quick research about Holy Week, a celebration that as we all know culminates on Easter Sunday. I think the answers that I came up with remains relevant and worth reading after all these years. (March 31, 2013)

Matters of faith

I was making notes for a possible non-English-language topic for this column, thinking that grammar wouldn't be right for Holy Wednesday, when my nine-year-old tapped my shoulder and asked: “Dad, why is Holy Week from April 13 to 20 this year? Last year, it was from March 24 to 31.* Why not hold it on the same date like that of Christmas Day so it doesn’t get confusing?”

Talk about deja vu! I had wanted to ask my own father that same question when I was about the same age as my son now, but never got to ask. Now I am a father myself—three times over, in fact—and yet could only give a stock answer to veil my continuing ignorance: “It’s because the days of the Holy Week are movable feasts, son. They base it on a religious calendar—you know, that kind where there are names of one or two saints for every day of the year.”

“But why, Dad? They could do the same to every other religious holiday, but they don’t. And another question: Why is Easter Sunday called ‘Easter’? This celebration came from the West, so wouldn't it make more sense to call it ‘Wester’? And one last thing: Why is the bunny a symbol for Easter? It looks funny and doesn’t seem right.”

Those questions stumped me even more, so I told him: “I really don’t know the answers, son, but tonight I’ll get them for you. Go to sleep now and tomorrow we’ll talk again.”

My little research to answer my son’s questions, I must say, yielded more fascinating answers than I expected. To begin with, it turns out that the movable Holy Week schedules are not totally arbitrary at all. They are always exactly timed in relation to the natural, once-a-year occurrence called the vernal equinox. The equinoxes—there are only two of them—are those times in the year when day is precisely as long as night. The vernal equinox comes in March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, while the autumnal equinox comes in September, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility. The Scandinavians called her Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern, but they honored her in much the same way. The importance of this festival to the early Europeans was not lost on the second-century Christians, who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They therefore made their own observance of Christ’s Resurrection coincide exactly with the festival. Then they gradually made it a Christian celebration, even appropriating the name “Eoastre” for it. Thus, contrary to what my son thought, the later use of the term “Easter” for the high point of the Holy Week had absolutely nothing to do with global geography.

People in those early times, however, celebrated the spring festival on different days, mostly on Sundays but often also on Fridays and Saturdays. This became a thorny issue. To resolve it, the Roman Emperor Constantine—who had by then become a supporter of the Christian faith—convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This council came up with the Easter Rule, decreeing that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The “full moon” of this rule, however, does not always occur on the same date as the full moon that we actually see; it is the full moon after the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which always falls on March 21. By this reckoning, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This rule has withstood the test of time, remaining unchanged exactly 1,682 years later to this day.

As to the Easter Bunny, it may be natural for us to think that it is simply a modern-day contrivance to liven up Easter Sunday. It isn’t. Its provenance is even older than that of Easter itself. The prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Eoastre. Along with the Easter Egg, itself a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, the Easter Bunny was, in fact, a powerful ancient symbol for activity after inaction, for life after death.

In the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics and the rest of the Christian faithful have similarly found such an enduring symbol. They have thus consecrated the Lenten Season in His Name as their holiest of days, ending it on Easter Sunday in a feast where church tradition and ancient belief find joyful convergence.

These are the things I’ll tell my nine-year-old when he wakes up today and reminds me of what I promised him. (April 15, 2003)
*In 2013, of course, we are celebrating Easter on Sunday, March 31—the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which in turn always falls on March 21. This really sounds complicated and rather arbitrary, but there it is.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 15, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 18, 2013

No earthly reason why the clergy should be bad in English grammar

With the Holy Week just a few days away from now, I thought it’s again timely to ask this question that I first raised over a decade ago in my column in The Manila Times: In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any other language?

I wrote that column, “The grammar of clerics and preachers,” after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila sometime in 2003. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.

Then as now, I believe that the church hierarchy in nonnative English-speaking countries shouldn’t ignore the English problem among its clergymen. It should start being really proactive about the matter, making sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests are given much more intensive and rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage so they can be better communicators of the faith. (March 17, 2013)

The grammar of clerics and preachers

A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.

That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.

I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. Of course, I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sons—then a high school senior—to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priest’s English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.

Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests and preachers—more than anybody else in our highly Anglicized society—need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.

Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longest—ten to eleven years if my memory serves me well—because they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldn’t be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.

I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachers—preachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.

As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.