FOR MANY CHRISTIANS THE GOSPEL can be summarized in the passage read on this Sunday: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In it we see God’s character (love) and His motivation (to provide eternal life for those who believe in Him), but especially His action: the giving of His only-begotten Son.
With this gift God steps into our age, transcending it by His loving action. He interrupts the cycle of our days and years with an event of “God-time” that in fact transforms our human time into a celebration of His loving presence.
God-Time in Our Time: the Eucharist
In the ancient Churches of East and West this blessed “intrusion” of God into our days is made present again in three ways which have become important moments for us to experience the everlasting life God means for us to have. The gift of Christ and His saving work for us is at the heart of the Liturgy, the Church’s cycle of feasts and fasts, and every week of our Christian life.
The most ancient and the most grace-giving way in which we encounter God-in-our-age is the Divine Liturgy. In the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the point introducing the story of the Lord’s Supper, John’s profession of faith in the depths of God’s love for us is quoted. Introduced with the words of John’s Gospel, the anaphora is climaxed as the priest offers the holy gifts to the Father, saying:
“Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: His cross, His tomb, His resurrection on the third day, His ascension into heaven, His sitting at Your right and His second and glorious coming, we offer to You your own of what is your own in all and for the sake of all.”
The cross, the tomb and the resurrection are not the end of the story – we remember that the risen Christ ascended in glory and that He will come again to us in the time determined by the Father. In the Liturgy we unite ourselves with Christ in all of this, joining our own sacrifice of praise to His life-giving gift of Himself.
God-Time in Our Time: the Church Year
In the ancient Churches of East and West this gift of Christ is also celebrated in the liturgical year. Specific aspects of the mystery of the incarnation and the redemption are remembered throughout the year, making of the entire year a kind of Eucharistic prayer glorifying God in Christ.
The oldest part of the Church year – almost as old as the Liturgy and our written Gospels – is the weekly commemoration of the paschal mystery. Every Wednesday in the Eastern Churches is kept as a remembrance of Christ’s betrayal by Judas. Every Friday recalls the Lord’s crucifixion, death and burial. These days are observed by fasting in recognition of man’s part in the death of God.
These remembrances make every week a little Holy Week, with every Sunday as a little Pascha as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ by joining with the Church in offering the Divine Liturgy.
Since fasting is the principal observance of Wednesdays and Fridays, all Christians can easily observe these commemorations in whatever station of life they may find themselves. In families, for example, meals can become times for teaching how God’s love for the world played out during the week of Christ’s passion. Coming together with other believers for the Sunday Liturgy we partake of the fruit of His passion, the banquet of the Kingdom.
Our Yearly Observances
In the first years of the Church the principal festivals of society were agricultural – praying for and then celebrating the harvest – or honoring the local divinities and their shrines. As the Church grew it began its own annual observances, geared to the celebration of the mystery of Christ. Most of our Church’s principal feasts can be traced to the first 500 years of Christianity.
In all the Churches there are two dimensions to the liturgical year. The paschal cycle, focused on Pascha and Pentecost, is based on the date of Pascha, varying each year. Other commemorations such as Christmas occur on the same fixed dates every year. Together they form the annual observance of all that has been done for us.
In the Byzantine Churches the cycle of fixed feasts begins on September 1. At one time this was a civil observance; even today the fall marks the academic, judicial, musical and social new years. While every day there are commemorations of saints, icons, or historical events in the life of the Church, our principal celebrations are the Twelve Great Feasts celebrating the mystery of the incarnation in the lives of Christ and the Theotokos.
The first celebration in this yearly cycle is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). Along with the feasts of her conception in the womb of St Ann (December 9) and her entrance into the temple (November 21) this feast tell us that Christ’s coming is at hand. The birth of Mary is a prelude to the coming of Christ who took flesh in her womb.
The birth and early years of the Virgin’s life were described in the Protoevangelium of James, a 2nd-century ‘prequel’ to the Gospel events, as we might call it today. The hymns of this feast often refer to the story in the Protoevangelium (e.g. the barrenness of Ann, the angel’s message that she would give birth, and so on). More fundamental to our celebration of the birth of the Theotokos is the simple fact that the mother of the Savior is at last with us, beginning our journey to Bethlehem and the celebration of Christ’s birth,
Today, God who dominates the Spiritual Thrones of Heaven, welcomes on earth the holy throne which He had prepared from Himself. In His love for mankind, He who established the heavens in wisdom had fashioned a living heaven. From a barren stem He has brought forth for us His Mother as a branch full of life. O God of miracles, and hope of those who have no hope, Lord, glory to You!
Today glad tidings go forth to the whole world. Today sweet fragrance is wafted forth by the proclamation of salvation. Today is the end of the barrenness of our nature, for the barren one becomes a mother, the mother of the one who by nature will not cease to be a virgin, even after giving birth to the One who by nature is Creator and God. He it is who took from her His flesh by which He wrought salvation for the lost: He, the Christ, the Lover of Mankind and Savior of our souls! (Stichera at Vespers)
Adam is freed and Eve dances with joy. They say to you in spirit, O Mother of God, “In you we are delivered from the original curse by the coming of your Son!” (St Andrew of Crete, Canon, Ode 7)
O marvelous wonder! The source of Life is born from a barren woman; grace begins to grant its radiant fruit! Rejoice, O Joachim, who begot the Mother of God: there is no earthly father like you, O divinely inspired, for through you we have been given the Virgin who bore God, His divine tabernacle, His holy mountain. (Praises at Orthros)