On the first Monday of the month, I answer readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. Feel free to leave your questions in the comments, email them to me, or tweet them to me!
In my last AAO post, I talked about Orthodox fasting, but today I want to address Orthodox feasting.
I did not grow up knowing the term “liturgical year.” I looked forward to Christmas and Easter, and we did do an Advent wreath and Easter cantata at church, but that was about it. I timed my year more by when school was in or out and by secular holidays, which always meant a party at the end of the day at school. I see my children doing so as well. Ephraim has already been asking when Halloween costumes will be out in the stores.
Orthodoxy gave me a new way of envisioning time. The Orthodox liturgical year is a way to redeem ordinary, linear time. It is a way to enter into kairos time, God’s time, time-out-of-time. The year is punctuated by twelve major feasts, a few minor feasts, and a long list of saint days. When I say feast, I don’t mean a laden table. I mean a holy day, a celebration and remembrance of a moment that is important to our faith.
Yet in Orthodoxy, a feast is not a time of mere remembrance: it is a time to relive. In some mysterious way, the boundaries of time are thrown back, and we are able to enter into the presence and essence of the moment we are remembering.
In Orthodoxy, going to church and taking part in the feasts is an important part of the spiritual life. When we first met with our priest as inquirers, I remember asking him how I could learn more about Orthodoxy, thinking he would suggest some books to read. Instead, he said, “Show up. Come to church. Take part in the liturgical year and the feasts.” At first it seemed ritualistic to me, as if merely being present at church is all it took to be a Christian. My Protestant roots argued that one must do more than just show up. Yet I have learned that our entering into kairos time through the feasts of the church is a form of spiritual blessing and is a means of growing into God.
The Orthodox liturgical year begins on September 1st – today. The very first feast of the year is on September 8, when we celebrate the nativity (birth) of Mary. Interestingly enough, the final feast of the year is Mary’s dormition (death) on August 15. So our liturgical year begins and ends with the birth and death of our beloved Mother. Father Stephen Freeman, in a recent blog post about the dormition, put it this way: “For the gospel is a song sung by the Church. In general, it takes an entire year for the song to be completed. Every verse must be heard.”
What a beautiful way to explain the Orthodox feasts! The twelve feasts are:
September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos (birth of Mary)
September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross (to remember St. Helena finding Jesus’ cross in the 300s)
November 21, the Presentation of the Theotokos (when Mary was presented to the temple)
December 25, the Nativity of Christ/Christmas
January 6, the Baptism of Christ — Theophany, also called Epiphany (this is also includes a beautiful blessing of the waters)
February 2, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (remember Simeon and Anna?)
March 25, the Annunciation (when Gabriel announced to Mary she would bear Jesus)
The Sunday before Pascha (Easter) — the Entry into Jerusalem/Palm Sunday
Pascha (Easter) – this one is not officially counted as one of the twelve because it is the feast of feasts, or the GREAT feast
Ascension of Christ (40 days after Pascha)
Pentecost (50 days after Pascha)
August 6, the Transfiguration
August 15, the Dormition of the Theotokos (death of Mary)
There is always a special liturgy at church on a feast day (or the night before). What I love about my church is that they try to include the children as much as possible. For both Pascha and the Dormition the children are asked to decorate a Bier with flowers. For the Entrance of the Theotokos in the temple, the little girls enter into the church holding candles, and are later treated to a tea party. For Pentecost this year, the children placed green candles and flowers at the iconostasis. During Holy Week, there are a variety of opportunities for the children to be involved, from tossing rose petals to banging sticks on chairs.
I don’t make it to every feast, especially on weeknight liturgies because we live in an hour from the church. It remains a goal of mine to attend every feast one year. Maybe once my kids are in college! Apart from Pascha, my favorite feast is probably Epiphany. The church is decorated with white candles, many of which are floating in large vases of water. The priest prays a blessing over the waters, sprinkles us with rose water, and we go forward to refill our bottles of holy water for our home altars. The following day, the priest blesses the nearest river and throws a cross into the cold waters, while a few brave souls dive in to find it. Here is part of the blessing of the waters:
Today the grace of the Holy Spirit hath descended on the waters in the likeness of a dove. Today has shone the Sun that setteth not, and the world is lighted by the light of the Lord. Today the moon shineth with the world in its radiating beams. Today the shining stars adorn the universe with the splendor of their radiance. Today the clouds from heaven moisten mankind with showers of justice. Today the Uncreated One accepteth of His own will the laying on of hands by His own creation. Today the Prophet and Forerunner draweth nigh to the Master, and halteth in trembling when he witnesseth the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are changed into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today the whole universe is watered by mystical streams. Today the sins of mankind are blotted out by the waters of the Jordan. Today hath paradise been opened to mankind, and the Sun of righteousness hath shone for us.
This is part of the beauty of the feasts, as well: the beautiful prayers and hymns that we don’t normally hear that point us back to that kairos moment. In this case, we enter in to Jesus’ baptism, letting the water that touched him pour over us, redeeming us.
What I love about the liturgical year is that it repeats. For some, that may seem stale. But I have come to love the reliability and routine of the cycle of feasts. The liturgical year is full of redemptive power. Today is the start of a new year for me. However I may have failed last year is gone; today is my new beginning, my entrance into time-out-of-time, my appearance in the threshold of mystery.