Happy Byzantine Liturgical New Year!

Sep 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Our first article at Called to Communion called attention to the sanctification of time in the Reformed tradition; namely, the observance of the first day of the week, Sunday, as the Christian Sabbath. Although there are some differences between Catholics and Reformed Protestants concerning the meaning and observance of the Lord’s Day, there is general agreement that by God’s design, in the order of creation as carried forward in the way of redemption, and in the Old Covenant as fulfilled in the New, there remains for God’s people a day of the week set aside for worship and rest. [1]

In light of this area of agreement among Catholic and Reformed Christians, I want to take the occasion of September 1st, which marks the beginning of the Church Year in the Byzantine Rite, to again raise the topic of the sanctification of time, this time with respect to the liturgical year. As we will see, there are some important variations in the development of the Church calendar, from Eastern to Western Christendom, although the focus and trajectory of both traditions is substantially the same; both are based upon the Incarnation and represent the life of Christ.


In the introduction article for this website, I noted that, in becoming Catholic, I had left some things behind and found other things, while some things remained the same. Among the things found is a different and in my estimation more thorough application of the principle that, through the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord, Christians have been brought out from under the tutelage of the Mosaic Law, not by way of the destruction of the Law but through its fulfillment in Christ. The corporate life of God’s people is no longer conformed to the pattern of the things revealed to Moses, but to the pattern of Christ, who is the reality (the “body” and the “true form”) to which those former things testified (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1-10).

Therefore, Christians no longer observe the holy days and sabbaths of the former Covenant, nor do we offer sacrifices of bulls and of goats. Yet, there “remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” and “we have an altar” from which we are mystically nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. Likewise, we have been given an example, or pattern, for the sanctification of life as lived in the course of the natural year. We have annual holy days and seasons of festival and fasting which are a fulfillment of the religious feasts of Israel before Christ. This new pattern has been given to us in the Gospels, so that throughout the year the people of God journey together in the steps of our Lord, from his Advent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Pentecost then leads us back to Advent, not so much in a circle as a spiral, since Advent has a two-fold significance, corresponding to the Incarnation (the “first coming” of the Son of God) and the Eschaton (the “second coming” of Christ). The seeds of the liturgical year are therefore present in Scripture and develop over time through the life of the Church. This development, which includes the growing sanctoral cycle (or synaxarion), is a function of that liturgical spiral in which time is both infused with and moves towards eternal life.

Easter, or Pascha, is historically and theologically central to the liturgical year. This year, though one in its essential orientation (Pascha), pattern (the life of Christ) and purpose (the sanctification of time), has been variously developed in the Eastern Church, where the Byzantine Rite is predominant, and the Western Church, where the Roman Rite is predominant. In short, the traditional Western liturgical year has more of a bipolar aspect, with a “Christmas cycle” inclusive of Advent and Epiphany, and an “Easter cycle” inclusive of Lent and Pentecost. In the East, Pascha stands out more clearly as “the Feast of feasts,” accompanied by twelve “great feasts” including Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Christmas is therefore not as prominent in the Eastern arrangement as in the Western.

In both ritual traditions, every Sunday is Resurrection Day, a “mini-Easter,” though this Paschal theme is more pronounced in the Byzantine Rite. Finally, both Roman and Byzantine rites follow our Lord’s intention that his disciples should fast (Matthew 9:15) by observing seasons of corporate fasting. Lent is, of course, the most notable among these. For Byzantines, Advent is also a season of corporate fasting. This season is often referred to as the “Nativity fast,” or “St. Philip’s fast,” as it begins the day after the feast of St. Philip and lasts through Christmas Eve. In the West, Advent is also observed as a penitential season, though without the fast. Christians of the Byzantine Rite observe two additional fasts, relative to the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) and the Dormition of the Mother of God (August 15). [2]

What follows is an outline of the liturgical year in the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Rite, respectively. You might notice that the linear development of the Byzantine calendar, similar to the prayers in the Divine Liturgy, is distinctively Marian. The first major feast is the Nativity of the Theotokos, and the twelfth great feast marks her Dormition. This, it seems to me, underscores both the temporal sequence and the soteriological effectiveness of our Lord’s life and mission; i.e., obviously, the Mother was born before the Son (according to his human nature), and she is, from her conception to dormition, the crowning achievement of Christ’s work of redemption.

The Liturgical Year

WESTERN (begins with Advent)

The Christmas Cycle

Advent: Sunday nearest St. Andrew’s until Christmas Eve
Christmas: Feast of Christmas until the Feast of the Epiphany
Epiphany: Feast of Epiphany through the Baptism of Our Lord
Season following Epiphany: January 14th until Septuagesima

The Easter Cycle

(Pre-Lent: Septuagesima until Ash Wednesday)

Lent: Ash Wednesday through Easter Triduum
Easter: Easter Vigil, through Ascension, until Pentecost
Pentecost: Pentecost Sunday and Whitsuntide
Season following Pentecost: Trinity Sunday until Advent

EASTERN (begins on September 1st)

The Twelve Great Feasts

Nativity of the Theotokos (Sep 8)
Exaltation of the Cross (Sep 14)
Presentation of the Theotokos (Nov 21)
Nativity of Christ (Dec 25)
Theophany (Baptism of Christ) (Jan 6)
Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Feb 2)
Annunciation (Mar 25)
Palm Sunday (Sunday before Pascha)

The Feast of Feasts

Holy Pascha, the Resurrection of Our Lord

Ascension (40 days after Pascha)
Pentecost (50 days after Pascha)
Transfiguration (Aug 6)
Dormition (Aug 15)

The Four Fasts

Nativity Fast: Day after St. Philip’s through Christmas Eve
Great Lent: Clean Monday until Paschal Vigil
Apostle’s Fast: Monday after All Saints until Sts. Peter and Paul
Dormition Fast: Two weeks before the Feast of the Dormition


[1] On his personal blog, Taylor Marshall recently wrote a post on this topic: Why is Sunday the Christian Sabbath? Taylor points to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Dies Domini, as an authoritative source of Catholic teaching on the meaning of the Lord’s Day.

[2] For more information on the traditional Church Calendar, focusing on the Western Church (though not to the exclusion of the East), see Dom Guéranger’s 15 volume commentary, The Liturgical Year.

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  1. “I invite you to consider whether the liturgical year, like the Christian Sabbath, fulfills (rather than destroys) the sacred feasts of the Old Covenant.”

    Amen. I am encouraged by what I see as a growing tendency in my former church (the PCA) to move towards following the liturgical year.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for this post, and the helpful outline of the liturgical calendars of the two “lungs” of the Church. I never knew that the Eastern rites begin the year on September 1st. I am fascinated by what you said about the Byzantine Catholic calendar being Marian in orientation. In attending the Divine Liturgy down in New Orleans this summer, I was struck by how often the Theotokos is invoked compared to the Latin rite. Not that I’m willing to say the Western is not Marian, given the importance of the feasts of the Assumption, Immaculate Conception, etc.

    I appreciated what you said about how Catholic liturgical worship affirms and sanctifies the cosmic rhythms of time, further elevated by grace in Christ, turning the whole of creation back to God. I remember Ratzinger speaking of the relationship between cosmic time and liturgy in The Spirit of the Liturgy. This was sorta kinda taught to me in small ways by PCA congregations that broke from the nonconformist/Puritan tradition of the regulative principle. Two congregations I was a part of celebrated not only Christmas and Easter but also Advent and Lent, Holy Thursday and Holy Friday. So I’m with Sean in recognizing the same tendency.

    Given the centrality of “reforming” worship to the early Reformed, especially (but not exclusively) in England and Scotland, I wonder what some readers would say about this trend of trying to sanctify the year. For those early Presbyterians, Sunday was the only day of corporate worship, and no Sunday was to be any different from any other. Each was a mini-Easter, as you put it, but there was to be no distinct Pascha or Nativity, or any other feasts. Many PCA churches still firmly hold to this idea. I had a friend at a PCA church that did not celebrate Christmas or Easter. They saw having a liturgical calendar as a Catholic corruption contrary to what they understood Scripture to prescribe for worship.

    I imagine that the more Southern-leaning, strict regulative principle guys are not comfortable with the trend. All the people advocating liturgical years (e.g., FV folks, Reformed “catholicity” folks, Anglicans who are Calvinists, etc.) are suspect for being “too Catholic” and for having an interpretation of the regulative principle that is too broad (i.e., a “theological/typological” regulative principle). Those with this broader interpretation find justification in the Scriptures for sanctifying time through a liturgical year. They see liturgy as built into the cosmos at creation (e.g., taking Gen 1:14 to mean this) as well as in the calendar of Israel. They come to agree with the Tradition that Christ fulfills the OT in such a way that feasts are not abolished but transformed, contrary to the strict interpretation guys (who think that the matter of not celebrating Sabbaths extends to a prohibition of new feasts).


  3. It is good to hear that some PCA congregations are observing parts of the liturgical year. I thought that in P & R circles this was limited to the FV movement and PCUSA. The OPC church that I attended had little to no regard for anything other than Sundays.

  4. It seems to be a church by church thing. My PCA church had a pastor who gave a sermon against weekly communion after the session was asked to do it. (the askers left to form a CREC)

    The pastor after him didnt have an issue with it, but thought it would take to much time in the service every week.

    The current pastor is all for it and other changes (added a Christmas service, added the sursum cordae and wants to wear robes, wants to go forward for communion instead of passing in the pews, etc.)

    What struck me is how variable the practice of individual congregations can be based entirely on each session/teaching elder. This variability made me nervous to see what would be going on in 30 years for my children.

  5. David,

    I wonder whether the PCA and other Reformed denominations require that a communion service be held at least once a year, and that the elements be bread and wine (or at least grape juice). In that case, the variability in practice and frequency would be constrained by some sort of denominational standard, even if that standard be judged deficient by other (e.g., Catholic) standards. And it is only fair to point out that there is a good deal of variation in practice, though not of the same kind and extent as among Reformed congregations, among Catholic parishes (synchronically), and in the Catholic liturgy / liturgies more generally (diachronically), even within the same Rite.


  6. I’m not sure if there are any official rules in the PCA about how often a congregation has to celebrate communion. However, allow me to vent some liturgical steam if I may:
    At my current PCA church we do communion weekly (which I like) although at my last PCA church a city away it was monthly (because it was a much larger church). My current church has both wine and grape juice available while my old church only had grape juice. As far as bread, well, we went through a period where someone bought basically fancy hot dog buns! Enough people complained (myself included) and we at least got some more traditional looking bread. Also, at my old church the communion trays were passed down the aisles by the elders but at my current church we exit our seats and go up and receive it from someone holding the trays (they are always men but not necessarily elders).

    As far as the liturgical calendar, this is one special point of contention for my wife especially. Once we started to seriously look in to the Catholic Church and she began to really get into the liturgical year she really felt like all this great stuff had been kept from her by all our various Protestant churches and pastors. It is very saddening to her to realize that so many years have gone by and yet we have corporately (as well as within our own family) only really celebrated Christmas and Easter and these for only one day instead of devoting longer calendar periods to them.

    Oh wait, besides Christmas and Easter we do celebrate Reformation Sunday :-/


    Aaron G.

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