Notes on the Church Year
Themes from the Seasons of the Liturgical Year
“Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.”
Graffiti on a fence in Alaska
BEGINNING THE YEAR – The Orthodox church year begins on September 1.
The texts for this day emphasize the present reality of the historical events that the gospel and the New Testament in general celebrate. The gospel from Luke 4:16-22 is the text where Jesus says, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The epistle (I Tim 2:1-7) stresses that we are to uphold our brothers and sisters in prayer and thanksgiving always.
The beginning of the year contains three important festivals, the Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept 8) the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept 14), and St Michael and All Angels (Nov 8). These three festivals commemorate the apex of holiness, the centrality of the cross for faith, and the ministry of the angels.
ADVENT – originally known in the West as St Martin’s Lent (from 11 November onward) but now reduced to four weeks, Advent (Latin = “coming”) focuses our faith on the historical, liturgical, and cosmic coming of the Incarnate Christ; the last two Sundays usually contain passages also relevant to the role of the Theotokos in the Incarnation.
Advent in the East is marked by a fasting period that begins on 15 November, which is also known as the fast of St Philip (14 Nov).
The festival of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple is celebrated on 21 November; this may symbolize our entry into the life of faith through the church. We invite Mary to dwell in us as well, that we might be brought to holiness in faith.
The Orthodox lectionary also marks the special nature of the Advent season on the two Sundays before the Nativity.
The second Sunday before the Nativity is the Sunday of the Ancestors, and rehearses the history of faith up till the time of Christ.
The Sunday before Nativity uses the faith chapter from Hebrews 11 and the announcement of the Incarnation from Matthew 1:1-25.
NATIVITY – The Nativity is marked by the Epistle of Galatians 4:4-7 and the Christmas gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.
The day after Nativity is the Synaxis of the Blessed Virgin, the 27th is St Stephen’s Day and the 29th is the Holy Innocents. These days mark those who were martyrs in will and deed (St Stephen) and in deed but not in will (the Holy Innocents) and show powerfully that we cannot follow Christ without price or sacrifice.
The Sunday after the Nativity continues the reading from Matthew, and includes the flight into Egypt 2:13-23.
The Circumcision of our Lord (January 1) is a festival that clearly embraces both the Jewish background and origin of our faith and sets it into a Christian context, esp. through the Epistle (Colossians 2:8-12).
THEOPHANY – known in the West as Epiphany, which indicates the difference stress during the season between E and W. The E considers Theophany to mark the first appearance of the blessed Holy Trinity in the Gospel, whereas the W has tended to emphasize the Incarnational nature of the season, i.e. that Jesus is the Christ of God, our Lord and Savior.
Orthodoxy marks the festival with Sundays around Theophany. The Sunday before emphasizes the coming of the gospel in the person of Christ (Mark 1:1ff); the Sunday after emphasizes the beginning of his preaching ministry (Matthew 4:12-17)
The Theophany gospel is the baptism of our Lord from Matthew 3:13-17.
During the season, we also mark the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, known in the East also as the Hypapante, or “meeting.”
LENT – the purpose of Lent in the early church was to prepare catechumens for baptism, Chrismation, and first communion. Lent is the period of “joyful sorrow” for the Christian; the meaning of this joyful sorrow becomes evident in the words of the Exsultet at the western Easter Vigil, which speaks of the felix culpa, the “lucky fault,” meaning that sin’s result was nothing less than the entry of God into human flesh that we might enter into divine life.
Orthodoxy focuses on the incarnation as the eternal plan of God, whether or not sin had ruined the world, and thus has a different emphasis – but we can see the joyful sorrow theme in Orthodoxy even without narrowing it to the idea seen in the Exsultet.
Orthodoxy prepares us for Lent with a series of preliminary Sundays that point us to fasting, prayer, and charity as the hallmarks of the ascetic side of the season. At the same time, Forgiveness is the Divine message of the season.
Orthodoxy celebrates heroes of the faith on the Sundays during Lent, but pauses in mid-Lent to point once again to the purpose of the season: the cross.
HOLY WEEK – This week contains so many readings that there is no end of themes circling around the seasonal emphasis. Preaching is usually subdued if not suppressed during this week, because the liturgical readings and prayers convey the meaning without further interpretation.
PASCHA – The paschal season, also known as Pentekoste (the 50 days), emphasizes the power of the Risen Christ to raise others from illness and despair. The gospels show this in treating the paralytic, the Samaritan woman, and the blind man of John’s gospel.
The Paschal Vigil is always marked in the Orthodox Church by the reading of the homily of St John Chrysostom.
Orthodox and Catholic churches read the Acts of the Apostles during paschal tide as a demonstration of the life of the risen Christ working in and through the Spirit to gather and build the church, the Body of Christ. The Gospel of John is also read throughout E and W churches during this time.
The 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Pascha celebrate the resurrection from two different angles, that of St Thomas and that of the Myrrh bearing women.
PENTECOST – The first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western church is called Trinity Sunday, but in Orthodoxy every Sunday celebrates the Holy Trinity.
The first Sunday after Pentecost in the Orthodox Church is All Saints Sunday, and serves as a demonstration of the power of the Spirit to gather all sorts and conditions of men into the Church.
As in the Western church, the season after Pentecost is filled with lectio continuo readings from the Gospels, chiefly of Matthew and Luke, which show the ministry of Jesus Christ; included here are miracles and parables, teaching and healing, all of them pointing us to the heart of the faith.