ORTHODOX CATECHISM TOPICS
The Liturgical Year
By: Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos
PhD. of Theology, PhD. of Philosophy
Already by ancient Tradition, the Church honored the day on which the saints reposed as their day of birth, and celebrated the great events in the lives of the saints by celebrating the Holy Liturgy. But apart from these festivals, the Church also established the great feasts of the year which were associated with the great mystery of divine dispensation.
The liturgical year of the Church is not a measure for calculating time but for the living and experiencing of the entire mystery of the world's salvation, and is a prefiguring of the eternity to which the Christian looks. Liturgical time moves within the dimension of the eternal present; there is no separation between past, present and future. Thus it is that the hymns of the Church which refer to the great events of salvation in Christ use the word "today".
"Today does the Virgin give birth to the Superessential..."
"Today, He who hung the earth in the waters, hangs upon the Cross..." Here we have a new dimension of time, the time of transfiguration and incorruption bathed in the unwaning light of the "eighth day", the day of the Resurrection. In liturgical place and time everything finds its harmonious unity; angels and men are "reconciled" in Christ; they are united under the one Head of the body, Christ, and men are thus able to practise their "royal" and priestly ministry within creation and thereby bring it [creation] back to its doxological relationship with the Triune God.
In liturgical time we do not simply recall or simply refer back to the events of the divine dispensation; rather we mystically experience and live these events and sacramentally participate in the life of Christ and of all the saints; we become partakers of Christ's legacy and commune in His sanctity; partakers of the salvation which is the spiritual experience of the Church throughout the ages; we do not simply celebrate the sacred memory of God's works.
The festal cycle of Christmas puts forth God's entry into the world of faith, an entry which is God's condescension for man's restoration. The "child" that "was born unto us and given unto us", according to the hymn of the Church is the super-essential and unapproachable God, Who becomes approachable for fallen man. Through this act God accepts His creation, and leads it from its fallen state to restoration, from death to life, from corruption to incorruption. For this reason all of creation co-celebrates this event. The earth offers the cave, the angels glorify together with the shepherds and the magi follow together with the Star:
"Today the Virgin brings forth the Super-essential, and the earth offers the cave to the Unapproachable, Angels together with the shepherds sing praises; The Wise Men journey on with the Star. For, for our sakes, God, Who is before all the ages, is born a little Child".
The festal cycle of Easter leads the believer through a long preparation of repentance and asceticism, which culminates, during Holy Week, in the night of the Resurrection, in the beginning of the "other life" where we celebrate the death of Death and the annihilation of Hades.
"We celebrate the death of Death,
the annihilation of Hell,
the beginning of a life new and everlasting.
And in ecstasy we sing praises
unto the author thereof,
the only God of our Fathers,
blessed and exceedingly glorious".
"Now are all things filled with light;
heaven, and earth and the places under the earth.
All creation doth celebrate
the Resurrection of Christ,
on Whom also it is founded."
Man, in the person of Christ, was assumed by Divinity; thus, through Christ's death, man crushed Death and rose to a life of incorruption and immortality, he ascended in glory and was exalted to the height of the glory of God the Father (I Tim. 3, 16. Philip. 2, 9-11). This is the significance of the feast of Christ's Ascension. Before this "strange miracle" the hosts of angels remain voiceless; all of creation engulfs the mystery with silence:
"The Angelic Hosts...beholding our nature and marvelling at its strange ascension, wondered amongst themselves: Who is this here present?
But as they discerned that this was their own Master, they commanded the Heavenly Gates to open..."
Our Lord's bodily Resurrection and Ascension, in accordance with the message of the angels (Acts 1,11) also pre-announces His bodily return. The Lord, however, prior to His Ascension promised to "send" the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revealed to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost the entire mystery of divine love, and gave to them power and divine charismata so as to become zealous preachers and defy all dangers. With Pentecost, the period of confusion which began with Babel ends, and man enters into a period of unity and returns to the one nature, to "the one in Christ":
"When the Most High confounded the tongues, He dispersed the nations: but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all men unto unity. Wherefore, with one accord, we glorify the All-holy Spirit." (Kontakion of Pentecost).
This deep unity is experienced by every Christian in liturgical place, not only during the feast of Pentecost but at every Eucharistic gathering, especially on the Lord's Day, Sunday, during which the weekly festal cycle reaches its climax.
The celebration of Sunday is not a replacement for the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath. By establishing Saturday as a day of rest, God desired to limit Israel's insensitivity and carnality as well as its love for material things. The Command was given to the spiritually-weak Israelites and was based on the fear of punishment, within the framework of a relationship of Lord and servant between God and man that was regulated by the Mosaic Law.
The Christian, however, finds himself in a relationship of "adoption"; his place vis-a-vis God is not governed by the Law, but by God's grace; that is, he is under grace (Rom. 6,14). He is called to direct all his desire towards God and to do His will out of love - not out of fear - continuously, and not only one day a week.
Sunday is the day of the new creation, the birthday of God's children and depicts not one day's rest but the eternal rest of the faithful. It is outside the weekly cycle of the Jews and is characterized as the eighth day. That which the believer lives in liturgical time and place, he is called to continue throughout all his life, which should be enlightened by the unwaning light of Christ's Resurrection and of Pentecost.
This, however, is not easy for man in this life. Thus, he has need to return often to liturgical place, to relive the joy of the Resurrection and the Transfiguration, in order to set out once again in the world. This he must do until such time as the second Coming of Christ becomes a reality. Then shall all of man's life and all of creation acquire the experience of a continuous Divine Liturgy within the continuous glory of the Resurrection and Pentecost (cf. Is. 60, 1-22. Rev. 12,22-25).
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH Its Faith, Worship and Life
Rev. Antonios Alevisopoulos, Th.D., Ph.D
Translated by Rev. Stephen Avramides