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The Significance of the Church Calendar

The Church Calendar, Our Roadmap to the Kingdom of the Lord

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Time is a never-ending circle: the arrows of our clocks tick away seconds, minutes and hours, and the revolutions of the earth count days, months, seasons and years. Nobody and nothing is exempt from the action of time. A broken object cannot be reassembled to its original form. We cannot get ahead or behind in time, and every second of our lives becomes history. Time is indeed the greatest mystery of our being.

The calendar is perhaps one of humanity's oldest inventions. Calendars help people cope with the mystery of time. Calendars, however, tend to make us think that our lives are a linear progression from the past to the future; we live for the present or short-term future at most. They may convince us that we alone are the masters of our time, and that if we are using time effectively for the attainment of our earthly life goals, we are managing it well.

The calendar of the Church humbles our proud minds. It returns us to the truth of God the Creator of all things, including time, and thus its rightful master. It reminds us that He has a plan for time. He wants us to spend it by undertaking His journey of spiritual ascent along with him, by reliving the highlights of the Saviour's life and activity. He turns our gaze towards eternity by calling us to secure our place in His kingdom.

Dedicating our time to Christ

Like the regular calendar, the calendar of the Orthodox Church keeps track of the days, weeks and months. Yet it also raises them to a spiritual realm. The services and prayers of the daily cycle - Vespers, Vespers, Midnight, Matins, and the Clock - fill our days with the presence of God. The Church week begins on Sunday with the glorification of Christ's resurrection from the dead. Every Wednesday we commemorate the Cross of our Lord and every Friday is the day of remembrance of His suffering and crucifixion. We glorify the angels, John the Baptist, the holy apostles and Nicholas the Wonderworker, concluding the weekly circle with the veneration of Our Lady, all the saints and commemoration of all the Orthodox dead.

Each day of the calendar is a feast day, and at the centre of each feast is Christ. The twelve great feasts are dedicated to commemorating the major milestones of His life and ministry, as well as the life and ministry of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christ's power, goodness and love for mankind are revealed to us in the lives of the saints, whose feast days are also listed in the calendar. In addition, the feasts commemorate important events in Church history. For example, the Triumph of Orthodoxy marks the final victory of true Orthodoxy over heresies and false teachings.

Similarly, our prayer life and church services are determined by the calendar. It defines the periods of fasting when Christians abide by voluntary restrictions on food and entertainment and double their effort at prayer and almsgiving. From the calendar, we will also know which scripture passages and hymns we will hear at Church each day.

Mother of God

The Yearly Cycle of Moveable Commemorations

Not all feasts in the church calendar fall on the same date as in most secular calendars. The Orthodox calendar has a cycle of movable feasts whose dates depend on Easter.

The date of each Easter differs from year to year because it is calculated from the lunar calendar, distinct from the solar calendar. The lunar calendar was used by the people of Israel to time the Old Testament Passover, and the practice of calculating Easter from the Lunar calendar has been preserved to maintain continuity between the New and Old Testament history. In any year, Easter day celebrations fall anywhere between 4 April and 8 May. Each year, the date of the Orthodox Easter is calculated according to a set of rules called the Paschalia.

The feasts of the movable cycle fall within seventeen weeks of the year: ten before Easter and seven weeks after. The great feasts of the Easter cycle include the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (celebrated on the Sunday before Easter) and the Ascension of the Lord (commemorated on the fortieth day after Easter). The Easter cycle ends with All Saints' Day, one day after the Pentecost.

The Easter weeks are a period of special divine services according to the texts provided in the service books called the Triodia - the Lenten Triodion, for the ten weeks before Easter and the Flowery, or Festal Triodion, for the seven weeks after Easter. Most of the Sundays in the Easter cycle are dedicated to commemorating the Gospel events centred on Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection, such as the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the return of the prodigal son, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the first three weeks of the Lenten cycle. During the Lenten Triodion period, the weeks begin on a Monday. For example, the week of the Prodigal Son starts on the Monday following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. After Easter, the weeks begin again on Sunday.

The principal fasting period of the Orthodox Church year, the Great Lent, begins seven days before Easter and continues until the early morning of Easter Day. The Great Lent prepares the believer for living out the Passion of Christ and celebrating His Resurrection and strengthens him spiritually.

The yearly cycle of immovable feasts

The commemorations in this cycle are called immovable because they always fall on the same date every year. These include all the great feasts of the Mother of God - Her Nativity, Entry into the Temple, Annunciation, and Dormitionas. They also include most great feasts of the Lord: His Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Baptism, and Transfiguration. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross is also a great feast of the Church.

The feasts of the Church's saints, memorable events in its history and its relics also belong to the fixed cycle. The cycle of immovable feasts is expanding as the Lord reveals to us His new saints. In the Russian Church, most of the new saints are new martyrs who suffered for the faith during the stormy decades of the past century.

Two of the Church's fasts are observed according to the fixed cycle, meaning that they always begin and end on the same dates. The Nativity Fast lasts from 28 November until the Orthodox Christmas on 6 January. The Dormition Fast spans two weeks before the Dormition of the Theotokos, from 14 to 28 August. The Apostles' fast stands separately from the other fasts of the Church. Its beginning is flexible and falls on the eighth day after the feast of the Pentecost. However, it always ends on the same day, on the feast of Saint Peter and Paul. Therefore, its duration varies from year to year.

Old calendar

The Gregorian and Julian calendars

The Church calendar relies on natural time cycles to accurately reflect seasofal changes and solstice dates. Today, the Orthodox churches live by two calendars: the Gregorian (aka the new calendar) and the Julian (the 'old') calendar, and each is accurate in its distinct ways.

The Julian calendar is the oldest. It was adopted in 46 B.C. and owes its name to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who was ruling at that time. The New Year according to the Julian calendar was celebrated on 1 September. Today, this date is celebrated in the old calendar churches as the Church's New Year.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced in Western countries and churches in the 16th century to reconcile the calculated astronomical with calendar time. It was named after Pope Gregory XIII. Today, the Gregorian calendar is 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar. All Orthodox Churches had strictly abided by the Old (Julian) Calendar until the end of World War 1, which at present is 13 days behind the New Calendar. In May of 1923, however, an "Inter-Orthodox Congress" was convened at Constantinople to adopt the New Calendar. Not all of the Orthodox Churches attended, and some were not invited. The churches in attendance failed to reach a unanimous agreement on the issues at hand. Several of the Orthodox Churches, however, did eventually agree, to adopt the New Calendar. These were the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Poland, and most recently, Bulgaria (1968); on the other hand, the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia and Serbia, along with the monasteries on Mt. Athos, all continue to adhere to the Old Calendar.

The Orthodox Churches which have adopted the New Calendar observe Christmas with the other Churches of Christendom on December 25; the Orthodox Churches which have not adopted it celebrate Christmas 13 days later, on 7 January. The former celebrate Epiphany on January 6 and the latter on 19 January. Only Easter, the feast of feasts, continues to be calculated by all Orthodox Churches to the dates of the Old Calendar. Consequently, all Orthodox Churches observe it on the same day. An exception to this general rule is the Orthodox Church of Finland. Because the Orthodox in Finland number less than 2 per cent of the population, the Finnish Orthodox Church celebrates Easter according to the New Calendar for practical reasons.

About the calendar on our web-site

The calendar on our website is based on the official calendar of the Moscow Patriarchate and features an extensive catalogue of saints and feasts. For ease of reference, the Julian calendar is displayed alongside corresponding Gregorian dates.

The calendar lists all the dates of Pascha, major feasts, fast periods, fast-free weeks and other minor feasts for the current year. It also details the daily Scriptural readings. Likewise, the calendar webpage provides troparion and kontakion for each day's saints.

Russian Orthodox calendars publish the names of the saints and their feasts every year, reflecting the large number of saints and the long-standing practice of choosing baptismal names based on the calendar. The feast day of the saint with whose name one was baptised is an important personal holiday for every Orthodox Christian called the name day. One can find out one's name day by consulting the calendar.

However, the purpose of the church calendar is not just to remind us about the feast and fast dates during the year. No one is immune to the temptation of drowning in the daily hustle and routine of our earthly lives and subjecting them to our short-term life goals on this earth. Hopefully, by looking at the calendar, we will be reminded that the true purpose of our lives is to accumulate the riches of heaven so that we can all engage in this pursuit earlier rather than later.

December 29, 2023
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