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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Sacred Time

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Many Christian festivals and holy days are shared by most Christian communities, including the Eastern Orthodox. This article identifies several of the unique features of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Along with the great majority of Christians worldwide, Eastern Orthodox Christians worship daily, weekly, and at special times throughout the year. Eastern Orthodoxy is a liturgical faith, meaning that Orthodox services use carefully structured and prescribed rituals, called liturgy.

Eastern Orthodoxy places great emphasis on tradition, and regards its traditions as holy. Holy tradition includes scripture, the Nicene Creed, the decrees of the ecumenical councils, the writings of the Church Fathers, the icons, and the books of liturgical service, which extend to twenty volumes. Although the liturgy has developed and changed, it is characterized by a sense of faithfulness to practices rooted in ancient traditions, perhaps dating from the days of the apostles. Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae famously described the spirit of Orthodox tradition as "lived experience . . . the uninterrupted life of the church." At the heart of Eastern Orthodox tradition is the commitment to maintaining the beliefs and practices of the apostolic churches, so that the experience of contemporary Orthodox Christians will conform to the experience of the very first Christians, in an uninterrupted stream of worship and sacrament. Though the word "orthodox" means "correct belief," its connection with "correct practice" is intrinsic to Orthodox faith.

In adherence to tradition, some Orthodox churches still use the old Julian calendar to calculate the dates of the principal festivals of the Christian year. This includes the churches in Jerusalem, Russia, and Serbia. These churches celebrate such principal feasts as Christmas and Easter later than their western counterparts. The Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, thus westerners will often see Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem and Moscow celebrating major Christian holy days about two weeks later than Christians in the west. However, other Orthodox churches have begun to use the modern Gregorian calendar.

Easter is called Pascha and is the central celebration of the liturgical year. In addition to Easter, which is the Feast of Feasts, the Orthodox liturgical year (which traditionally begins on September 1) is highlighted by the Twelve Great Feasts, eight of which honor Jesus, and four of which honor his mother. They are, in chronological order:

September 8: The Nativity of the Mother of God
September 14: The Exaltation of the Cross
November 21: The Presentation of the Mother of God
December 25: The Nativity of Christ
January 6: The Baptism of Christ
February 2: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
March 25: The Annunciation
The Sunday before Easter: Palm Sunday, Jesus' entry in Jerusalem
Forty Days after Easter: The Ascension of Christ
Fifty Days after Easter: Pentecost
August 6: The Transfiguration
August 15: The Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Mother of God

 

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