November 24, 2017

Church Year Spirituality: The Eastern Orthodox Calendar

Note from CM: In our “Church Year Spirituality” series, I have focused on the calendar of the Western church, and have done so in an intentionally general way. This is the church to which I belong, and so I speak from that perspective. I have not focused on specific differences between traditions within the Western stream, because I am trying to make a general point, and because I think believers should conform their practice to the particular tradition to which they belong and take their guidance about more detailed practices from their own spiritual leaders.

However, several commenters attracted my attention with their interest in the Eastern church calendar. So I have asked Fr. Ernesto, friend of iMonk and one of our Liturgical Gangstas, to help us understand how the Orthodox churches live the Christian calendar.

The Eastern Orthodox Church Year
By Fr. Ernesto Obregon

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.

First, 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 Internet Monk, 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.

I hope that this has helped the Internet Monk community to understand something of the Orthodox approach to the Church Year.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Father Ernesto. I appreciate you taking time to explain this to iMonk.
    Many people are quite unfamiliar with the calendar of the Eastern Orthodox church, so I think this is a wonderful opportunity to begin discussion.

    Hope you’re having a blessed Nativity Fast!

  2. Very informative and much appreciated.

  3. Father Ernesto writes, “So, as an Orthodox person goes through the Church Year, that person will easily fast well over 100 days a year.”

    Does that mean that on those days they abstain from meat? Or does it mean they only eat one meal a day? Or does it mean something else? Thank you.

    • Over half of the fast days make us vegans: no meat, no fish, no eggs, no cheese, no milk, no olive oil, no wine. Sea creatures without a backbone are allowed. On a minority of the fast days, fish, olive oil, and wine are allowed. We abstain from certain foods as our fast. Especially during Lent, we should eat less.

      Some Orthodox in the USA joke that peanut butter makes the American Orthodox Lenten observance possible. GRIN.

  4. Fr. Ernesto, thank you so much for explaining the Orthodox Church Year. When I was growing up, the Church Calendar was a foreign concept except for our particular observances of Christmas and Easter. I had a vague knowledge of those “liturgical types” using an advent calendar during the holiday season but it was never used in our home. I knew nothing of the breadth, depth and meaning of either the Western or Eastern Church year.

    This whole series by Chaplain Mike on the Church calendar has been very enlightening and I deeply appreciate it. Thanks again.

  5. Thanks for helping us understand the Orthodox way. I get the meat/meat related products but why olive oil? How did these lists get established? Are they rigid?

    Also, on feast days, is it really a FEAST? Like special foods,etc or…?

    Your explanation invites more questions!

    • Remember that I said that the Orthodox have not thrown away Jewish practices and thoughts as much as the West has? Well, our fasting keeps some Jewish emphases. For instance, the Book of Daniel says:

      In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.

      There you find the mention of the three basics: meat, wine, oil. In the fasting rules that was interpreted as meaning any use of olive oil. Olive oil carries with it the idea of something pleasant, since it was also used for personal beauty, not to mention anointing kings, treating wounds (the Good Samaritan), etc. See the connection? That is also why sesame oil or other oils can be used. They are not connected to Scripture in the way that olive oil is.

      Actually, meat related products are a “late” addition. Roman Catholics who avoid meat and alcohol while fasting but have milk and eggs are actually following the older form of fasting. Since many Americans do not use olive oil regularly, it means that those Roman Catholics who will fast during Lent from meat and alcohol do tend to be keeping the full older rule. Having said that, avoiding meat on Friday, but going out drinking with your buddies is, uhm, somewhat less than what the Church would expect of you. GRIN.

      Does this help?

    • Oops, forgot to add. OH YES, are there ever special food for some of the feasts! Not all the Twelve Feasts carry special foods, but grapes and the Transfiguration go together; boiled eggs, special breads, and Pascha go together (and it has nothing to do with some flaming fake German goddess, it predates her by several hundred years), etc. Let me give you a description from a website that will tend to make some Americans gag.

      Following the midnight Easter service—held on Saturday night—the Greeks have the traditional Anastasimo meal, the first meal of the Resurrection, which consists of a special paschal soup (known in Greek as mayeritsa) made from the intestines and other organs of lamb. The soup is eaten in the early morning following the midnight service, along with the sweet bread called tsorekia (flavored with the spice machlepi, which is made from a ground seed from Syria), koulourakia pascalina (bread rolls), the kalitsounia (cheese pies), and a salad of greens. The red-dyed boiled eggs, which are prepared on Holy Thursday, are cracked by faithful Greek Orthodox accompanied with the words Christos Anesti! (“Christ is Risen!”) and the reply Alithos Anesti (“He is truly Risen”).

      Christmas has its own set of foods. In fact, many of what we consider to be traditional American Christmas celebratory foods were actually brought in by immigrant forefathers.

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us, Fr. Ernesto. It’s intriguing to see how much the Eastern church has kept that the Western has shed (although the ‘reform of the reform’ looks to be rescuing many of the babies thrown out with the bathwater post-Vatican II).

  7. Thank you, Fr. Ernesto, for your concise comparison & explanation of facets of the Eastern Orthodox Church Year with those of the Western tradition. I feel better informed today than I can remember being through seven years of preparation for ordination and 31 years of ordained service in Western Church tradition (including three years of pastoral ministry in Greece). But then I must also admit that, at age 82, I probably have forgotten much of what I once thought I understood!(:D) In any case, your timely, clear and readable treatise is much appreciated leading me into Advent 2010.