Title: Introduction to the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church
Subject: The Liturgical year using the twelve Great Feasts of the Church
Age: 13 + years
Liturgical Time: Any; this is the first lesson among a series of Great Feast lesson plans.
Doctrinal Content: Each of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church.
Direct Aim: In each class, it is hoped that you will explore the context, tradition, theology, scripture, hymns, iconography, practices and readings of each feast.
Indirect Aim: The class will provide a deeper understanding of the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church and should help individual Christians grow closer in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Primarily the liturgical texts of the Holy Orthodox Church
The Year of Grace of the Lord: a scriptural and liturgical commentary on the calendar of the Orthodox Church, by a Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church, published by St. Vladimir's Press, 2001
Materials for the Lesson Plan:
Note taking is recommended for students.
Begin with a prayer and welcome the students. Start with, "Tonight we begin a journey into the liturgical year of the Church using the Great Feasts of the Church as our outline. In doing so I think we must keep in mind several things."
First, the Church keeps its own sense of time. This sense of time is based solely and totally on the Person of Jesus Christ: Who He is, what He did, and what that means or how that changes mankind. This is an important but perhaps easily overlooked point. The church has decided to mark time only through Jesus Christ. For example, consider how the Church marks the days of the week:
- The Lord's Day, Kyriaki, or Sunday
- Second, Dheftera, Monday
- Third, Triti, Tuesday
- Fourth, Tetarti, Wednesday
- Fifth, Pempti, Thursday
- Preparation, Paraskeve, Friday
- Day of Rest, Savato, Saturday
The obvious pivot point to the week is the Lord's Day. Consider also how the Church marks the start of a day, at sundown. The months and year are then divided up into seasons and feasts based on events in the life of Christ. These, when viewed from the whole or in part, assist us in entering into the fullness of Who Jesus Christ is, and help us in exploring the depth of what has been and is being accomplished for us and in us, through Him.
In marking time through the life and person of Jesus Christ, the liturgical calendar becomes another means that the Church has to help us further our transformation in and love for Jesus Christ. We shall also see that the feasts tell the story of Jesus Christ and events are certainly connected. That is to say that the Ascension is connected with the Annunciation and to the Transfiguration, and all of them connect to the central story, that of His death and Resurrection.
Each feast also provides an element to the narrative on its own. And finally on this point, in opposition to the marking of time suggested by the fallen world, the Church offers up or presents to us an alternative method. Of course, knowing the importance of marking time in this way is important, and so is experiencing the fruits that develop from such a view of time: the actual entering into the liturgical cycle.
Secondly, essential to our study is the comprehension of the concepts related to telling time. The first word or concept is, Chronology; the second word or concept is, Kairos. The first word is something most of us are familiar with, chronology: it is a term that defines time as something linear. From it we get a sense of events that have passed, that are present and that will come. The second word, Kairos, means something else. It means the fulfillment of time; the moment beyond time and chronology. That moment that stands eternally present and outside of past, and future, but eternally and constantly present.
For every feast of the Church both concepts of time are at play. For example: Chronologically, Christ died and He arose on a certain day some 2000 years ago; in terms of Kairos, Christ dies and He is Risen, this is an eternally present reality. So Christ is Risen and the marks of His crucifixion are seen by the Disciples!
Third, you should know that from a practical stand point, the liturgical calendar has fixed feasts that come on the same day every year, for example, December 25 is the Nativity of Christ. There are also variable feasts, which vary in the calendar year based upon the time of Pascha (Easter). These feasts are mainly the Ascension and Pentecost.
Fourth, you should know that many of the terms and definitions we give to these feasts may at first seem odd and perhaps archaic or even without importance, but please be patient with me and with yourself. For example, just a moment ago I called Christmas the Nativity of Christ and Easter, Pascha. There are reasons for such things and we will get there. I do not necessarily mean to supplant anything but to give things meaning and value.
Fifth, all feasts culminate in a Divine Liturgy, either that of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. That is to say, each feast culminates in the receiving of The Eucharist, the receiving of the Risen Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the Divine Liturgy.
A word on the Eucharist: It is the central liturgical act of Christianity and it always had been, historically and through time, until the Reformation. The Eucharist is where Christ ended His earthly ministry, and it is where the Apostles resumed and continued the remembrance (in the sense of bringing something presently to mind) of The Christ.
Scripturally, the Church bases its understanding of the Eucharist in those texts of the Synoptics and in the Gospel of John, as well as Old Testament references, Acts and the Epistles. *What should be noted is that for 1500 years in the west, and for 2000 years in the east, there has been and still is the tradition of culminating our consideration of Christ in the receiving of the Holy Eucharist.
Finally, most feasts have a basic cycle to them. At a minimum:
- Vespers, evening prayer usually celebrated the evening before.
- Orthros, the prayer service celebrated prior to Divine Liturgy
- Divine Liturgy, the central service of the worshiping Church, where Eucharist is offered
- Leave taking, a prayer service celebrated to close out a feast
To a larger extent, many feasts not only have what is listed above but also prescribed fasts, or fasting periods, prescribed practices, etc., and additional prayer services. In a sense the feasts of the Church can have a time of preparation, even a time of preparing to prepare for the feast, then the feast itself, the after feast and then a return to regular time. For example:
- Holy Week
- Bright week
- The leave taking of Pascha
The 12 Great Feasts of the Church
We have 8 feasts that honor Jesus Christ and 4 that honor the Theotokos, yet as we shall see those of Mary are another way of honoring Christ and telling more about Him. Following the chronology of the Church's Ecclesiastical Year which begins on September 1, not January 1, the feasts line up in this manner:
- September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos
- September 14, the exaltation of the Cross
- November 21, the Presentation of the Theotokos
- December 25, the Nativity of Christ
- January 6, the Baptism of Christ, also known as Theophany or Epiphany
- February 2, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
- March 25, the Annunciation
- The Sunday before Pascha, Palm Sunday
- 40 days after Pascha, the Ascension of Jesus Christ
- 50 days after Pascha, Pentecost
- August 6, the Transfiguration
- August 15, the Dormition, or falling asleep of Mary
What seems to be missing? Pascha: This in the terminology of the Church, is the feast of Feasts. In this sense it stands above the 12 Great Feasts, and they all lead to and help in understanding it. And it, as mentioned earlier, gives the ultimate meaning to them.
For the purposes of our study we will be covering the 8 feasts of Christ, adding in the feast of Feasts, Pascha, time permitting. In addition if we have left over time we will then look into the 4 remaining feasts. For the purposes of this class we will also take the feasts not necessarily in their ecclesiastical chronology, but we will use the chronology of Christ's life and to some degree the internal logic of the way these feasts are connected. For example, we will begin with the feast of the Annunciation, proceed to the feast of the Nativity (which is connected to it) and most likely the feast of Theophany/Epiphany, which is connected to the Feast of the Nativity.
What is hoped to be covered for each of the feasts:
- Date, context, time of the year, placement
- Scripture: Old and New Testament references, as well as readings for the feast day (OT, NT, Epistles, Vespers, Orthros, and Liturgy)
- Hymnology (Apolitikion, Kontakion, General hymns, Seasonal hymns)
- Patristic teaching or sayings
- Pious practices/Traditions (Greetings, Foods, Colors, Practices)
- Readings, non-Biblical
Finally, this class is not meant to simply be a mental exercise or an activity that simply lifts up facts and figures. Rather what I hope to accomplish is to instill in myself, first and foremost, and then to each of you a sense of the Mystery and the Truth, of The Christ as presented through the liturgical worship of the Church. Inherent in this approach is the hope that we will all come to know this God-man, Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church in such a way that it brings about an actual transformation of our souls and a sincere desire to live a holy life. We must keep in mind that the liturgical tradition of the Church is infinitely rich. It is ultimately prayer, and as true prayer, it is dialogue and truth based in love and relationship between God and man.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas
Click the link to return to the Great Feasts page or see below for the link to the next lesson.
Click on the title below to obtain each lesson currently available within the series.