Saturday 8 September 2012

Feasts in the month of September

For Orthodox Christians, September is the first month of the year. This new beginning takes us back to the first beginning, the creation of the world. Then God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath, giving us our cycle of seven-day weeks. In the Christian understanding, the eighth day is the beginning of a new week and a new life, and therefore it has always been understood as emblematic of the life of the age to come. For this reason, and because it was on the eighth day, the day after the Sabbath, that Christ rose from the dead, it is kept as the day of Resurrection, the Lord’s Day.

A parallel thought places the first Great Feast of the Church Year on the 8th September, the eighth day of the New Year. That feast is the Nativity of the the All-holy Virgin, who was to become the Mother of God, and thus inaugurate the new life, granted through the incarnation of the Word of God. Through her father, Joachim, Mary was of the ancient royal line of David, and through her mother, Anna, she was descended from the priestly tribe of Israel. Thus in her, her Son’s Kingship and High-Priestly office are prefigured. The Church teaches us that Joachim and Anna had been childless until deep old age, and that Mary was granted them in answer to their prayers. Her birth to such an elderly couple was thus miraculous, but Orthodoxy does not accept the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of an Immaculate Conception, which in fact would undermine the truth of the Incarnation. To the contrary, rather than thus being a hindrance to the meeting of heaven and earth, which was effected by the Incarnation of the Son of God, she is seen as the fulfilment of the mystical symbol of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12) which was set upon on the earth, but the top of which reached to heaven. The Vespers readings for the feast also reveal her ministry, first as Ever-Virgin (as proclaimed in the Scriptures by the prophecy of Ezekiel [44:2] concerning the East Gate which was shut), and secondly as the Mother of God, the one who contained God (as declared by the Book of Proverbs, [9:1]). Mary is the house that Wisdom had builded. For Joachim and Anna, although they were not granted to live long enough to witness the birth of Mary’s Divine Son, her birth was an end to their grief and the reproach that they had suffered because of their childlessness. And for all mankind her birth was the signal of the ending of the grief which was a consequence of Adam’s fall. In starting our Church Year then, we strike a note of joy and of hopeful anticipation. Mary’s birth anticipates that of our Saviour Himself, it looks forward to Redemption wrought, Resurrection bestowed, one of our kind ascended from earth to Heaven and seated on the right hand of the Father, to that new life for which our hearts ached as a consequence of the fall, and for which they even now ache, though we often do not comprehend it, as a consequence of our own sinfulness.

The Nativity of the Virgin has a one day forefeast, and is kept for five days, with the second day observed as a feast in honour of the parents of the Theotokos. It is thus a relatively short feast - many of the feasts are kept for eight days or more, - but this is not because it is unimportant, but because it it is followed quickly by the feast of the Cross.

The Universal Exaltation of the Honourable and Life-Creating Cross is now kept on 14th /27th September and has been since 335 A.D. It celebrates a number of events connected with the Saviour’s Cross. First, in importance among these is the Finding of the True Cross by the Empress St Helena in the year 326. This happened in the Spring, and originally was commemorated on the second day of Pascha. However, in 335 A.D., on 13th September, the Church of the Resurrection (the Holy Sepulchre) was consecrated. The feast of the Finding of the Cross was then transferred to fall on the day after that, rather than on the day after the Resurrection itself, it being difficult to keep a feast of the Cross in Bright Week. To this day we celebrate these two events in the way established in the early fourth century: the Consecration of the Church of the Resurrection on 13th, and the Holy Cross on the 14th September.

In the festival as we now keep it, we also commemorate the vision of the Cross by the Emperor St Constantine on 1st September, 312 A.D, before his battle against Maxentius. Constantine’s victory then led to him becoming sole Emperor of the West, and the aid that was miraculously afforded him by the Cross led to his issuing the Edict of Milan which made Christianity a permitted religion, and eventually to his and the Empire’s conversion to the Faith. We also celebrate the Return of the Cross from Persia in 628 A.D. Fourteen years early, the Holy Land had been overrun by the Persians and the Cross taken as a trophy. By an accord with the Emperor Heracleus, it was received back at Jerusalem on 14th September, 628 A.D. It is recorded that the Emperor himself desired to bear the Cross back into the Church of the Resurrection, and went to meet it attired in the Imperial purple and diadem, but some force prevented him from carrying the Cross back into the church. Inspired from above, the Patriarch explained to Heracleus that when our Saviour had borne that same Cross He had divested Himself of all His majesty and was as a criminal going to execution. Then the Emperor humbly stripped off all his royal attire, and found that he was able to bear the Cross back into the Church.

In the last century too a miracle of the Cross happened on this feast, and many of those who witnessed it have lived to our own times. In 1924, the state Church in Greece adopted the New Calendar and those who in conscience could not accept this innovation, dubbed “Old Calendarists,” were harassed and even persecuted by the authorities. In 1925, for this feast many of the faithful gathered at the Church of St John the Theologian on Mount Hymettus near Athens, hoping there to be able to celebrate the festival on the Church Calendar undisturbed. However, the police and militia arrived to disrupt their services. Then it was that a miraculous Cross of light appeared in the night sky, confounding the innovators and heartening those who had remained faithful to the Church traditions.

To honour the redeeming Passion of our Saviour, the festival of the Cross is kept as a fast day, even though it is numbered among the Twelve Great Feasts.

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