THE BASICS OF ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY
Orthodox holidays have several degrees of solemnity. Easter is the holiday of holidays. The main holidays of the year are twelve: Christmas (the Birth of Christ), the Baptism of the Lord or the Epiphany, the Presentation (of the Lord in the Temple), the Annunciation, the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, the Assumption of the Lord, the Holiday of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord, the Repose of the Mother of God, the Birth of the Mother of God, the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord, and the Presentation of the Most Holy Virgin in the Temple.
Another level of holidays are the great holidays. These include the Circumcision of Christ, the Assembly of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Virgin of Mercy, the Assembly of Michael the Archangel, the Memory of Bishop Nicholas and others.
Many feast days and holidays are associated with the names of saints. Of those, some are more solemn, some are less solemn, for national and historical reasons.
Each feast day and holiday has its own canticles written for it. Of these the main ones are the troparion and the kantakion. They convey in a condensed form the meaning of the celebrated event.
THE BIRTH OF THE THEOTOKOS (MOTHER OF GOD)
September 21st (September 8th old style)
The 21st of September is the Feast of the Birth of the Theotokos (Mother of God) – one of the twelve greatest Christian holidays. On this day a solemn service is held in churches, which is anticipated by evening vespers.
This holiday is held in memory of the birth of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Her parents were the holy, righteous Joachim and Anna. In the biography of the Mother of God (in the description of Her life on earth) it is related that her parents were given a revelation from the Angel of the Lord that they, already late in life, would give birth to a child, and should name her Mary (in Hebrew – Mariam). Such a birth late in life of parents who were already considered by many to be barren, was a foreboding of the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, born without any male seed, for if God can make the barren fruitful, then God is able to procreate in the Virgin’s womb without a man, but from His Holy Spirit.
As is known, all kids, desired by their parents and born in their later years, are especially beloved and cared for. So was the Virgin Mary, Who would be the Mother of God, loved and protected by her parents. She was raised in cleanness of spirit and body, and was taught ladies’ handicrafts. According to witnesses, She weaved for Her Son that tunic, which the centurions at the cross were not bold enough to tear, as they divided up the booty; as it is told in the Gospel, the tunic was not sewn, but was woven from top to bottom. (John 19:23)
As a young lady, she was given to the church (see: The Presentation of the Most Holy Virgin in the Temple) where she prayed and read the Scripture, and made handicrafts.
With the Birth of the Mother of God the Birth of the Savior became possible through Her, so for this Her birth is reckoned as the day that harkens a new era, the age of Christianity.
THE ELEVATION (EXALTATION) OF
THE CROSS OF THE LORD
September 27th (September 14th old style)
The Elevation (Exaltation) of the Cross is one of the twelve main holidays, established at the beginning of the 4th century. After centuries of persecution of Christians, finally the Church of Christ found the freedom to spread the word, it became permissible, official as we now say. And then in 313 A.D., the holy queen Helen ordered a search for the Cross of Christ, which had in ancient times stood at Golgotha. But no one knew the burial place of the cross. Finally, as tradition has it, they pointed to an old Jewish man name Judah, who supposedly knew the burial place. But remained stubbornly silent, pleading ignorance. They threatened him with torture and he showed the place where, he had heard, the crosses were buried. After the excavations the cross was found upon which Jesus Christ had been crucified. But, according to tradition, the cross was found with two other crosses – those of the two robbers, who had been crucified on the right and on the left of the cross our Lord, one of whom, before his death, repented and was forgiven by Jesus. To find out which of them is the cross of Christ, the crosses were place on a dead man who was being taken to be buried and who by coincidence happened to be near the cross. When they placed the first two crosses, nothing happened, but when the placed the third cross (Christ’s) on him, the deceased man came back to life. Seeing the concourse of people to the cross, Patriarch Macarius ordered the cross to be raised up for the admiration of the believers. From this then comes the name of the holiday, according to tradition.
The Holiday of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord is a day of fasting (comparable to the Friday, when Christ was crucified).
THE ENTRY OF THE THEOTOKOS
(THE PRESENTATION OF
THE MOST HOLY VIRGIN IN THE TEMPLE)
December 4th (November 21st old style)
The Entry of the Theotokos (The Presentation of the Most Holy Virgin in the Temple) is one of the twelve main, great holidays, and on this day a ceremonious service is held in the churches. The holiday is established in the memory of an event in the early childhood of the Virgin Mary, when Her parents, out of gratitude that God had given them a child when they were in such advanced years and they had such little hope for the birth of a child, promised to consecrate Her to God and sent Her to be educated and to serve at the church. But this event was not unwanted for the young lady: She felt love for God and willingly went to the church. She was accompanied to church by relatives and acquaintances. The chief priest, together with the priests serving with him that day, met her. It was confirmed that at this meeting was Zachariah, the father of John the Precursor, the future Baptizer of our Lord.
Prayer, the reading of the Scripture, handicrafts – these were the main work of the Virgin Mary in the church. Such a life seems boring, exhausting, and difficult to those who are not called to it; but to those who are called, it brings joy. This is why the Presentation in the Temple is not a bitter vow, but rather a joyful event, and is celebrated ceremoniously and with pomp.
The fathers and teachers of the church consider this holiday edifying: believers, once they have received favor from God, should render to Him thanks and fulfill their vows and promises to God.
The Virgin Mary lived at the Church until that time when, by the Providence of God, She was betrothed to Joseph (who is thus called her betrothed), so that She could later become the Mother of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
God’s assumption of our flesh began with the glad tidings which the angel brought to the Virgin Mary (see The Annunciation).
CHRISTMAS (THE BIRTH OF CHRIST)
January 7th (December 25th old style)
The Birth of Christ is one of the great Christian holidays, the remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The birth of the Christ, the Son of God, was foretold by the Old Testament prophets. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son” says the prophet Isaiah (Is 7:14). In the old church this holiday was known as the Manifestation of the Lord, because God manifested Himself in the flesh in human form.
Modern man, who embodies so many ideas and thoughts (for example, the car is the embodiment of the thought of its inventor), poorly understands the embodiment of Divinity, which in antiquity was understandable to all.
But it was understood in different ways. Pagans referred to the incarnation not just of their false gods, but also of demons and evil spirits (although there was no moral difference between false gods and demons, since both sinned). But, if there are false gods, then that means that there is a real God, and that there is a real incarnation of God and birth of Him. God had no need of incarnation, but the sins of people already demanded not just the intervention of angels in human affairs, but the appearance of God Himself, Who took upon Himself the burden of human sins – Christ voluntarily submits Himself as the sacrifice for people’s sins. Having taken upon Himself the sins of the world and having destroyed them, having destroyed their tyranny, He gave the gift of forgiveness to all who believe in Him.
At that time the birth of Christ was awaited by many, because the world was degenerating from immorality and a Savior was needed, Who would establish a new, correct way of life. It is not new words or different human teachings that were needed, but a new strength, which would revive humanity. It was not human, but God’s wisdom that was needed. This strength and wisdom appeared in the person of the God-Man.
At that time a census of the population was declared. On account of the census Joseph with his betrothed Mary, who was already pregnant, set out for their town of Bethlehem. Due to the assembly of people in the town, there was no place for them even in the inn. Therefore Joseph and Mary stayed in a certain cave, where there was a manger for cattle. Better accommodations for them were not found! The time came for Her to give birth, and a manger for cattle became the cloister of the God-Baby Jesus. Some pastors who were pasturing their flock not far away came because of the revelation of an angel to bow down to Him (not just as the King of the Jews, but as the King of the World). And, led by a living miracle, a star, some magi – wise kings – came and brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt 2:11).
The king of the Jews who was ruling then, Herod, having found out about the birth of the true King, envious and fearful of his throne, ordered the death of the Newborn. But God the Father sent an angel to save the Baby. And so, having received a revelation in a dream, Joseph and Mary took up Jesus and went for Egypt. After their flight to Egypt they returned to their native land, the town of Nazareth.
(THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD)
January 19th (January 6th old style)
The Theophany (or: The Baptism of the Lord) is one of the twelve great holidays, established in remembrance of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the waters of the Jordan. It is called the Epiphany of the Lord because here the Trinity of God appeared: God the Father, Who was the voice from the heavens testifying about His Son, Who in the flesh was receiving baptism; God the Son, Who was coming up out of the waters after baptism; and God the Holy Spirit, alighting on Him like a dove (Matt 3:13-17). Jesus Christ, as the Son of God and in the purity of His human substance, had no need of baptism, the washing of sins, but complied with this, giving everyone an example of humility and obedience, in order to fulfill “all righteousness” (Matt 3:14-15).
The day before His baptism (on the eve) there occurs a great consecration of the waters, which the faithful take to their homes, where the water can sit for years without going bad. If there is not enough water, the next day they consecrate still more with great ceremony. This water has a great power, not merely that which comes as a result of its blessing through collective prayer.
With His baptism in the Jordan our Lord consecrated the sacrament of baptism, He consecrated the substance of water, He arranged this, the first of the seven sacraments, which everyone who joins the church receives. Those who are preparing for baptism listen to prayers and instruction, they receive the catechism (a publication) of the word of truth, and for this reason are called catechumens. What is needed for baptism? To believe in God, in Jesus Christ, to live upon one’s conscience, according to the commandments of God, to know the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Hail Mary.
Baptism is done by water and the Holy Spirit, submerging the baptized three times in the water in the name of the Holy Trinity; and the one baptized receives remission of all previous sins (under the condition that he doesn’t repeat them). Baptism is not repeated, but baptism without faith and belief is not true baptism, even if correctly done outwardly. If a newborn is baptized, a godfather or godmother gives a vow or promise to God for him – they are his godfathers from baptism, who are then obliged to teach him Christianity and set him in the commandments of God.
Besides the holiday of the Baptism of the Lord and the sacrament of baptism, there is still the “baptism of blood” – the purification through suffering and a heroic death, the baptism of the cross. “A baptism I want to be baptized with,” said our Lord Jesus Christ, beforehand readying Himself for torment on the cross. This baptism of blood, on the cross, became His second baptism, of which He also had no need, but received for the salvation of believers.
THE MEETING OF THE LORD
February 15th (February 2nd old style)
The Meeting of the Lord (The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple) is one of the twelve great holidays, established in memory of Holy Virgin Mary’s carrying into the Jerusalem temple of Jesus on the fortieth day after His birth. According to the law at the time a sacrifice would be placed to the Lord for one’s purification and the redemption of a first-born (two turtle doves or two nestling pigeons). In the temple the elder Simeon met the Savior, a man of a pious life, who had received a promise from God that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. By inspiration he came into the temple and, having seen the Newborn, “he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation….’” (Luke 2:28-30) That is, he confessed aloud that before him was the Lord, the Savior of the world. This was one of the first public confessions about Christ. He blessed Mary and Joseph and said to Her: "… a sword will pierce through your own soul also…” (Luke 2:35), thus predicting the sorrow she would have because of the crucifixion of Her Son.
The Elder Simeon is referred to as God-bearing, because he took the Newborn Christ in his hands.
There, too, was Anna the prophetess, an 84-year-old widow, who did not leave the temple, but rather through prayer and fasting served the Lord day and night. And she, upon her arrival, confessed the Lord and told everyone about Christ.
This meeting of God and man has become the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. In the Orthodox Church on the fortieth day after a birth the churching of the mother is done, and usually on that same day the newborn is baptized. Although conceiving, carrying in the womb and giving birth are not considered sinful or dirty for the soul, the body still does need a certain purification or calming after what it has undergone. Because of this the forty-day period was established. (Incidentally, the word “quarantine” means “forty days”.) And if earlier, before Christ, for their purification people brought calves, sheep, pigeons and doves, then with the arrival of Christ all the blood offerings were abrogated, since, as it is written in the Scripture, the true “offering to God is a contrite spirit”; contrite, that is repentant, humble. For this reason the spiritual ascetics of the Church have a real Encounter with God, they meet with Christ every day, every hour, in prayer, with their intellect, in their heart.
THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE THEOTOKOS
April 7th (March 25th old style)
The Annunciation is one of the twelve great feast days; on it is observed the ceremonious liturgy of St. John the Golden-Mouthed, which is anticipated by an all-night vigil (usually the day before, in the evening).
This ancient holiday is established in honor of the event described in the Gospel: “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’… Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest;… and of His kingdom there will be no end. Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God….” Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” (Excerpts from the passage Luke 1:26-38.)
Joseph, Her betrothed, was not a true husband to her. He was Her protector, especially after he found out about the Annunciation from the angel that appeared to him in a dream. The announcement about the conception of Jesus, the Son of God, was a truly good announcement, hence the name of the holiday: The Annunciation. The Day of the Annunciation is the day of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Mary and the conception of the Infant God, Jesus. This is the beginning of the Gospel – the Good Tidings. This Feast Day is so important that if it falls on a great fast, the fast is disregarded, and if it falls on Easter (Pascha), then it is celebrated on Easter, while less significant holidays are set aside. After the Annunciation, the conception of the Infant God, follows chronologically/historically the birth of Jesus Christ (see Christmas) – the advent to the world of the Savior.
THE ENTRANCE OF THE LORD INTO JERUSALEM:
PALM SUNDAY (IN RUSSIA: WILLOW SUNDAY)
This is celebrated seven days before Easter. The Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem is one of the twelve great feast days. Its other name: Palm Sunday. (The palm is a tree native to ancient Phoenicia or Palestine; in Russia the willow is substituted, hence the name Willow Sunday or Flower Sunday.) When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey, the people cried out “Hosanna!” and some spread their clothes on the road, others lay palm branches on the road, and still others waved palm branches in the air as a greeting. From this come the two names of holiday: The Entrance into Jerusalem, and Palm Sunday.
The Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem was Christ’s final kindness to that city since, if the entire city had recognized Him, it would have remained in peace, but the inhabitants did not recognize the hour of visitation, and the Lord predicted that Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed, and that all would be either killed or taken away into captivity, and that of the Temple in Jerusalem there would not be left one stone on top of another. These words came true in the seventieth year after the Birth of Christ, when Titus’ warriors took the city in battle; and this punishment from God serves us as a warning.
The palms (or willows, in Russia) with which Christians come to church on the holiday of the Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem, and which are blessed and carried home, signify a heartfelt acceptance of Christ, and burning candles – the ardence of love and prayer for Him.
Before Palm Sunday is Lazarus Saturday, in memory of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead (John 11:41-44).
The holiday of the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem is considered as great as the Annunciation, since on this day it is permitted to eat fish. After this holiday comes Holy Week, during which are read the Gospels about the Passions of Christ, that is the sufferings of Christ, about how He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, taken under guard, cursed, beaten and crucified on the Cross.
PASCHA – EASTER SUNDAY
Pascha is the holiday of holidays, the ceremony of ceremonies, the king of days – with such words Christians have glorified Pascha, the main holiday, in which everything is a symbol of faith, godly life, love and blessing.
Pascha is the resurrection of Christ. This is the entire thought of the holiday, since, if Christ is resurrected, then we will be resurrected with Him. If He rose from the dead, then we will arise from the dead. If He was taken up to Heaven, then we will be taken up to Heaven at His second coming.
The apostles witnessed the resurrection of Christ, then testified about it with their blood, since no one would have suffered for a fairy tale. Thousands and thousands of martyrs, holy and righteous people testified. The grace in our hearts, our spiritual happiness, which can be neither diminished nor imagined, testifies of the resurrection.
In ancient times the celebration of Pascha was accompanied by the lighting of fires, illumination. The emperor or king released prisoners, rich men gave freedom to their slaves, poor people received help from the government. Food, clothes and money were distributed.
For Pascha people greet each other with an Easter kiss and the words: “Christ is risen!” and the answer “Indeed He is risen!”
The word Pascha comes from the Greek word for “suffering” and from the Hebrew word for “passover”, connecting this with the suffering of Christ and the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt. But God annulled the Hebrew Passover and gave us the Christian Passover. Our Passover is Christ, brought in to sacrifice for our sins.
But why is Pascha celebrated at different times in different years?
Many wonder why Pascha isn’t celebrated each year on the same month and day. After all, isn’t that how we celebrate our own birthdays? Notice, however, that one’s birthday may for example fall on a Tuesday this year, and a Wednesday next year. But Pascha is Easter, the Resurrection of Christ, and it can be celebrated on no day other than Sunday, the day of Resurrection. Easter cannot be celebrated on a Thursday!
A leap year has one extra day, and your birthday might then fall on Thursday instead of Wednesday, or Friday instead of Thursday. And what about Pascha? In this case it is a little more difficult to determine. After all, the Paschal cycle (the calculation of Pascha for each year) is determined not only by the sun, but by the moon as well. Pascha is taken to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the Spring Equinox, where the equinox is a day where the hours of daylight and hours of darkness are equal, both being twelve. Christ, as we know, was resurrected on the first day after the full moon, which is why Pascha is determined by both the sun and the moon; on the first Sunday after the full moon, but not before Spring Equinox. But the moon a year later will not be in the same phase, a year later it will not be full at the same time. And this dramatically changes the time of celebration of Pascha, making it one year earlier, and one year later. There are also other considerations, but for the sake of brevity, we won’t address them here.
The celebration of Easter begins on Holy Saturday or Easter Saturday, the day before the resurrection. In the temple there is the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, which is read until late in the evening. After a short service, the Midnight Mass, there is a ceremonious procession around the church, Christians walk with lit candles and processional banners, and everyone sings “Angels in heaven sing the praises of Thy Resurrection O Christ our Saviour. Vouchsafe that we too on earth may from pure hearts give Thee glory”. Bells ring.
At midnight (not sooner) by the true local time this procession around the church is begun. Christians, take note: by rule, Easter is celebrated after midnight, not before. But in Russia, as well as in other places, this rule has not been observed because of “legislated time” [“decreed” in Russian], which began in 1930, where the hands on all clocks were moved forward by one hour (so that local noon by the sun was not 12:00, but 1:00), and then again because of Daylight Savings Time, when the hands of the clock were moved another hour forward. So, noon by the sun corresponds to 2:00 PM by the clock, and true midnight corresponds to 2:00 AM. Because of this, Pascha was begun two hours earlier than it should have been, at approximately 10:00 PM, even though the clock showed midnight. After all, Christ was resurrected in the morning, not at 10:00 at night, and, by the rules, it is said, Pascha must begin “in the morning hours”. So, after the procession around the church, the parishioners go to the church porch, and there, outside the church building but within the Church, Pascha begins. After the priest’s exclamation: “Glory to the Holy Trinity”, the priest begins, and the choir and all the laymen after him sing: “Christ is Risen from the dead; He has trampled down death by death and given life to those in the tomb”.
With this singing they enter the church and there begin the Pascha canon. The Paschal matins begin, during which, upon completion of the singing of the aposticha, at the words “BROTHERS, LET US ENCLOSE ONE ANOTHER”, there is the kiss: all exchange the triple kiss. Whoever has even once celebrated Pascha will never forget it.
The benediction of the Easter cakes, Easter eggs, and so on, happens on the Saturday before Pascha, after the liturgy, and continues until evening, and after that, the benediction continues after the Easter liturgy, in the morning.
THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
Celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter (Pascha), always on a Thursday
The Ascension of the Lord is one of the Twelve Great Feasts, established in the memory of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. The holiday serves as the introduction or preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit, for Whitsunday.
After His resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared in various places to His disciples, first to the ones who brought the balm to prepare His body, the first among those being Mary Magdalene, then to the eleven disciples (because Judas, who had betrayed Him, was no longer with them), then to 500 people. The appearance of the resurrected Christ to His disciples continued for forty days; He strengthened their faith, and told them not to leave Jerusalem, because He was sending to them that which was promised from the Father: the Holy Spirit. He commanded them to preach the Gospel and baptize all the peoples in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28:19).
And so, once on the fortieth day from His resurrection, our Lord, after talking with his disciples, led them out to Bethany, and, raising His hands, blessed His disciples. Once He had blessed them, “He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven,” says the Apostle Luke (Luke 24:51), and “and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). They worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem in great joy, because two angels of the Lord said to them “this same Jesus, Which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
About His ascension Jesus had said to the apostles more than once: “I ascend to My Father,” but they did not understand His words, until they saw how His words were fulfilled.
Christ’s resurrection and His ascension convinced the apostles of the truth of His teachings and of Divinity of His origin, since only incarnated God can rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, and without Him no true miracles are possible. It was clear that this was the Son of God. And this was not an ascension of the mind into heaven, in dream or illusion, but a true bodily ascension.
THE HOLIDAY OF THE HOLY TRINITY (THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, OR PENTECOST)
Celebrated on Sunday, the fiftieth day after Easter
The Holiday of the Holy Trinity is one of the greatest of the Twelve Great Feasts, and in Old Russia it was celebrated especially ceremoniously. It is called the Descent of the Holy Spirit because on the fiftieth day after Easter the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. An even greater festivity is given to this day by the custom of Christians to decorate their churches and houses with trees, plants and flowers, and most often in Russia: birch branches with leaves.
The Holiday of the Holy Trinity is thus named in honor of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. On this day God the Father, for the sake of His Son, sent the Holy Spirit. This was the fulfillment of that promise which was spoken in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New Testament by the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The actual Descent of the Holy Spirit also has symbolic meaning. Earlier, when people were building the Tower of Babylon to Heaven, God, to Whom this prideful deed was displeasing, arranged things such that people could no longer understand one another: what had previously been one single language was divided into various languages, and the people wandered off to different parts of the world, not finishing their tower. Then when, on the Day of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, they, not having studies, began to speak in various foreign languages. And this united people, since, no matter what land they were from, they were speaking in the language of whatever place they were in and everyone understood everyone else. The Word of Christ, the Gospel which they preached, when received by people, related them to God, making them brothers. So there was a division and a reunification; people became united in God, the Trinity.
The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in a visible manner, not in imagination but in reality, looking as though dividing itself into tongues of flame. (Is it not that very Holy Fire that drops in every year on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem? See: The Transfiguration.)
Although the Holiday of the Holy Trinity (Pentecost) is the Day of the Holy Spirit, the Church has established a special holiday of the Holy Spirit, on Monday, the day after Whitsunday.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE LORD
August 19th (August 6th Old Style)
The Transfiguration of the Lord is one of the Twelve Great Feasts especially honored by Christians. On this day harvests (grapes, wheat, etc.) are sanctified.
Even unbaptized non-Christians honor the Transfiguration for its profound meaning. The holiday was established in remembrance of a great event in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus took His disciples Peter, James and John and called them up on a high mountain and was transfigured before them: “His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light” says the Evangelist Matthew (Matt 17:2). During His Transfiguration Moses and Elias (Elijah) appeared to them, speaking with Him. Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias [Elijah]. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.’ And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.”
The vision ended. Through this vision the Lord fortified his disciples so that when they saw Him crucified they would know that He suffered by His own accord, and so that they would believe in His imminent Resurrection from the dead. The place of the Transfiguration is taken to be the mountain of Tabor (some incorrectly call it Mt. Hermon). This is where the expression Light of Tabor comes from – it is a light that is neither from the earth nor from the sun.
The Light of Tabor is a godly light, the graceful effect of which transfigured not only Jesus’ face but His clothes as well. His face glowed like the sun and his clothes like a light. About the mysterious Light of Tabor many books have been written, both by Church scholars and by secular scholars, but without help from Above it is not possible to grasp this graceful light. The Light of Tabor is comparable to that Holy Fire which, on Saturday before Orthodox Easter, descends every year on those gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. For the first few minutes this flame does not burn or scorch; one can touch it to one’s skin, hair or clothes without harm. But after a few minutes the fire becomes more ordinary – it scorches and is more elemental. The Transfiguration of Christ is also symbolic, in that our bodies, too, will be transfigured at Christ’s Second Coming, in a general resurrection of the dead. We shall not all sleep, says the apostle, but we shall all be changed. Then the bodies of the living will change, be transfigured, and will become like the body of the resurrected Christ, to Whom walls were no impediment; He could walk through them. And He ate, tasting food (fish and honey) in the presence of His disciples as evidence that it was really He, the risen Jesus Christ in His body of flesh and blood, and not just a spirit having neither.
So too will the bodies of the deceased be resurrected, such that they will receive “each one according to his works” – either abundant goodness for good deeds or abundant punishment for evil deeds of which one has not repented. Both the body and the spirit sin together, so both will be punished together; they worked good together and shall be glorified together. May we be found worthy of transfiguration and eternal salvation with our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
THE DORMITION OF THE MOTHER OF GOD
August 28th (August 15th Old Style)
The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the Twelve Great Feasts. Dormition means repose or falling asleep. Physical, bodily death is the separation of the spirit from the body, but spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God, which is caused by sin. But the Mother of God (also known by the Greek expression Theotokos in the Orthodox Church), having lived all-chaste by not separating Herself from God, did not finish in bodily death, but rather with a dormition, and so this is a feast day, although not without sorrow. Similarly for all Christians departing for that world the Church asks: Grant them eternal rest in graceful dormition, Lord.
After the Ascension of Christ into heaven, the Mother of God, as is known from the Gospel, lived under the care of the disciple John, since he had been called Her son, and She was called his Mother (John 19:26-27). According to some reports, after the Ascension of Her Son She lived about fifteen years – almost as long as She lived until His birth.
Originally the Feast Day was observed on August 18th (old style), but in some places it was celebrated on August 15th (o. s.), so it was established to celebrate it on that day.
According to established tradition, the day of Her end had been revealed to Her by God. She prepared Herself for it. For this day the apostles, who had long ago spread out throughout the world preaching the Gospel, miraculously gathered together. On the third day after the end of the Mother of God, the apostle Thomas went to Her grave – and Her body was not there (some go so far as to call this the Assumption (into heaven) of the Mother of God, but this is not strictly correct according to Orthodox teaching).
The day of Dormition is the day ending the Dormition fast, and if it occurs on a Wednesday or a Friday, fish is permitted.
Through many centuries after the appearance of Christ, through the so-called Middle Ages and later, it was not death that was considered dormition or sleep, but rather life. It was then said: Life is but a dream, from which a person wakes after death, after the separation of the spirit from the body.