Dr. Gerry Turcotte

April 28, 2014

"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks."

Exodus 34.22

In Ernest Hemingway's most popular posthumous publication, A Moveable Feast (1964), the American writer stated that: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

For Hemingway, the phrase captured the spontaneity, the diversity and the magic of the 1920s Left Bank where the Picassos rubbed shoulders with the Chagalls and the Joyces, and creativity in its many magical forms flourished.

He drew the phrase from Christianity's use of the term meaning an observance in the liturgical calendar that appears on different dates, as opposed to fixed events like Christmas that always occur at a set time. A moveable feast day is what we find for example in the lead up to Easter, with Easter representing the most important of these.

To understand the difference between fixed and moveable feasts we need to delve into calendars, and as with so many of our contemporary observances, we also turn to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD where Church officials regulated so much of what we now take for granted.

As Daniel Engber has pointed out, "The date of Christmas is fixed on the solar calendar" while Easter is "determined according to the lunar calendar."

Since there was no fixed date for Christ's birthday in the Bible, unlike Easter which was tied to Passover, the Church had the freedom to lock in the former while producing a "floating" time for the latter.

Given the precarious divergences that the Julian calendar produced, particularly because of its handling of leap years, the date for Easter moved significantly until Pope Gregory XIII's restructuring of the calendar in 1582.


When I was younger I used to think moveable feasts referred to food trucks and catering services, but later I began to think of them as a perfect metaphor for a liberal arts education, especially as it is informed by our 2,000-year-old Catholic intellectual tradition which focuses on the formation of the whole person: mind, body and spirit.

As a university student I remember the sheer delight of studying different disciplines in parallel, understanding how the political reality connected to our historical trajectory, and how this, in turn, shaped, and was shaped by our literary or cultural narratives.


Similarly, I came to understand how an ethics of the person was significant not just in an individual philosophy class, but more widely informed our interactions with family, Church, community and, dare I say, business.

This realization transformed the very way I conducted myself as a human being. I realized that I did not move alone and that my choices must not selfishly evolve; that every decision and act impacted on the life of others.

As we embrace the unfolding year, it is my hope that we all celebrate this interconnected truth that was surely one of Christ's greatest teachings.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)