The Liturgical Year
Each year, the Church brings to our attention the principal events in the life of Our Lord and his Mother, the achievements of the saints, and the theological doctrines of the Faith. This annual cycle of feasts, fasts and commemorations is called the liturgical year.
The Meaning of the Liturgical Year
The liturgical year is a school of prayer. Just as the divinely instituted feasts of the Old Testament reminded the people of Israel of the principal events of their history, and allowed them to renew their covenant with God, the Church's liturgical year recounts:
- the creation of the world, the fall of Man, and coming judgment - giving us cause for repentance;
- the Incarnation, life, sufferings, death, Resurrection and Ascension of the only-begotten Word of God, for our sakes - giving us cause for thanksgiving;
- the lives of the Mother of God and of the saints - giving us cause for thanksgiving and hope, and encouragement in our own lives.
But the liturgical year is also a source of God's grace. Through each feast and commemoration, the meaning of the feast is made present in the Church, and the grace of the feast is recalled; this meaning and grace enters into and enlightens the minds and hearts of the faithful as they take part in the liturgical year.
Finally, the liturgical year is a means of union with Christ. As we remember the events which led to our redemption, and the deeds of those who have lived under grace, the Holy Spirit (through the Church's liturgy) directs our minds and hearts toward the goal of salvation for ourselves and those around us, to so live in this life as to be made fit for eternal life in heaven.
The Paschal Cycle
The basis of the liturgical year is a commemoration - a collective calling-to-mind - of the life, death and Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, for our salvation and redemption. It is this "Paschal mystery" which was prefigured in the Old Testament; symbolized in the baptism which makes us adopted sons and daughters of God, and members of the His Body, the Church; and imitated in the lives of Christians. The annual round of feasts commemorating this mystery is called the Paschal cycle.
The Paschal cycle
|10 weeks before Pascha||Preparation for the Great Fast|
|7 weeks before Pascha||The Great Fast (Holy Lent)|
|1 week before Pascha||
|the 6 days before Pascha||Great and Holy Week|
|(date varies)||PASCHA - The Passover of the Lord|
|the 6 days after Pascha||Bright Week|
|40 days after Pascha||The Ascension of the Lord|
|50 days after Pascha||Pentecost - the Descent of the Holy Spirit|
A variable number of "weeks after Pentecost"
The center and summit of the entire liturgical year is Pascha, the annual feast of the Resurrection of Christ. For an entire week thereafter (called Bright Week), we use the hymns of the Resurrection that during the rest of the year are sung only on Sundays. For 50 days, we refrain from all fasting, and stand instead of kneel at all services, in commemoration of our Lord's Resurrection.
Forty days after Pascha, we celebrate our Lord's return to heaven, as the feast of the Ascension; and ten days later, we keep the feast of Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and the beginning of their preaching of the Gospel.
From Pentecost onwards, the Church provides weekly Scripture readings from the Gospel and apostolic books, presenting the teachings and acts of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the writings of the apostles on the life of grace.
Finally, as we approach the next celebration of Pascha. the Church leads us through 40 days "in the wilderness" - a forty day fast which recalls the forty years spent by the Israelites in the desert before entering the promised land. During this Great Fast, we recall the entire history of salvation from the Old Testament, and the prophecies of the coming Messiah, his suffering and glorification.
At end of the Great Fast, we commemorate our Lord's entry into Jerusalem, his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, death and burial, in the services of Great and Holy Week. On Saturday of this week, a long vigil service commemorates the Old Testament foreshadowings of the Paschal Mystery - and begins the celebration of Pascha once again.
Feast Days, Saints' Days and Commemorations
Alongside the Paschal cycle, we commemorate other events in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Mother, significant events in the Church's history, and the lives of the saints of the Old and New Testament. These feasts are associated with particular days which do not change from year to year, and thus form the cycle of fixed feasts (sometimes called the "sanctoral cycle", meaning cycle of saints). By contrast, the Paschal cycle is sometimes called the cycle of movable feasts.
Each day of the year is associated with one or more commemorations, which are listed in the Calendar of Saints. These events include:
- Feasts of our Lord which commemorate events outside the Paschal cycle: events in his early life, as well as his Transfiguration.
- Feasts of the Mother of God.
- Feasts of the saints of the Old and New Testament. Very often, these feasts take place on the anniversary of their deaths, their "birthday in heaven." For particularly important saints, there may be several feast-days throughout the year.
- Commemorations of important events in the life of the Church, such as the dedication of important cathedrals.
The prayers and hymns for these feasts can be found in the liturgical books (one per month) called the Menaion. Special symbols in the Menaion are used to indicate the liturgical "rank" of the feast; more important feasts are celebrated with greater solemnity.
Note that the fixed calendar often differs slightly among the various Churches that use the same rite (in this case, the Byzantine Rite). For example, a saint who evangelized a particular country may be most highly honored in that country. Local bishops typically establish the calendar to be used, and how feast days are to be celebrated.
Pre-festive and Post-festive days
The feasts of the Church, the Bride of Christ, can bring us closer to our Lord, and can teach us about and even instill in us the grace associated with each feast - but they do this most effectively if we do not come to them "cold" and unprepared. Therefore, the Church often prepares for its more solemn feasts with one or more pre-festive days, with hymns at the liturgical services that direct our minds and hearts to the upcoming feast.
In the same way, major feasts are often followed by one or more post-festive days, to help us reflect upon and begin to live out the message of the feast we have just kept. The number of pre-festive and post-festive days varies with the solemnity of the feast. The final day of a post-festive period is referred to as the leave-taking of the feast; on this day, the liturgical services are similar or identical to those of the feast itself.
Certain feast days are followed immediately by a commemoration of some personage associated with the feast. This day is called a synaxis (the ancient word for an assembly). For example, the feast of the Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, on December 25 is immediately flowed by a feast day in honor of his mother - "the Synaxis of the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary", on December 26. (The term "synaxis" is also sometimes used for other feast days, particularly ones on which several saints are honored.)
Of course, the faithful cannot always be in church for these pre- and post-festive days. So some feast-days have special readings at the Divine Liturgy on the Saturdays and Sundays before and after the feast, since Saturday and Sunday are the traditional days on which the Eucharist was celebrated throughout the year in the Byzantine Rite.
Combining the moveable and fixed cycles
The two cycles of feasts, the Paschal cycle if moveable feasts and the sanctoral cycle of fixed feasts, along with their pre- and post-festive days, overlap throughout the year - and the hymns and prayers of the two cycles are combined in the services, with more solemn commemorations taking precedence. The rules for combining the hymns, readings and prayers on a given day are found in the liturgical book called the Typikon.
A Guide to the Liturgical Year
The following articles describe the course of the liturgical year.
- The Beginning of the Liturgical Year
- Feasts of the Mother of God
- The Christmas Fast
- Christmas - the Nativity of our Lord
- From Christmas to Theophany
- Theophany - the Baptism of our Lord
- The Meeting with Simeon and Anna
- The Great Fast of Holy Lent
- Great and Holy Week
- Pascha - the Resurrection our Lord
- Bright Week
- The Paschal Season
- The Ascension
- From Ascension to Pentecost
- Pentecost - the Descent of the Holy Spirit
- The Time after Pentecost
- Feasts of Saints
- Feasts of Churches
- Exaltation of the Cross
Additional articles describe the services and chants of specific feasts.
Development of the Liturgical Year
The Paschal cycle
In the early Church, the principal feast days were the the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection (Sunday), and the annual commemorations of the Resurrection (Pascha) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, fifty days after Pascha).
Certain days were considered most important for baptism, the addition of new members to the Church - most notably Pascha and Pentecost - and the catechumens to be baptized fasted for some length of time in preparation. The faithful were advised to fast in solidarity with the catechumens, and as well as for their own sakes, and this eventually became the 40-day Great Fast.
Meanwhile, cycles of readings and prayers for the Eucharist or Divine Liturgy were composed for the Sundays and Saturdays (the ordinary Eucharistic days), and the other principal events associated with the Paschal mystery were given feast-days as well, to form the Paschal cycle of services.
The sanctoral cycle
The early Church (which lived under threat and persecution) often assembled to celebrate the Eucharist at the tombs of the martyrs, typically on the anniversary of their deaths. Over time, other saints who had witnessed to Christ, but not to the point of death, were also honored, under the title "confessors". Before long, feast-days in honor of our Lord's birth appeared in various parts of the Church, eventually becoming the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany.
Feasts of the Mother of God soon entered the calendar (the most ancient being that of her Dormition on August 15), along with feasts in honor of our Lord's circumcision, baptism, and transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
With the gradual addition of newer saints, the Old Testament prophets, church dedication anniversaries, and pre- and post-festive days to the fixed calendar, along with guidelines for combining the two cycles, we have the liturgical year as we know it today.
Learning more about the Liturgical Year
The best way to understand and benefit from the liturgical year is to keep the feasts, attentively and prayerfully! The feasts of the liturgical year have a freshness which makes it possible to learn from then, and thus draw nearer to God, in a new way every time we come back to them.
Materials on this website, and in other sources we list here and in other articles, can help in this appreciation, especially on historical points. But much can also be learned from asking questions about the liturgy from a priest, cantor or other knowledgeable person.
For example, the hymn "All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ, Alleluia!" occurs at the Divine Liturgy on the feasts of the Nativity (December 25), Theophany (January 6), Lazarus Saturday, Pascha, throughout Bright Week, and on Pentecost. By noticing this, combined with a little knowledge of the Church's history, one can not only recognize these as days which the Church associates with baptism - but can go deeper into the significant of baptism as our own dying and being reborn with Christ, so that we might live with Him forever.
Just as God has provided us with the natural year as a cycle of light and darkness, sowing, weeding and harvest, so He has provided us with the liturgical year as a year of grace.
- The Liturgical Year according to the Byzantine Tradition. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 35. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1986).
for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated.
(Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996).
Chapter Three covers the liturgical year.
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968.)
A good book-length introduction to the liturgical year as celebrated in the Byzantine Catholic Church.
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.)
An beautiful explanation and commentary on the liturgical year; an Orthodox standard.
- Father Jean Danielou. The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1956.)
An in-depth discussion of baptism and the development of the Paschal cycle.