With the beginning of Advent and another liturgical year just around the corner,I could not resist sharing another post from Fr. Ernesto at Orthocuban found in my blogroll. Especially since we in the Missionary Society of St. John have become increasiingly aware of various facets of Orthodox life. So, check out his site.
Recently I was asked to write on the Orthodox liturgical year. Since that post was published today, I feel free to reproduce it here on my blog. The article was oriented towards people who are not Orthodox and followed a discussion on that blog about the Western Liturgical Year. I was asked to write about the Eastern Orthodox Church Year and our approach to it. At first glance, the Orthodox Church Year looks pretty much the same as the Church Year of Western churches. All Christians celebrate the movable feasts of Palm Sunday, Pascha (Easter), and Pentecost, and the immovable feast of Christmas. Liturgical churches have an additional number of feasts they have in common. So, there is not that much difference, right? Well, yes and no. Though the yearly cycle of the feasts is apparently almost identical, there are two differences in approach that are important to note.
The Orthodox Church Year has Twelve Major Feasts and none of them are Pascha (Easter). Wait, Pascha is not one of the Major Feasts? No, Pascha is the Feast of Feasts. And that is the first difference in approach to note. Every feast in the Orthodox Church, major or minor, points to and flows from the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. By the way, that also explains why the saints on our icons are pictured in glory and never in suffering. They are pictures in their resurrection glory because even our icons point to the Resurrection. So, when the Church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of Mary the Theotokos, she is celebrating the feast of the birth of the one who gave birth to HE WHO RESURRECTED FROM THE DEAD. And, when she celebrates the minor feast of a saint, she is celebrating the life of one who lived their life IN THE HOPE OF THE RESURRECTION. The hymnody within each of the major and minor feasts always points to the resurrection, and when the intercession of a saint is requested it is because the HOPE OF THE RESURRECTION IS SO SURE that we can know that the saint is in the presence of Our Lord.
The Orthodox Church Year to this day begins, as does the Jewish Year, in September, and Pascha may never fall before Jewish Passover. I mention that because Western Easter can and has fallen before Jewish Passover on more than one occasion. We consider that to be inappropriate, as the very word Pascha comes from Hebrew word for passover, which is Pesach. The first major feast of the year is the Nativity of Mary, and the last major feast is the Dormition of Mary. As has been pointed out on previous articles on Internetmonk, the year takes us through the history of salvation. I say the history of salvation because even though the year concentrates mostly on Christ, yet notice that Mary also has a smaller part in the major feasts. Mary, in her own way, is also a culmination of the human side of salvation because she says the “yes” to Eve’s “no.” If Eve’s “no” brought suffering into the world, Mary’s “yes” brought Salvation Himself into the world. And though Mary was incapable of saving herself, or us, yet by opening herself to bear the Christ, it can be said in a much lesser way that salvation literally and physically came through her. And, if a spear pierced Christ’s heart, at the end, it was also prophesized to Mary at the beginning that a sword would pierce her heart. You can see the parallels. And, as we reverently honor and worship our Savior, so also do we call her Blessed among women and honor her.
The other difference in approach is that there is a cycle of fasting and feasting built into every major feast. There is a fast associated with every major feast. Some may only be a one day fast, while others have longer fast periods associated with them. The two longest fasts are Lent and Advent. Each of them is a forty-day fast. The next longest is the Dormition fast. But Orthodox life is built on a cycle of fasts and feasts. Even weeks without a major feast have two fasts, every Wednesday and every Friday. So, as an Orthodox person goes through the Church Year, that person will easily fast well over 100 days a year. That cycle is not truly present in the Western Year, for Western fasting is now purely optional during most of the year, and only observed lightly in Lent. So, in our major feasts we do not simply celebrate the Resurrection, but we also recognize in our fasting the suffering that came before that Resurrection and that is among us before his Second Coming and our personal resurrection. In answer to a question on fasting, Our Lord said that no one fasts while the bridegroom is among them, but implied that the time would come when the disciples would return to the discipline of fasting. We take that seriously.