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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox worship: Feasts, fasts, and private prayer
      • The Christian year
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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 Orthodox


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 Great


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 (21 November).

4. The Nativity of Christ (Christmas) (25 December).

5. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Epiphany) (6 January).

6. The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (westernCandlemas’) (2 February).

7. The Annunciation of the Mother of God (westernLady 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 Easter).

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 August).

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



• The Circumcision of Christ (1 January).

• The Three Great Hierarchs (30 January).

• The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (24 June).

Saint Peter and Saint Paul (29 June).

• The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (29 August).

• The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God (1 October).

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 before Easter.

2) The Fast of the Apostlesstarts 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 weeks.

3) The Assumption Fastlasts two weeks, from 1 to 14 August.

4) The Christmas Fastlasts 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 Orthodoxparticularly in the diasporafind

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 Lentespecially 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 centurylaymen as well as monksfast 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. 5152).

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 forwardmarried

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.

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