The Liturgical Year

Each year, the Church brings to our attention the principal events in the life of Our Lord and his Mother, the achievements of the saints, and the theological doctrines of the Faith. This annual cycle of feasts, fasts and commemorations is called the liturgical year.  For more information on specific feast days please visit their individual page.  You can access the individual days here (they are also available on the main link bar above).

The Meaning of the Liturgical Year

The liturgical year is a school of prayer. Just as the divinely instituted feasts of the Old Testament reminded the people of Israel of the principal events of their history, and allowed them to renew their covenant with God, the Church's liturgical year recounts:

  • the creation of the world, the fall of Man, and coming judgment - giving us cause for repentance;
  • the Incarnation, life, sufferings, death, Resurrection and Ascension of the only-begotten Word of God, for our sakes - giving us cause for thanksgiving;
  • the lives of the Mother of God and of the saints - giving us cause for thanksgiving and hope, and encouragement in our own lives.

But the liturgical year is also a source of God's grace. Through each feast and commemoration, the meaning of the feast is made present in the Church, and the grace of the feast is recalled; this meaning and grace enters into and enlightens the minds and hearts of the faithful as they take part in the liturgical year.

Finally, the liturgical year is a means of union with Christ. As we remember the events which led to our redemption, and the deeds of those who have lived under grace, the Holy Spirit (through the Church's liturgy) directs our minds and hearts toward the goal of salvation for ourselves and those around us, to so live in this life as to be made fit for eternal life in heaven.

The Paschal Cycle
 

The basis of the liturgical year is a commemoration - a collective calling-to-mind - of the life, death and Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, for our salvation and redemption. It is this "Paschal mystery" which was prefigured in the Old Testament; symbolized in the baptism which makes us adopted sons and daughters of God, and members of the His Body, the Church; and imitated in the lives of Christians. The annual round of feasts commemorating this mystery is called the Paschal cycle.

The Paschal cycle
10 weeks before Pascha Preparation for the Great Fast
7 weeks before Pascha The Great Fast (Holy Lent)
1 week before Pascha Palm Sunday
the 6 days before Pascha Great and Holy Week
(date varies) PASCHA - The Passover of the Lord
the 6 days after Pascha Bright Week
40 days after Pascha The Ascension of the Lord
50 days after Pascha Pentecost - the Descent of the Holy Spirit
A variable number of "weeks after Pentecost"

The center and summit of the entire liturgical year is Pascha, the annual feast of the Resurrection of Christ. For an entire week thereafter (called Bright Week), we use the hymns of the Resurrection that during the rest of the year are sung only on Sundays. For 50 days, we refrain from all fasting, and stand instead of kneel at all services, in commemoration of our Lord's Resurrection.

Forty days after Pascha, we celebrate our Lord's return to heaven, as the feast of the Ascension; and ten days later, we keep the feast of Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and the beginning of their preaching of the Gospel.

From Pentecost onwards, the Church provides weekly Scripture readings from the Gospel and apostolic books, presenting the teachings and acts of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the writings of the apostles on the life of grace.

Finally, as we approach the next celebration of Pascha. the Church leads us through 40 days "in the wilderness" - a forty day fast which recalls the forty years spent by the Israelites in the desert before entering the promised land. During this Great Fast, we recall the entire history of salvation from the Old Testament, and the prophecies of the coming Messiah, his suffering and glorification.

At end of the Great Fast, we commemorate our Lord's entry into Jerusalem, his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, death and burial, in the services of Great and Holy Week. On Saturday of this week, a long vigil service commemorates the Old Testament foreshadowings of the Paschal Mystery - and begins the celebration of Pascha once again.

The prayers and hymns for these feasts can be found in the liturgical books called the Triodion and Pentecostarion.

Feast Days, Saints' Days and Commemorations

Alongside the Paschal cycle, we commemorate other events in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Mother, significant events in the Church's history, and the lives of the saints of the Old and New Testament. These feasts are associated with particular days which do not change from year to year, and thus form the cycle of fixed feasts (sometimes called the "sanctoral cycle", meaning cycle of saints). By contrast, the Paschal cycle is sometimes called the cycle of movable feasts.

Each day of the year is associated with one or more commemorations, which are listed in the Calendar of Saints. These events include:

  • Feasts of our Lord which commemorate events outside the Paschal cycle: events in his early life, as well as his Transfiguration.
  • Feasts of the Mother of God.
  • Feasts of the saints of the Old and New Testament. Very often, these feasts take place on the anniversary of their deaths, their "birthday in heaven." For particularly important saints, there may be several feast-days throughout the year.
  • Commemorations of important events in the life of the Church, such as the dedication of important cathedrals.

The prayers and hymns for these feasts can be found in the liturgical books (one per month) called the Menaion. Special symbols in the Menaion are used to indicate the liturgical "rank" of the feast; more important feasts are celebrated with greater solemnity.

Note that the fixed calendar often differs slightly among the various Churches that use the same rite (in this case, the Byzantine Rite). For example, a saint who evangelized a particular country may be most highly honored in that country. Local bishops typically establish the calendar to be used, and how feast days are to be celebrated.

Pre-festive and Post-festive days

The feasts of the Church, the Bride of Christ, can bring us closer to our Lord, and can teach us about and even instill in us the grace associated with each feast - but they do this most effectively if we do not come to them "cold" and unprepared. Therefore, the Church often prepares for its more solemn feasts with one or more pre-festive days, with hymns at the liturgical services that direct our minds and hearts to the upcoming feast.

In the same way, major feasts are often followed by one or more post-festive days, to help us reflect upon and begin to live out the message of the feast we have just kept. The number of pre-festive and post-festive days varies with the solemnity of the feast. The final day of a post-festive period is referred to as the leave-taking of the feast; on this day, the liturgical services are similar or identical to those of the feast itself.

Certain feast days are followed immediately by a commemoration of some personage associated with the feast. This day is called a synaxis (the ancient word for an assembly). For example, the feast of the Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, on December 25 is immediately followed by a feast day in honor of his mother - "the Synaxis of the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary", on December 26. (The term "synaxis" is also sometimes used for other feast days, particularly ones on which several saints are honored.)

Of course, the faithful cannot always be in church for these pre- and post-festive days. So some feast-days have special readings at the Divine Liturgy on the Saturdays and Sundays before and after the feast, since Saturday and Sunday are the traditional days on which the Eucharist was celebrated throughout the year in the Byzantine Rite.

The two cycles of feasts, the Paschal cycle and the cycle of fixed feasts, along with their pre- and post-festive days, overlap throughout the year - and the hymns and prayers of the two cycles are combined in the services, with more solemn commemorations taking precedence. The rules for combining the hymns, readings and prayers on a given day are found in the liturgical book called the Typikon.

A Guide to the Liturgical Year

The following articles describe the course of the liturgical year.

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