Dear Parish Faithful,
"Tell me what you celebrate, and I will tell you who you are ..." Fr. Alexander Schmemann
The Church New Year begins on September 1. According to my careful calculations that would be tomorrow. That means that we have at least two major calendars guiding and directing our lives - the Church calendar and our secular calendar. Both have commemorations and major observances, called "holy days" on the Church calendar, and "holidays" on the secular calendar. We can easily see how the secular "holiday" is a derivative of the Church's "holy day." For many, this would simply mean that any current holiday is the secular form of the ancient and no-longer observed holy day of the past. For Orthodox Christians, this would be an entirely false assumption, because the holy day of the Church calendar - or the Feast Day to use a more common term - is not a thing of the past, but a very present reality to this day. A society cannot function or exist with any cohesiveness without communal celebrations. This was/is even true of militantly atheistic societies as they have come into existence in our recent memory. But again, today it is a civic/social event rather than a religious event that is marked on the calendar, and observed by society at large.
Our fast-paced lives make it virtually impossible to observe the Church calendar with faithfulness because of the ever-increasing demands of our secular calendars, understood in the comprehensive sense of our daily lives from work and school to "recreation." There is never enough time and energy. If you recall from past reflections on this subject, I call this tension between the two "the battle of the calendars." How do we choose what to observe? How much choice do we even have in this difficult "battle?" As we are forced to compartmentalize so much of our lives and time, what is even "left over" for the Church outside of Sunday morning? Are we even aware of any such tension, or are we blissfully indifferent to it all?
Allow me to make this point more concrete by a fast-approaching example of the "battle of the calendars" in our own lives. Next Monday, September 7, is the secular "Labor Day." This means a much-appreciated and much-anticipated three-day weekend. It could also mean a short trip out-of-town or a day of relaxation and/or socializing with family and friends. If nothing else it is just nice to "hang out" doing nothing in particular. The main thing is that Labor Day is a "day off" - from labor! (I am not quite sure just how many people "observe" the meaning of "Labor Day").
However, next Monday, September 7, is also the eve of the first of the Twelve Major Feasts of our Church calendar - the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). This means that toward the end of the day, there will be a service in the Church - Great Vespers with the blessing of loaves and anointing with oil - in order to celebrate the joyous event of the birth of the Mother of God. For believing Orthodox Christians this is the "birthday celebration" of the Virgin Mary, the woman through whom the Messiah and Savior will enter the world for our salvation A beautiful and meaningful feast indeed! Who would want to miss it? (Just how often do we turn down invitations to birthday celebrations?) Where do we stand in the "battle of the calendars" when we have a choice to make? With proper planning, can a day of relaxation and socializing culminate in the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, where prayers and hymns of joy rise up to God in thankfulness for this child? This way, it does not need to be an "either/or" choice, but a "both/and" as the day can result in a peaceful resolution of the "battle of the calendars." But that in itself is a matter of choice! Actually, for many parishioners this may be more "convenient" than usual, since there is more time to prepare for back to work or school on Tuesday. Of course, the Liturgy of the Feast will be on Tuesday morning at our usual time of 9:30 a.m. for those who can attend then.
Labor Day will afford us all an opportunity for "recreation" in the sense of "relaxing." Again, something essential to our well-being on a periodic basis. The Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos will grant us the opportunity for "re-creation," of immersing ourselves in the "new creation" that can only be experienced in the Church where we willingly co-operate in the renewal of our human nature through Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection. The Church year and its full liturgical cycle allows us to actualize the past events of our salvation in the "today" of our lives. Here is a wonderful rhythm of fast and feast, of participation in the beautiful and joyous events that connect us to God and make present the gift of salvation. Truly, Orthodox Christians are blessed in these sacred possibilities!
Perhaps this particular meditation raised your awareness of the issues involved in the "battle of the calendars." If so, I hope you will give it some thought. Be that as it may, I distinctly recall that I had to make a pledge before I was ordained to the priesthood to observe the Feast Days of the Church as long as I was able to. So, we will always observe the cycle of Feasts as they appear on the calendar, convenient or not. The service days and times are announced, the doors will be open, all are invited. As I like to say, all of the services and celebrations of the Church have a "more the merrier" atmosphere to them. There is always a certain disconnect between a Feast Day celebration and a near-empty church - at least when that can be avoided. Truly Fr. Schmemann was on to something when he said: "Tell me what you celebrate and I will tell you who you are ..."
We will mark the actual beginning of the Church New Year this evening with a service at 7:00 p.m.
A final liturgical note: Usually we now schedule a Vesperal Liturgy for a Feast Day to allow for more participation, and for those who participate the opportunity to receive the Eucharist for the Feast. Since next Monday is Labor Day and you may have various daytime activities planned, I decided that that would not work in relation to preparing to receive Holy Communion. So we are following the more traditional pattern of Great Vespers on the eve and the Liturgy on the morning of the Feast itself. The same thing will happen with the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross (September 14). The eve will be on a Sunday, so the Great Vespers with the procession of the Cross will be in the evening on Sunday, and the Liturgy on the morning of Monday, September 14.