The Liturgical Year
The Church’s liturgical worship is spread throughout the year, finding expression in the use of a calendar to regulate the observances of the Church’s feasts. This is because Christian worship is corporate as well as private, and so if Christians will celebrate (for example) Christ’s birth, they must first agree upon which date that celebration will take place. If Christian worship were merely individual, then different individual Christians might choose to celebrate Christ’s birth on differing days, with no loss. But since our worship is corporate, a calendar becomes necessary if feast days and other special occasions are to be kept.
At first there was no such thing as a liturgical year, and no specifically Christian calendar, so that no calendar can claim apostolic provenance or authority. The apostles simply mandated the gathering together of all the baptized in a weekly qahal or ekklesia. It was on this day that all the Christians within a given locale (be it small hamlet or larger town) would meet (ideally in one place) to hear the Word and offer the Eucharist. This gathering anticipated the age to come and was the Christians’ weekly experience of the power that would flood the world in that age to come. There was, in other words, an eschatological dimension to the Christians’ sacramental gathering. This eschatological gathering was the sole “Christian calendar” known to the apostles.
Very soon, however, martyrdoms began to multiply. The local church would treasure and celebrate their local martyrs, meeting on the anniversary of his or her martyrdom to rehearse those glorious events and celebrate the Eucharist (ideally, over the grave of the martyr). These annual celebrations of the martyred saints became the next layer of celebrations added to the apostolic gatherings on Sunday. As the stories of the martyrs became more widely known, the feast of the martyr might be celebrated not just by the community in which the martyr had lived and died, but by other church communities as well.
Around this time, in the second century, the Church began to also celebrate annually the death and resurrection of Christ. Some churches (like those in Asia Minor) celebrated this feast on the 14th day of the month of Nisan,1 the day when Christ was crucified, regardless of whether or not that day fell on a Sunday. Many other churches, such as those of Rome, celebrated this feast always on a Sunday, regardless of whether that day was the 14th of Nisan.
Such diversity of calendar and practice was not considered problematic by those such as St. Irenaeus, who urged the bishop of Rome to relax and not break communion with those who celebrated it on the 14th of Nisan as he was tempted to do.2 But after the Council of Nicaea in 325, such diversity was becoming pastorally problematic to the perception of the Church’s unity in the eyes of the world, and a formula was agreed upon: the feast of Pascha would be celebrated by all churches on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Those insisting on the date of the 14th of Nisan (the so-called “Quartodecimans” or “fourteeners”) now had to conform or leave.
Soon other feasts were added, such as the feast of Epiphany—i.e., the “manifestation” of Christ’s glory, seen at his birth, at his revelation to the Magi, at his baptism, and at his miracle of turning water into wine. This feast was held on January 6. Eventually the West decided to commemorate Christ’s birth on December 25, drawing the events of his birth and the visit of the Magi away from its original feast in January to the new one in December.
Feasts were added at different times and in different places. Eventually certain calendars came into wide-spread use, so that today all the Orthodox world uses the same Church calendar for feasts. This calendar contains a number of saints’ days, commemorating various saints (usually one or more per day), and a number of feasts celebrating events in the life of Christ and the life of Mary the Theotokos.
In Orthodoxy today, there are feasts of the Lord and feasts of the Theotokos.
The feasts of the Lord are: the Elevation of the Cross (commemorating the finding of the true Cross in the fourth century), Nativity (celebrating his birth), Theophany (celebrating his baptism), Palm Sunday (celebrating his final entry into Jerusalem), the Ascension (celebrating his glorification in heaven 40 days after his Resurrection), Pentecost (celebrating his pouring out the Spirit upon his Church 50 days after his Resurrection), and his Transfiguration.
The feasts of the Theotokos are: the Nativity of the Theotokos (celebrating her birth), the Entrance (celebrating the first time she entered the Temple as a small child), the Meeting (celebrating the encounter with Simeon and Anna in the after Jesus was born), the Annunciation (celebrating the announcement of Gabriel to her that she was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah), and the Dormition (celebrating her “falling asleep” in death).
These feasts are twelve in total. There are other feasts as well, but these are especially important to the Church’s liturgical life. A close reading will reveal that some of the feasts are attached to the solar calendar (and therefore are celebrated on the same date every year), while some are part of the Paschal cycle, which is dependent upon the date of the full moon after the spring equinox.
The names and dates for the twelve great feasts are:
one week before Pascha
40 days after Pascha
50 days after Pascha
It will be noted that Pascha itself is not a part of the Twelve Great Feasts, since it is considered too important to be one feast among many. Rather, it is regarded as the Feast of Feasts, the source of everything else.
As well as the feasts, there are four fasting periods during the liturgical year:
- the Great Lent, beginning 40 days before Pascha, with a pre-Lenten series of Sundays preceding it
- the Fast of Sts. Peter and Paul (or the Apostle’s Fast), beginning a week after Pentecost and ending with the feast of Peter and Paul on June 29
- the Dormition fast, beginning August 1 and ending with the feast of the Dormition on August 15
- the Nativity fast (sometimes called “Advent”, a western liturgical term), beginning November 15 and ending 40 days later with the feast of Christmas
The fasts are of varying strictness, with Great Lent being the strictest of all. They are also of varying lengths: the Great Lenten fast is 40 days long, plus Holy Week after that; the Nativity Fast is 40 days long; the Dormition fast is two weeks long; and the Apostle’s fast is of varying length, dependent as it is upon the varying date of Pentecost (since the date of Pentecost depends upon the date of Pascha which varies each year according to the date of the full moon).
Regarding the Apostle’s Fast: after Pentecost there is a fast-free week when fasting is disallowed, so that the Apostle’s Fast cannot begin until after that fast-free week is over. But regardless of when the Apostle’s Fast begins, it must end with the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29, which means that some years that fast is very long, while other years it is very short. That is why most parishes offer a church calendar to their faithful, so that such things can be easily learned. Experienced Orthodox, upon receiving their new calendar in January, usually immediately look up the month of June to see how long the Apostle’s fast is going to be that year!
The liturgical year therefore consists of an alternating series of fasting and feasting, the former being a preparation for the latter.
Often there is some confusion about the dates of the Church’s feasts due to the question of Old vs. New Calendar. Many of those using the Old Calendar, for example, believe that “Orthodox Christmas” is on January 7, because that is the secular date on which that feast is celebrated by those using the Old Calendar.
What is the Old Calendar? The Old Calendar was the secular calendar used in Europe from the time of Julius Caesar (hence it is sometimes called the Julian calendar) until fairly recently. Calendars are difficult things to work out precisely, since they require knowledge of astronomy. The old Julian calendar was only a bit “off” in its astronomical calculations, but with the passing of centuries it grew ever more “off” and inaccurate to the point where it is now 13 days off. If not adjusted and corrected, eventually December 25/ Christmas would be held in the spring or summer. People in society agreed that changes to the calendar needed to be made.
The only people having the astronomical skill to make the changes and correct the calendar were those of the universities of Europe. Eventually they produced a more accurate calendar. Since the universities did their work when Pope Gregory was ruling the Roman Catholic Church and influencing the Catholic universities of Europe, the new calendar was sometimes called the Gregorian calendar. One by one the countries of Europe and beyond accepted the new revised calendar and used it for their daily life.
The question, of course, was what the Church should do with its own feasts. It was used to celebrating Christmas (i.e., December 25) on what was now January 7. Now that the calendar had been adjusted so that Christmas/ December 25 was now accurately found at the end of December, should the Church adopt the secular calendar as the basis for its own feasts? That is, should the Church cling to an old secular calendar that was acknowledged to be no longer accurate as the basis for its own ordering of feasts? Or should it use the new corrected calendar as the basis for its ordering of feasts?
In this question of “church calendar” it is important to realize that the Church’s concern is with feasts, not with astronomy. Theologians lack the necessary skill to adjust a calendar, and it is not their job. The Church’s job is to decree when it will celebrate (for example) Christmas. It has decided that it will celebrate Christmas on December 25. Determining exactly which day is December 25 is not the task of the Church, but of the astronomers with the skill to produce accurate calendars.
In other words, the Church calendar is a grid that it places over the secular calendar, to decide which feast will be celebrated on which day. It is a confusion of tasks to suggest that the Church’s job is to decide which calendar is more accurate; that is the job of the astronomers.
The Church, in fact, never committed itself to a single secular calendar, but placed its festal grid over whichever secular calendar was in use. No Council, for example, mandated the use of the older Julian calendar, including the Council of Nicaea. That Council simply said that all Christians should celebrate Pascha on the same date, and that the formula for determining that date was that it should be on the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox.
Some churches use the Old Calendar (e.g., Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia), while others use the New Calendar (e.g., Constantinople, Greece, and Antioch). This means that, for example, Orthodox Christians in Greece celebrate Christmas/ December 25 on the secular date of December 25, while the Orthodox in Russia celebrate Christmas/ December 25 on the secular date of January 7. Note: both groups know that Christmas is celebrated on December 25. The disagreement centers upon exactly when it is December 25. No Orthodox Church asserts that the date for Christmas is January 7. And all Orthodox use the new Gregorian calendar in their secular lives, because that is what society around them does.
It is important to remember that all of this concerns only the solar calendar, which regulates the fixed days of celebration. Because of the importance of Pascha, for the sake of unity, even the churches using the new Gregorian calendar still keep to old Julian calculation for Pascha (i.e., the Julian date for the spring equinox), so that whatever calendar is used to keep the feasts such as Christmas and Theophany, all Orthodox churches will keep the same Paschal cycle, using the same dates for Great Lent, Pascha, and Pentecost. When the Holy Fire descends each year in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, this is the date used by all the Orthodox.
The question of which secular calendar is preferable and over which one the Church will place its festal grid is one of comparatively minor significance. In the OCA, for example, some congregations use the Old Calendar and some use the New, with no loss of love or unity.
However, not all who use the Old Calendar agree that the question is of minor significance. Some who use the Old Calendar regard use of the New Calendar as very significant, indeed, in that they regard it as a form of compromise with the World, motivated by extreme ecumenism (since we celebrate Christmas as the same date as the western churches), and a sign of apostasy. These people are called “Old Calendarists”. This can be a bit confusing, since not everyone using the Old Calendar is an “Old Calendarist” who believes the use of the New Calendar is a sign of apostasy. The schism between Old Calendarists and the rest of the Orthodox Church remains. Ultimately the issue separating them is not about calendar itself, but about the Orthodox Church’s relationships with those outside.
Read more: The Quartodeciman Controversy (opens in a new tab), Church Year (opens in a new tab), Great Lent (opens in a new tab), Lenten Fasting (opens in a new tab), Christ and the Apostles (opens in a new tab)
Using an ancient calendar system, the first day of Nisan was the day after the first new moon after the spring equinox, corresponding, roughly to the end of March into April. ↩