The Orthodox Christian Liturgical Year
by Father Paul Albert
In the Orthodox Christian Church, September 1st marks the beginning of the Liturgical Year. Our liturgical year is expressed as a calendar, much like the secular calendar. It contains the same 365 days, only from September to September. From ancient times, man has been deeply tied to the seasonal cycles of the year. September represents the culmination of the growing season, the harvesting, the gathering of the crops into barns, the crown of the year, its completion, and the beginning of the new. September is the time when the Jews celebrated the New Year, and Sept. 1 has been celebrated as the Christian New Year since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the Forth Century, AD.
To define the Liturgical Year as a Calendar would not fully hit the mark. Yes, there is a certain order to the Church’s presentation of the Gospel teachings and the primary events of our Sacred History. To participate in the yearly cycle of feast day services, as well as the daily and weekly cycle of Church services, certainly has a profoundly educational effect on the faithful. Sacred word and image come alive in these services, offering the participant the greatest encounter with our Living Tradition. Yet, even this description does not exhaust the profound import of the Orthodox Liturgical Year.
The very style of the “sacred art” of our liturgical poetry and iconography helps to shape and direct our mindset, our approach, our prayerful atmosphere (ethos), through which, we approach our Lord. And yet, this does not fully define the impact of our Liturgical Year. Liturgy is more than the ‘approach’ or on ramp. It is more than instructional, artistic, spiritual atmosphere. Liturgy is more than ‘symbol’ to the Orthodox Christian.
Western definition of ‘symbol’ actually steps down the transforming power of this word into the realm of ‘signs’. A ‘sign’ simply represents something other than the sign itself; a sign ‘points’ to something else, something beyond. Recovering the traditional definition of ‘symbol’ will help us come closer to being able to define the majestic power of Orthodox Liturgy. For us, “symbol” also would involve encounter with the prototype, with what is being represented. In celebrating the Church’s Liturgical Year, through this instructional, artistic, prayerful atmosphere, these symbolic activities have an effect.
This is a verbalization of what the faithful know as experience. We do not simply remember events that happened a long time ago. Interestingly, our liturgical language, in these services, is most often in the present tense: “Christ is Risen” or “Today the Virgin bears the Transcendent One.” Every Feast day celebration throughout the Liturgical Year is the actualization of the event being symbolized. The event is incarnated in the present moment.
In Orthodox worship, we use the word “synergy” to describe our proper role and responsibility. Synergy means we co-operate with God (this is not a symmetrical relationship: God does the great saving work; we participate in our frail and human context). “Synergy” also means that the Liturgical Services are effective to the extent that we bring to them a corresponding inclination or disposition of one’s own soul.
All this effort culminates in the ultimate goal of the Christian, and the dynamic essence of the Liturgical Year: a means to bring about our UNION WITH CHRIST. The Church invites us, through our participation in the Liturgical Year, to relive the entire life of our Lord Jesus Christ. We enter union with our Lord: in His Nativity, His growth in Nazareth, His ministry, Passion, death, Resurrection, Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In entering and participating in these eternally present events, we are changed; we are transformed. This allows us to proclaim with Saint Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
Just as reception of the Holy Eucharist forms the Body of Christ in us, so too does celebration in the Liturgical Year form Christ in us, as we are also collectively transformed into the Body of Christ: from humble birth to the full stature of a human life transfigured in the divine light of Theosis, or deification. This is the path of sanctity, the path of ‘sainthood’.
Therefore, the Liturgical Year includes the celebration of the Lives of the Saints, the celebration of the glorified members of the Body of Christ. When we focus our prayerful attention upon the life of a specific saint, we are instructed in the lessons of piety and spiritual warfare against the Devil. Just as we are now capable of participation in the life of Christ, so do His Saints shine with that radiance divine. Their virtues, struggles, their witness in living and dying, their triumph, is actualized in our lives as we participate in this communion of saints. The earthly Church and the heavenly Church have one and the same object: union with and in Christ. In Christ, are the terrestrials united with the celestials. Within the Church, men live ‘a little higher than the angels’ in that they are granted to handle that radiant, precious Heavenly Manna we call Communion: the very Body and Blood of the Son of God.
What unspeakable riches are provided the faithful through their involvement in the Liturgical Year! Our beloved Church, in her wisdom, provides for us the structure, the nurturing, the nourishing, to live the Way of Christian piety. She provides us that uniquely ‘other-worldly’ atmosphere which is ‘passionless’ in its sobriety, and yet overflowing with abundant JOY and eternal life. Also, we must not underestimate the unitive power of this common practice. Celebrating the Liturgical Year strengthens the bonds of communion between all the faithful throughout the whole world! For God is well pleased to preserve His children who seek to worship Him in SPIRIT and in TRUTH.
+Fr. Paul Albert
St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church