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.
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 (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 Easter).
10. Pentecost (known in
the west as Whit Sunday, but in the east as Trinity Sunday) (50 days
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
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.
and self-control are the
first virtue, the mother, root, source, and foundation of all good (Callistos
Ignatios Xanthopoulos, in the Philokalia, Athens, 1961, vol. 4, p. 232).
four main periods
of fasting during the
1) The Great Fast (Lent)
— begins seven weeks before Easter.
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
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
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
dispensations are taken into account, it remains true that Orthodox Christians
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
the Churches of
Jerusalem, Russia, and Serbia, together with the monasteries on the Holy
of Athos, continue to
this day to follow the Julian reckoning. This results in a difficult and
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
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
with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Church of Greece, but the Palaioimerologitai
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
imprisonment); but they continue to exist in many areas and have their own