The Christian year
If anyone wishes to recite or to follow the public services
of the Church of England, then (in theory, at any rate) two volumes will be
sufficient — the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; similarly in the Roman
Catholic Church he requires only two books — the Missal and the Breviary; but
in the Orthodox Church, such is the complexity of the services that he will need
a small library of some nineteen or twenty substantial tomes. ‘On a moderate
computation,’ remarked J. M. Neale of the Orthodox Service Books, ‘these
volumes together comprise 5,000 closely printed quarto pages, in double columns (Hymns
of the Eastern Church, third edition, London, 1866, p. 52). Yet these
books, at first sight so unwieldy, are one of the greatest treasures of the
In these twenty volumes are contained the services for the
Christian year — that annual sequence of feasts and fasts which commemorates
the Incarnation and its fulfillment in the Church. The ecclesiastical calendar
begins on 1 September. Pre-eminent among all festivals is Easter, the Feast of
Feasts, which stands in a class by itself. Next in importance come the Twelve
1. The Nativity of the Mother of God (8 September).
2. The Exaltation (or Raising Up) of the Honourable and
Life-giving Cross (14 September).
3. The Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple
4. The Nativity of Christ (Christmas) (25 December).
5. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Epiphany) (6
6. The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (western
‘Candlemas’) (2 February).
7. The Annunciation of the Mother of God (western ‘Lady
Day’) (25 March).
8. The Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)
(one week before Easter).
9. The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ (40 days after
10. Pentecost (known in the west as Whit Sunday, but in
the east as Trinity Sunday) (50 days after Easter).
11. The Transfiguration of Our Saviour Jesus Christ (6
12. The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God (the
Assumption) (15 August).
Thus three of the Twelve Great Feasts depend on the date of
Easter and are ‘movable;’ the rest are ‘fixed.’ Eight are feasts of the
Saviour, and four are feasts of the Mother of God.
There are also a large number of other festivals, of varying
importance. Among the more prominent are:
· The Circumcision of Christ (1 January).
· The Three Great Hierarchs (30 January).
· The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (24
· Saint Peter and Saint Paul (29 June).
· The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (29
· The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God (1
· Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker (6 December).
· All Saints (First Sunday after Pentecost).
But besides feasts there are fasts. The Orthodox Church,
regarding man as a unity of soul and body, has always insisted that the body
must be trained and disciplined as well as the soul. ‘Fasting and self-control
are the first virtue, the mother, root, source, and foundation of all good (Callistos
and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, in the Philokalia, Athens, 1961, vol. 4, p.
232). There are four main periods of fasting during the year:
1) The Great Fast (Lent) — begins seven weeks
2) The Fast of the Apostles — starts on the
Monday eight days after Pentecost, and ends on 28 June, the eve of the
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul; in length varies between one and six
3) The Assumption Fast — lasts two weeks, from 1
to 14 August.
4) The Christmas Fast — lasts forty days, from 15
November to 24 December.
In addition to these four chief periods, all Wednesdays and
Fridays — and in some monasteries Mondays as well — are fast days (except
between Christmas and Epiphany, during Easter week, and during the week after
Pentecost). The Exaltation of the Cross, the Beheading of Saint John the
Baptist, and the eve of Epiphany are also fasts.
The rules of fasting in the Orthodox Church are of a rigour
which will astonish and appal many western Christians. On most days in Great
Lent and Holy Week, for example, not only is meat forbidden, but also fish and
all animal products (lard, eggs, butter, milk, cheese), together with wine and
oil. In practice, however, many Orthodox — particularly in the diaspora —
find that under the conditions of modern life it is no longer practicable to
follow exactly the traditional rules, devised with a very different outward
situation in mind; and so certain dispensations are granted. Yet even so the
Great Lent — especially the first week and Holy Week itself — is still, for
devout Orthodox, a period of genuine austerity and serious physical hardship.
When all relaxations and dispensations are taken into account, it remains true
that Orthodox Christians in the twentieth century — laymen as well as monks
— fast with a severity for which there is no parallel in western Christendom,
except perhaps in the strictest Religious Orders.
The Church’s year, with its sequence of feasts and fasts,
is something of overwhelming importance in the religious experience of the
Orthodox Christian: ‘Nobody who has lived and worshipped amongst Greek
Christians for any length of time but has sensed in some measure the
extraordinary hold which the recurring cycle of the Church’s liturgy has upon
the piety of the common people. Nobody who has kept the Great Lent with the
Greek Church, who has shared in the fast which lies heavy upon the whole nation
for forty days; who has stood for long hours, one of an innumerable multitude
who crowd the tiny Byzantine churches of Athens and overflow into the streets,
while the familiar pattern of God’s saving economy towards man is re-presented
in psalm and prophecy, in lections from the Gospel, and the matchless poetry of
the canons; who has known the desolation of the holy and great Friday, when
every bell in Greece tolls its lament and the body of the Saviour lies shrouded
in flowers in all the village churches throughout the land; who has been present
at the kindling of the new fire and tasted of the joy of a world released from
the bondage of sin and death — none can have lived through all this and not
have realized that for the Greek Christian the Gospel is inseparably linked with
the liturgy that is unfolded week by week in his parish church. Not among the
Greeks only but throughout Orthodox Christendom the liturgy has remained at the
very heart of the Church’s life’ (P. Hammond, The Waters
of Marah, pp. 51—52).
Different moments in the year are marked by special
ceremonies: the great blessing of waters at Epiphany (often performed out of
doors, beside a river or on the sea shore); the blessing of fruits at the
Transfiguration; the solemn exaltation and adoration of the Cross on 14
September; the service of forgiveness on the Sunday immediately before Lent,
when clergy and people kneel one by one before each other, and ask one another’s
forgiveness. But naturally it is during Holy Week that the most moving and
impressive moments in Orthodox worship occur, as day by day and hour by hour the
Church enters into the Passion of the Lord. Holy Week reaches its climax, first
in the procession of the Epitaphion (the figure of the Dead Christ laid
out for burial) on the evening of Good Friday; and then in the exultant Matins
of the Resurrection at Easter midnight.
None can be present at this midnight service without being
caught up in the sense of universal joy. Christ has released the world from its
ancient bondage and its former terrors, and the whole Church rejoices
triumphantly in His victory over darkness and death: ‘The roaring of the bells
overhead, answered by the 1,600 bells from the illuminated belfries of all the
churches of Moscow, the guns bellowing from the slopes of the Kremlin over the
river, and the processions in their gorgeous cloth of gold vestments and with
crosses, icons, and banners, pouring forth amidst clouds of incense from all the
other churches in the Kremlin, and slowly wending their way through the crowd,
all combined to produce an effect which none who have witnessed it can ever
forget’ (A. Riley, Birkbeck and the Russian Church, p.
142). So W. J. Birkbeck wrote of Easter in pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Today the churches of the Kremlin are museums, no more guns are fired in honour
of the Resurrection, and though bells are rung, their number has sadly dwindled
from the 1,6oo of former days; but the vast and silent crowds which still gather
at Easter midnight in thousands and tens of thousands around the churches of
Moscow are in their way a more impressive testimony to the victory of Christ
over the powers of evil.
Before we leave the subject of the Church’s year, something
must be said about the vexed question of the calendar — always, for some
reason, an explosive topic among eastern Christians. Up to the end of the First
World War, all Orthodox still used the Old Style or Julian Calendar, which is at
present thirteen days behind the New or Gregorian Calendar, followed in the
west. In 1923 the Ecumenical Patriarch convened an ‘Inter-Orthodox Congress’
at Constantinople, attended by delegates from Serbia, Romania, Greece, and
Cyprus (the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem refused to send delegates; the
Patriarch of Alexandria did not even reply to the invitation; the Church of
Bulgaria was not invited). Various proposals were put forward — married
bishops; permission for a priest to remarry after his wife’s death; the
adoption of the Gregorian Calendar. The first two proposals have so far remained
a dead letter, but the third was carried into effect by certain autocephalous
Churches. In March 1924 Constantinople introduced the New Calendar; and in the
same year, or shortly after, it was also adopted by Alexandria, Antioch, Greece,
Cyprus, Romania, and Poland (The Church of Bulgaria adopted the
New Calendar in 1968). But the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, and Serbia,
together with the monasteries on the Holy Mountain of Athos, continue to this
day to follow the Julian reckoning. This results in a difficult and confusing
situation which one hopes will shortly be brought to an end. At present the
Greeks (outside Athos and Jerusalem) keep Christmas at the same time as the
west, on 25 December (New Style), while the Russians keep it thirteen days
later, on 7 January (New Style); the Greeks keep Epiphany on 6 January, the
Russians on 19 January; and so on. But practically the whole Orthodox Church
observes Easter at the same time, reckoning it by the Julian (Old Style)
Calendar: this means that the Orthodox date of Easter sometimes coincides with
the western, but at other times it is one, four, or five weeks later (The
discrepancy between Orthodox and western Easter is caused also by two different
systems of calculating the ‘epacts’ which determine the lunar months).
The Church of Finland and a very few parishes in the diaspora always keep Easter
on the western date.
The reform in the calendar aroused lively opposition,
particularly in Greece, where groups of ‘Old Calendarists’ or Palaioimerologitai
(including, more than one bishop) continued to follow the old reckoning: they
claimed that as the calendar and the date of Easter depended on Canons of
ecumenical authority, they could only be altered by a joint decision of the whole
Orthodox Church — not by separate autocephalous Churches acting independently.
While rejecting the New Calendar, the monasteries of Mount Athos have (all
except one) maintained communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the
Church of Greece, but the Palaioimerologitai on the Greek mainland were
excommunicated by the official Church. They are usually treated by the Greek
civil authorities as an illegal organization and have undergone persecution
(many of their leaders suffered imprisonment); but they continue to exist in
many areas and have their own bishops, monasteries, and parishes.
When an Orthodox thinks of prayer, he thinks primarily of
public liturgical prayer. The corporate worship of the Church plays a far larger
part in his religious experience than in that of the average western Christian.
Of course this does not mean that Orthodox never pray except when in church: on
the contrary, there exist special Manuals with daily prayers to be said by all
Orthodox, morning and evening, before the icons in their own homes. But the
prayers in these Manuals are taken for the most part directly from the Service
Books used in public worship, so that even in his own home an Orthodox is still
praying with the Church; even in his own home he is still joined in
fellowship with all the other Orthodox Christians who are praying in the same
words as he. ‘Personal prayer is possible only in the context of the
community. Nobody is a Christian by himself, but only as a member of the body.
Even in solitude, "in the chamber," a Christian prays as a member of
the redeemed community, of the Church. And it is in the Church that he learns
his devotional practice’ (G. Florovsky, Prayer Private and
Corporate (‘Ologos’ publications, Saint Louis), p. 3). And just
as there is in Orthodox spirituality no separation between liturgy and private
devotion, so there is no separation between monks and those living in the world;
the prayers in the Manuals used by the laity are the very prayers which the
monastic communities recite daily in church as part of the Divine Office.
Husbands and wives are following the same Christian way as monks and nuns, and
so all alike use the same prayers. Naturally the Manuals are only intended as a
guide and a framework of prayer; and each Christian is also free to pray
spontaneously and in his own words.
The directions at the start and conclusion of the morning
prayers emphasize the need for recollection, for a living prayer to the
Living God. At the beginning it is said: ‘When you wake up, before you begin
the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the sign of the
Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit. Amen. Having invoked the Holy Trinity, keep silence for a little, so
that your thoughts and feelings may be freed from worldly cares. Then recite the
following prayers without haste, and with your whole heart.’
And at the conclusion of the morning prayers a note states:
‘If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it
is better to say only a few of the prayers suggested, with attention and
devotion, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.’
There is also a note in the morning prayers, encouraging
everyone to read the Epistle and Gospel appointed daily for the Liturgy.
By way of example let us take two prayers from the Manual,
the first a prayer for the beginning of the day, written by Philaret,
Metropolitan of Moscow:
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely upon Thy holy will. In every hour of the
day reveal Thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace
of soul, and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all. In all my
deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events
let me not forget that all are sent by Thee. Teach me to act firmly
and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me
strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall
bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray Thou Thyself in me.
And these are a few clauses from the general intercession
with which the night prayers close:
Forgive, O Lord, lover of men, those who hate and
wrong us. Reward our benefactors. Grant to our brethren and friends
all that they ask for their salvation and eternal life. Visit and heal
the sick. Free the prisoners. Guide those at sea. Travel with those
who travel .... On those who charge us in our unworthiness to pray for
them, have mercy according to Thy great mercy. Remember, O Lord, our
departed parents and brethren and give them rest where shines the
light of Thy face…
There is one type of private prayer, widely used in the west
since the time of the Counter-Reformation, which has never been a feature of
Orthodox spirituality — the formal ‘Meditation,’ made according to a ‘Method’
— the Ignatian, the Sulpician, the Salesian, or some other. Orthodox are
encouraged to read the Bible or the Fathers slowly and thoughtfully; but such an
exercise, while regarded as altogether excellent, is not considered to
constitute prayer, nor has it been systematized and reduced to a ‘Method.’
Each is urged to read in the way that he finds most helpful.
But while Orthodox do not practise discursive Meditation,
there is another type of personal prayer which has for many centuries played an
extraordinarily important part in the life of Orthodoxy — the Jesus Prayer:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."
Since it is sometimes said that Orthodox do not pay sufficient attention to the
person of the Incarnate Christ, it is worth pointing out that this — surely
the most classic of all Orthodox prayers — is essentially a Christo-centric
prayer, a prayer addressed to and concentrated upon the Lord Jesus. Those
brought up in the tradition of the Jesus Prayer are never allowed for one moment
to forget the Incarnate Christ.
As a help in reciting this prayer many Orthodox use a rosary,
differing somewhat in structure from the western rosary; an Orthodox rosary is
often made of wool, so that unlike a string of beads it makes no noise.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of marvelous versatility. It is
a prayer for beginners, but equally a prayer that leads to the deepest mysteries
of the contemplative life. It can be used by anyone, at any time, in any place:
standing in queues, walking, traveling on buses or trains; when at work; when
unable to sleep at night; at times of special anxiety when it is impossible to
concentrate upon other kinds of prayer. But while of course every Christian can
use the Prayer at odd moments in this way, it is a different matter to recite it
more or less continually and to use the physical exercises which have become
associated with it. Orthodox spiritual writers insist that those who use the
Jesus Prayer systematically should, if possible, place themselves under the
guidance of an experienced director and do nothing on their own initiative.
For some there comes a time when the Jesus Prayer ‘enters
into the heart,’ so that it is no longer recited by a deliberate effort, but
recites itself spontaneously, continuing even when a man talks or writes,
present in his dreams, waking him up in the morning. In the words of Saint Isaac
the Syrian: ‘When the Spirit takes its dwelling-place in a man he does not
cease to pray, because the Spirit will constantly pray in him. Then, neither
when he sleeps, nor when he is awake, will prayer be cut off from his soul; but
when he eats and when he drinks, when he lies down or when he does any work,
even when he is immersed in sleep, the perfumes of prayer will breathe in his
heart spontaneously’ (Mystic Treatises,
edited by Wensinck, p. 174).
Orthodox believe that the power of God is present in the Name
of Jesus, so that the invocation of this Divine Name acts ‘as an effective
sign of God’s action, as a sort of sacrament’ (Un Moine de l’Église
d’Orient, La Priére de Jésus, Chevetogne, 1952, p. 87). ‘The
Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, communicates to it the power of
deification ... Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus
illuminates all the universe’ (S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox
Church, pp. 170-171).
Alike to those who recite it continually and to those who
only employ it occasionally, the Jesus Prayer proves a great source of
reassurance and joy. To quote the Pilgrim: ‘And that is how I go about now,
and ceaselessly repeat the Prayer of Jesus, which is more precious and sweet to
me than anything in the world. At times I do as much as 43 or 44 miles a day,
and do not feel that I am walking at all. I am aware only of the fact that I am
saying my Prayer. When the bitter cold pierces me, I begin to say my Prayer more
earnestly, and I quickly become warm all over. When hunger begins to overcome
me, I call more often on the Name of Jesus, and I forget my wish for food. When
I fall ill and get rheumatism in my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on the
Prayer, and do not notice the pain. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How
sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away
and I forget it all ... I thank God that I now understand the meaning of those
words I heard in the Epistle — "Pray without ceasing" (1
Thes. 5:17)’ (The Way of a Pilgrim, p. 17-18).