Annual cycle of church holy days is a system of spiritual self-perfection bringing us closer to holiness
Oleksandr KOZLOVSKYI (Ukrinform) and Archimandrite YEVSTRATII (Zoria) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) talk about the liturgical year and the significance of holy days in the life of Christians.
The first of September according to the old style (14 September, according to the new style) is the beginning of the new cycle of the ecclesiastical year, the new liturgical year of the churches of the Kyivan tradition.
On the eve of the new church year, we asked our traditional consultant, the press-secretary of the UOC-KP, Archimandrite Yevstratii, to explain the system of church holidays and important dates.
There are three cycles of divine services in the Orthodox tradition. The smallest one, the daily, includes services celebrated over one day and night in the established order. They are repeated daily in the same order.
The next cycle is the weekly, from Monday to Sunday. For each day a memorial, the mention of a certain event or saint, is assigned. For instance, on Monday, we remember the bodiless angels and heavenly powers. On Tuesday, we remember John the Baptist. On Wednesday, we meditate on the betrayal of Judas (that is why that day is usually a fast day throughout the year). On Thursday, we glorify St. Nicholas and the holy apostles. On Friday, we remember the cross of Christ and crucifix of the savior. We fast on that day as well. On Saturday, we remember all the saints as well as all the dead and we especially pray for them to find rest. And on Sunday, we joyfully remember the resurrection of Christ.
And, finally, the biggest, the yearly cycle of services. During the whole year certain celebrations take place. We can see in the church calendar that each day is a day of remembrance of certain saints or holy events or church history. Some of those dates are bigger holy days, other ones are not celebrated on such a large scale.
Easter is the biggest holy day of the church year. It is called the holiday of holidays and celebration of celebrations. That holiday is the quintessence and concentration of the main point of marking off, which explains and gives meaning to all other events of the church calendar. For as the resurrection of Christ itself is the corner stone of the whole Christian faith, in the same way, Easter, the feast of Christ’s Passover, the bright resurrection of Christ, is the concentration and explanation of all other holidays.
Then follows the cycle of the 12 biggest holy days of the church year. These holy days are connected with events of the life of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, and also significant events of church history. In particular, they are widely known holy days: Christmas, Baptism of the Lord, Presentation, Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God, Transfiguration of the Lord, Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, Ascension, Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the Birth of the Mother of God, Holy Cross, the Presentation of Blessed Mary. These celebrations remind us of Gospel or church history events which directly concern our life, salvation, and spiritual perfecting.
The next level of celebration is the great festivals associated with days of remembrance of great respected saints or important events in church history. For instance, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles, the Protection of the Mother of God, festivals associated with remembrance of the saints, such as John the Baptist, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great.
And an even lower level of church celebrations is the days of remembrance of saints or dates associated with certain church history events. They occur every day. Usually, even several such remembrances occur each day.
— Why is such a complicated system of festivals needed? Is the study of the texts of holy Scripture and celebration of only the most significant events not enough?
—This all reminds us daily that we are to follow the way of salvation. Why do we respect the saints and celebrate the days of their remembrance, why do we celebrate Gospel and other events? To see vivid examples of the salvation of people like us. For we can find people of all professions and social levels among the saints: starting with crowned persons and ending with poor and weak people. Starting from outstanding scholars and philosophers of their time and ending with simple and illiterate people. Starting from statesmen and ending with ascetics and recluses who lived in secret places without even seeing a human face for decades. Therefore, everyone, according to their abilities and gifts from God, can find among the saints an example to imitate and to say: that person came from the same class as I and had similar problems, but he/she did become a saint. Why can’t I do it then?
And we celebrate not only to glorify the saints, for they are glorified with the heavenly glory granted by the heavenly Father more than with our glory. The glory coming from God by no means can be compared to the glory coming from men. However, this is mainly for us. When we come to church and remember them, we try to imitate their achievements.
This is especially true of the great church festivals, which are like resting points against which we prop ourselves on the way to salvation, for each festival associated with a Gospel or church history event is of a great importance for self-understanding and self-conceptualization in the spiritual world.
For instance, Christmas reminds us of the fact that the eternal God became man for the sake of our salvation in order to bring us to Heaven. That he humbled himself in resemblance of a slave in order to elevate us and free us from the bondage of sin.
On the feast of the Annunciation, we remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary on behalf of all mankind responded to the good news of the Archangel Gabriel: “I am the Lord’s servant: let it be according to your word!” That festival teaches us obedience, because we are to humble ourselves before God and accept his will for us as it is, for it is a great good.
The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord teaches us that our Lord Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven in his pure body completing thereby the work of our salvation in fullness, so that human nature is already sanctified and deified and is inside the Holy Trinity, and our task is to join that sanctified and deified nature through the church, through the means granted to it by the Lord as to his body.
Therefore, each celebration is of some significance and reminds us of some significant thing important for our salvation.
— The yearly cycle comes to the end and we celebrate the same festivals again. Why repeat everything from the beginning each year?
—First of all, because we are weak people, we are inclined to forget what we need and to care about useless and empty things. We often forget about our spiritual life in the cares and troubles of this world. That is exactly why the Lord has decreed: work for six days, but the seventh day is for the Lord your God. In order for us not to forget about the eternal God in the work of our hands, which is not eternal, even though it is necessary. Therefore, these celebrations, fasts and other church practices regarding the church year are like resting points on which a person can walk. Like milestones repeatedly reminding us with regularity where to go. Therefore, even though the feasts repeat themselves, each time they are of a special significance for the human being, they give special feelings, for when we are in church on a holy day and hear the Gospel reading and sermon, it is as if we become present at the celebrated events.
Therefore, when we celebrate each feast, each event of the church year, we are not just to understand them as a certain tradition and give tribute to our customs, viewing church festivals exclusively from the point of view of ethnography (to bless apples on some days, and herbs, willow branches and eggs on other days), but we are, first of all, to remember the spiritual significance of the festivals in order for those events to be really holy days. For the meaning of the word “holy day” is close to the word “holiness.” And each festival is intended to bring us closer to that holiness.
RISU's English-language webpage posted the story on 7 September 2007.