The Eastern Christian Churches have always celebrated certain moments In the story of salvation, chiefly from the life of Christ, as major festivals: extensions and elaborations of the Easter celebration. Twelve of these have become known as the Great Feasts, solemnly celebrated in all the Eastern Churches and eventually penetrating the Western Church as well. In the Middle Eastern and Eastern European cultures of old, society joined to facilitate celebration of these feasts: work was halted, pilgrimages made and the festivals loomed large in the minds of the people as the central events of the community.
In our society it is vastly different. Not only does the secular culture ignore these feasts, but many parishes minimize them as well, because “no one will come.” At the same time, parish announcements, bulletins and flyers will hawk for weeks in advance an approaching St. Valentine’s Party or Las Vegas Night. These events have in fact replaced the liturgical holy days in many parishes as the “Great Feasts” of the local community.
However, if parishes approached these social times with the same lack of preparation and creativity as they approach the holy days, it could be guaranteed that no one would come to them either! Try to plan and organize a hafli three days in advance and see. So it is clear that to reconstitute the holy days as prime festivals for our Church, several steps may be taken:
- The most obvious is, of course, to celebrate the liturgical services at convenient times: the Vigil Service and/or Divine Liturgy served in the evening will accommodate most parishioners.
- Secondly, the parish must be helped to see the importance of the feast by giving it the same planning, effort and publicity as it now gives its social events.
- A third consideration is to actually make the liturgical feast the occasion for the important parish socials, as most of our churches do at Christmas and Easter.
Those festivals celebrated in the summer are especially suited to this kind of planning as school is out and families less pressured by school schedules. A picnic or outing at Pentecost, a supper or ice cream social on Transfiguration, a cookout on Holy Cross would certainly boost attendance at the services and begin raising the consciousness of people to seeing these days as our most important Church events. Most communities have summer socials: what reason can there be for not joining these events to the major liturgical celebrations of our Church and reestablish in the minds of our people their importance?
A case in point is the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14), one of the most popular of the year in the Middle East and the last holiday in summer. Liturgically it is known for the exultation and veneration of the cross, an impressive ceremony which many of our people have never seen. The cross, adorned with basil sprigs, is carried in procession through the church, special litanies are prayed and the cross is lifted in blessing over the four corners of the earth. An evening service, including this ceremony, coupled with a church supper, is an appropriate way to highlight this celebration. In this connection, one traditional practice may be used to highlight the event.
In the Middle East, especially in the mountains, it is customary to light bonfires on this day in memory of the discovery of the cross by St. Helen in the fourth century. To spread the news of the cross’s finding from Jerusalem to Constantinople a relay system of bonfires was employed. Since that day Christians in the Middle East have rekindled these fires on the anniversary of this event. Using the bonfire as a do-it-yourself activity, cooking center or campfire is another way of impressing the importance and meaning of the feast on people’s minds. The children of the parish make fine firewood gatherers and that project, coupled with an explanation of the bonfire’s significance makes them an eager part of the celebration.
Another traditional custom, which can be highlighted on this feast, is the use of sweet basil to adorn the cross. In many parishes families grow this herb during the summer and bring plants to church for the feast. The herb, said to have grown on Calvary, is distributed to all at the close of the service. Younger children would delight in growing and contributing this herb for the celebration.
Preparation for the feast could include a catechetical program on the preceding Sunday which liturgically is a day of preparation for the feast. Such a session could include an explanation of the feast and its troparion and icon to the whole group and then a breakdown into activity groups. The activities outlined below, each typed on separate index cards, could be drawn as lots, executed and then shared with the entire parish as part of the feast-day celebration. The activities are arranged according to the following age levels: 1 (grades 1,2), 2 (grades 3,4), 3 grades 5,6) and 4 (grades 7,8).
Combining a full liturgical celebration with a catechetical preparation and a social extension can help restore these feasts to their intended role in our tradition as the major points of celebration in the life of our Church.
ACTIVITIES FOR LEVEL ONE
- Color the cross in the Byzantine Coloring Book (Byzantine Seminary Press, Pittsburgh, PA 14214). Find out why the cross has three bars. Find out why there are flowers around it.
- Make a paper cross. Decorate it with a Scripture verse (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:30).
- Show how you make the sign of the cross. How should you hold your hand? When during church services should you make it?
ACTIVITIES FOR LEVEL TWO
- Think quietly about some time when you were asked to do something hard or something you didn’t want to do. Was it hard to do it? Jesus called hard things like this a cross. Why do you think He did that?
- Make a paper cross. On it write the things you dislike doing most. Then copy this verse from the Bible, Matthew 16:14. It tells what Jesus asks us to do with our crosses.
- Complete the Morse Code exercise in Together (Book 3, God With Us Publications, McKees Rocks, PA 15136), page 61.
- Collect enough twigs to make these crosses:
ACTIVITIES FOR LEVEL THREE
- Make a photo and word collage about the cross. Use the hymn from Matins called the “Exapostilarion” for ideas.
- Read the chapters “Jesus Is Judged” and “Jesus Christ on the Cross” from the book God Is With Us (OCEC, Yonkers, NY 11210). They tell of the events of Jesus’ suffering and death. After you have read them, think about the following questions:
- if Jesus’ death is so sad, why are we celebrating on the Feast of the Cross? What do you think?
- The cross we honor today does not have the body of Jesus on it. It has jewels instead. Why would you think this might be?
- Write a paragraph explaining your answers to these two questions. Then mount it on construction paper for display.
- Write a haiku (Japanese poem) about the cross. A haiku has three lines. The first line has five syllables; the second line has seven and the third line has five. They do not rhyme.
ACTIVITIES FOR LEVEL FOUR
- Read chapter 14 in the book The Creed (Book 11, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Brookline MA 02146). Write down any ideas you have not heard before.
- Read the hymns of vespers for the Feast of the Cross (from The September Menaion or Byzantine Daily Worship). Find an image in them to make into a banner or poster announcing the feast.