Easter is not pagan

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I’m going to offer a slightly different version of the “Easter is not pagan; Easter is a Christian holiday” meme.   It goes like this:

In AD 324, the emperor Constantine summoned the Christian bishops to a council at the summer palace in Nicaea.  Nicacea was a nice summer holiday town on the Propontis or Sea of Mamara — good beaches, excellent food, great celebrity-watching, and so on. No film festival, but hey, you can’t go to the Byzantine Riviera in the early 4th century and expect everything to be hunky-dory.

According to the history compiled by Eusebius of Caesarea, who was there, and allegedly a close confidant of the Emperor and numerous of the bishops, the bishops discussed the question of a creed — a formal statement of what all Christians had to believe.  And, with the Emperor’s prodding (and eventually, threats), the bishops agreed on the Nicene Creed.  By about AD 450, the two surviving letters of St. Patrick, that guy in Ireland that we get so excited about in mid-March, use language from the Creed.

The Emperor wasn’t done yet.  He made the gathered bishops settle a number of other matters, and required them to pass a series of canons or ecclesiastical laws to govern the behavior of Church officials.  Among these canons is one that formally establishes the astronomical calculation for determining the date of Easter each year. This formula thus pre-dates the separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches by about 600 years; and it was a sticking point in the eventual union of the Celtic and Roman Catholic churches (finally settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD).

The formula is this: “The date of Easter shall be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.”  Eusebius of Caesarea, and other authors from the time of the Council of Nicaea, tell us that the Church fathers picked this formula to guarantee that Easter would be celebrated on a Sunday in accordance with the Emperor’s wish, and on a date that paid notice to the events surrounding the Crucifixion in the Gospels — namely that Jesus was crucified on a Friday just as the feast of the Passover was starting, that he was taken down before Sundown in respect to the Jewish custom to not leave criminals hanging on the Sabbath or on Passover (since both began at sundown that Friday), and that Mary first encountered the risen Jesus in the garden on Sunday morning.  Eusebius further tells us that the Christian leadership at the time continue to have doubts about the wisdom of Jews and Christians worshipping together, and so the formula for dating Easter is made slightly different from the formula for finding the date of Passover (by using the Graeco-Roman secular calendar’s “day of the Sun” following a specific lunar event, rather than just holding Easter on the date of the full moon following the spring equinox [the same time as Passover].)

So.  We can date the occasion on which Christians adopted a formal date of Easter (AD 325); we can note this formal adoption of the formulary for determining the date in both Imperial secular, and Christian sources; we can see that saint Patrick, writing in around AD 450, has accepted the system for calculating the date of Easter; we can see that not all Britons have agreed to that formulary by the fact that it’s finally agreed upon at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664.

And, we can see in the historical record that this calendrical formula is adopted in the face of, and under enormous pressure from, the actual sitting living Roman Emperor, while the Council is meeting in front of his throne in his living room. If the Nicaean fathers did steal the date of Easter from any extant pagan system of religion, they did so with the express advice, consent and even informal arm-twisting and perhaps even not-even-lightly-veiled-threat-of-imminent-death of the secular authorities.

But, there’s no evidence that they did steal the formula from any extant pagan system.  Instead, there’s a fairly obvious rationale for the formula which they did settle on — a date close to, but not exactly the same as, the Jewish Passover, in order that the festival of Easter can closely align to but not be exactly the same as, the time period corresponding to the last days of Jesus’s life and ministry on earth before the Crucifixion.  Using the best records they had, and the most historical reasoning they could, they picked out as scientific a date-fixing scheme as they could muster.

In return for rules, and a formal creed that could be universally applied, the Nicaean fathers got the full support of the Imperial court, access to land and property and titles, the closure of all temples of the Olympian and Chthonic gods in AD 381, and judicial and executive powers over their dioceses and the Christians living in them.

The city of Rome was sacked by barbarian armies in AD 410, and the last Roman emperor abdicated in AD 450. The system for calculating the date of Easter survived in both eastern and western Christianity until the Gregorian calendar reforms of the 1500s; a period of confusion followed in the West until finally even mostly-Protestant nations like Britain and the American colonies accepted the revisions, while Orthodox churches continue to use a range of calendrical systems based on the old Julian calendar for finding the date of Easter (and some have accepted the Gregorian reforms).

TL;DR?  Yeah, Easter isn’t pagan.

Tai Chi Y3D31: Wow that’s cold

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I did the first two sets of exercises outside on the ground.  Yesterday’s snow, though, has left the ground so cold that I couldn’t do it in bare feet.  I got through the first form, started the second form, and then gave up and restarted the second form indoors on warmer floors — and I continued to do the tai chi form indoors.

Yesterday, I started to lay out some of my thoughts regarding why tai chi boosts the immune system and is successful at keeping me free from acute illness.  Christina had asked about this a few days ago in the comments, and it seemed right to try to answer her.  My friend who knows more about TCM than I do wasn’t able to provide a chi-based recipe or explanation yesterday, but I didn’t inquire too deeply about this; he’s working on other things right now.

However, he pointed out that we have two nervous systems that operate in conjunction with one another. One of these is the sympathetic nervous system, which controls things like muscles and joints; and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system which does things like regulate hormone balances and immune systems.  The two nervous systems, he said, cannot run at full power all the time; in fact, they barely run at the same time at all. When we engage in full-on body movement, the sympathetic nervous system tells the parasympathetic nervous system to turn off — “we’re fighting right now, we’re moving, we’re engaging in difficult action. We don’t need you right now.”  And so it shuts down.

Americans, said my friend, don’t really know how to relax.

The result, he pointed out, was that the parasympathetic nervous system has a tendency to remain off, most of the time.  The result is that our immune systems are poorly regulated and poorly managed by our adrenals, our thymus, and our other glands. The other glands never really have a chance to turn on and stay on long enough to manage the body to peak efficiency.

However, said my friend, the slow-moving nature of tai chi movements, and the formal repetition of the movements day after day, may be awakening the parasympathetic nervous system.  It’s movement, but it’s meditative movement designed to stimulate the flow of energy through the body.  Or, tai chi combined with a sitting meditation may help awaken the parasympathetic nervous system to manage and awaken the glandular systems that improve the natural capacities of the immune system.  I’ve been doing both tai chi and sitting meditation, so it may be that these two practices are working in conjunction with one another.

So, Christina, I hope that helps lay out a possible explanation of why tai chi works to improve immune system function: it pumps the lymphatic nodes and ducts, and causes the body to flush itself more efficiently; and its relative slowness and deliberate movement system helps to stimulate, gently, the parasympathetic nervous system to provide a higher degree of improved immune function. You’ll note that in the days and weeks leading up to my bout of acute illness, I was having a lot of trouble doing tai chi slowly enough; I think I got sick because I didn’t give my parasympathetic nervous system enough downtime to figure out what it was doing against the illness. And so I got sick.

It makes at least as much sense as any other explanation I’ve heard.

Update: If you’re reading this after about 8:00 am, chances are better than average that you helped push me over the last 5 readers — my blog has had 100,000 views (of course, it took six years to get there, but…) anyway, THANK YOU for being part of the journey!

Tai Chi Y3D30: How Tai Chi Helps

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Christina asked me yesterday if I had any thoughts on why, or how, my daily practice helped me stay free of acute illness most of the time, and what, if anything, I could do to enhance my immune system further.  It’s a complicated question.  I do believe that tai chi has helped improve my immune system, and I believe I have a working theory about why that is, but I’m not versed enough in the language of tai chi, nor in the principles of Taoist alchemy, to be able to explain it in ‘eastern’ language.

Simply put, though, I think that the daily practice of tai chi exerts a subtle influence on the lymphatic system.  It’s been a long time since I took a class which discussed this in any great detail.  But to recap, the lymphatic system is a series of tubes and sacs running through the body.  These tubes and sacs (called lymph nodes) are one of the core elements of our immune system.  However, unlike other body-circulatory systems, the lymphatic system does not have pumps to circulate lymph.  Lymph, of course, is the fluid containing white blood cell lymphocytes, and it is the substance and fluid which carts away dead bacteria from our limbs, which brings antibodies to areas of infection, and carts away the byproducts of infection to be dumped into the lower intestine, the spleen, and the bladder to be disposed of as waste.  Each of us has around 500-800 lymph nodes, and a system of tubes? veins? ducts? to circulate lymph.

But the lymphatic system, as I said, has no pumps.  It runs entirely on gravity and muscle pressure on the lymph nodes.  The muscles around the lymph nodes expand and contract, lengthen and shorten — and the resultant pressure squeezes lymph out of one node and along a tube into the next.  Accordingly, sitting in one place causes lymph to stagnate; while movement causes lymph to circulate.  And deliberate movement — such as tai chi — causes lymph to circulate more effectively and deliberately from one node to the next.

When this is done through tai chi or through chi kung, particularly in a regular and deliberate way, the lymph is pushed and circulated from the top of the body to the bottom of the body — from the upper reaches of the system, to the lower reaches of the system.  The gunk (I believe this is the technical term :-)) is pushed downward and flushed out of the body more rapidly. At the same time, the lymph fluids are allowed to circulate more completely, and thus the lymphocytes are circulated to the areas of the body that are at present under attack by colonies of bacteria.  The result is a body that is much more able to stand up and defend itself against infection, because the lymphatic system is more regularly and systematically activated to defend the body against internal infection.

The challenge, of course, is that not every disease is so easily flushed from the body — because as systematically as the lymphatic system is pumped and circulated by the practice of tai chi, it remains the case that the lymphocytes have not developed a perfect defense against every possible ailment or infection.

But I think this is the reason that the Qi Gong forms that I know begin by lifting the arms above the head, and then move to twist the body at the shoulders, and then perform a series of motions to pump the arms, and then to twist and bend the torso, and then finally the legs.  It’s all an effort to wash toxins and bacteria down out of the upper reaches of the body and the extremities, and push it to the lower core where it can be flushed more rapidly.  Moreover, rare is the day when I don’t have a bowel movement within half an hour of finishing tai chi (and frequently sooner), which flushes the system even more thoroughly.

So I think that’s the essence of a first-pass through a theory of why tai chi is good for my immune system.  I’m about to go have some tea with a friend of mine who’s a TCM practitioner, though, and so maybe I’ll get a different take on it.

Tai Chi Y3D29: Yeah, another day

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I kind of feel like I’m running out of things to say. It was a pretty good morning for a tai chi workout.  I heated up rapidly from the work, and I went at an appropriately slow pace.  It wasn’t challenging and there was never a point when I couldn’t do one of the movements or maneuvers.  I feel like it was an improvement over the last few days of practice.  No, there wasn’t anything that I did particularly well, or particularly poorly.

Back in year one on day 29, it was all about encouraging myself and others to get started, and to treat the time one spends getting healthy and staying healthy as your own time.  Back in year two on day 29, it was about unsticking chi.

And I think that’s about all I have to say for today.

Tai Chi Y3D28: Busy Morning

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I had a busy morning today, and I’ve only just been able to sit down post-tai chi to write this entry (just before hauling myself into the dentist’s chair for a cavity filling. Eek.  I hate this part of dentistry.  At least I’ll get novacaine — I’m not ready for to transcend dental medication yet).  Not only was yesterday my 3700th post but I’m a nerve-wrackingly close 141 views away from 100,000 visits to my blog, a big milestone.  It’s the getting-to-the-milestone that’s killing me… In the last few months, I’ve wracked up an impressive number of 1,000 visitor days and 500+ visitor days… which means that, if I get another day like that, I’m suddenly over 100,00 visitors.  But if I get my usual 20-40 visitors a day, it will take another week.  The whole thing leaves me on tenterhooks.

My awareness of the busy morning, meanwhile, did not lead to a very calming practice.  My qi gong practice was fine — I started about 6:20, and finished about 6:43.  Which is great — usually it takes a lot less time than that, and this was decently slow and calming.  Then I did the tai chi practice, starting at 6:44.

I finished at 6:45.  How did I go that fast?

So I did it again, deliberately much slower this time, and with more attention to the pause at the end of each movement in the sequence.

6:48.

And again. Time to do it again.

6:56.

I don’t think this is what was meant by slow, slower, tortoise.  At all.

Usually it takes me 20 minutes or so at my slowest to work through the tai chi form.  At my fastest, it takes me maybe 8 minutes. Today I broke the land speed records for tai chi.  Sigh.  Clearly I wasn’t in the right headspace for it this morning.

I also woke up carrying a lot of extra energy around.  Yesterday, for a lot of different reasons, was a high energy day and I had raised a lot of chi. It had gathered in my hands, which is usually a signal to me that it wants out, and it wants to help.  So, I made a little releasing gesture, and thought through a list of people I know who need healing or help with healing in the world, and I felt a little packet of energy go flying off to various destinations all over the place.  It was kind of comforting and rewarding.

Maybe the reason I was having such trouble with the tai chi exercises this morning, is that my body was unwilling to take on a new burden of energy in the face of all the energy it had just released.  I don’t know if that’s how it works, but maybe it does.  In any case, despite the speed with which I worked this morning, I feel as though I completed the tai chi work for the day.  I might try to return to it later today, but as I said, it’s a busy day. Maybe later.

Tai Chi Y3D27: Outside

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It occurs to me that my tai chi year always begins in March as the weather is getting better; and that the last days of my year are usually in February, when the weather is at its worst.  Maybe that was a mistake.  Oh, well. Nothing to do about it now.

The ground is still frosty in the morning. I don’t know if it’s that the frost hasn’t melted yet in the ground, or if it’s just that the ground is cold early in the morning, or if the ground is still recovering from the winter.  In any case, the ground was cold under my feet.  I picked the wrong pants to do tai chi in outside; I just grabbed yesterday’s jeans, and they’re just a little too stiff for this work.  And I only wore a t-shirt instead of a sweater or a long-sleeved shirt.  Oh, well.

It’s easy to find little complaints.  There’s always something wrong.  But the birds were singing, and the dawn was coming, and the morning was clear, and the day is promising to be excellent.  All in all, it’s shaping up to be a wonderful day. And it began with tai chi, outside, in the garden, under the open sky.  It’s hard to do better than that. It can be done, but it’s difficult.

I followed up the tai chi practice with my druidry work.  One of the pieces of the druidry work is called the tree working.  Lay your body against a tree and stay there for ten or fifteen minutes.  You can rest your spine against the tree, or you can rest your sternum against the tree. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basics of the exercise: lean up against a tree for a while.  It’s well worth doing. And it made the morning better, if such a thing can be believed.

This is the 3700th article on this blog.

Tai Chi Y3D26: First Easy Day

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I left school early on Thursday, skipping my after-school event and pushing it back to the end of the term.  I’d been dragging all week, and by Thursday afternoon it wasn’t possible to keep going any more.  Yesterday was pretty awful: running nose, tears, gummy eyes, and just feeling cruddy.  Today is a lot better.  I have a persistent cough, but I feel 100% better.  So far, so good.

It was not a particularly challenging tai chi sequence this morning. There was no point in agitating my system too much; it’s plenty agitated already.  Instead, I opted for a gentle cycle through the forms that I do, with no repetitions of any sequence.  Even so, I worked up a bit of a sweat, and developed a bit of a chi flow.  I like it when I can do that in a simple practice, and don’t have to push myself to be hard-core.  The fact that I was able to generate this cycle from a gentle start, though, suggests that even though I feel fine, I’m probably not yet back at 100% healthiness.  These things take time.

 

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