Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Feast?

Dear Parish Faithful,

According to the liturgical calendar for this year, the next of the Twelve Major Feast Days is Monday, November 21 – the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple. This means that the festal Great Vespers with the blessing of the loaves and anointment with oil will be served this coming Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. The Liturgy will then be served on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. Certain Feast Days are called immovable, for they occur on the same date every year – Nativity on December 25; Theophany on January 6 – as is the case with the upcoming Entrance of the Theotokos. Yet, occurring on the same date every year means that these Feasts will be celebrated on a different day of the week every year in a cyclical fashion. The moveable Feasts are those that are determined by the annual changing date of Pascha – Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday; Ascension and Pentecost. These Feast occur on the same day every year, but on a different date. So the over-all festal life of the Church – comprised of Feasts honoring the Lord and the Thetokos – is something of a rhythm between moveable and immovable dates, lending to this cycle a rather dynamic quality. Yet, this poses challenges for us living out our Faith in a contemporary setting.

For parish life, the most challenging day and time of the week to have a service is on Sunday evening. For what I would assume are a variety of reasons, parishioners simply do not return to church for a service on Sunday evening. For many or most it is probably not even on one’s ecclesial radar screen. Yet the church calendar is what it is, and this year the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple will be celebrated on Sunday evening/Monday morning. With our pattern of poor attendance for Sunday evening services, and a work schedule beginning on Monday morning, the prospects for a “festal” Feast Day are rather bleak. In the ongoing “battle of the calendars” – ecclesial and secular - that we may be aware of or not, this one looks like a definite setback. Work is work on Monday morning, but is it really the case that Sunday evening has to remain a “black hole” of sorts in our over-all parish life? Is it really well-nigh “impossible” to return to church for a festal service honoring the Theotokos on Sunday evening? Are these even meaningful questions in today’s world? Or are these those types of esoteric and arcane questions that the caste of Orthodox priests are prone to indulge in?

Preparing for the service on Sunday evening, I know ahead of time that the church will be near-empty for the service. After many years, I am quite accustomed to that, but it still remains a less than exciting prospect. However, that is not the point, because it not about me and whatever interior attitude I may bring to the service. It is not about whatever “disappointments” a parish priest may experience. In every parish there are parishioners who are justifiably disappointed with the priest. After awhile, such concerns can become rather fruitless. Actually, it is about all of us as an Orthodox Christian community. And my pastoral goal is to try and invigorate everyone in the parish with a sense of commitment to the Church’s celebration of the festal cycle; a cycle of services that gives us the opportunity to re-live and actualize the saving events of God’s dispensation for our salvation. And this may mean making adjustments in our lives that will make that possible. On November 21, we are able to celebrate, together with the Virgin Mary, her entrance into the Temple of the Lord as one of the first acts of her preparation to be the Theotokos. Bearing this in mind, everyone will have to (re-)examine his/her stewardship of time and energy and determine whether or not you on a personal level, or all on a communal level, can commit on a deeper level to be aware of that festal cycle and to participate when we are able even if and when that commitment proves to be challenging or “inconvenient.” Where is our treasure? Where are our priorites? What really motivates us? These are the general question below the surface.

Yet, perhaps I can pose a more direct question: Just how challenging or inconvenient will it be on this coming Sunday evening to return to church for the festal Great Vespers? (Or, if possible, for the Liturgy on Monday morning?) Each person or household will have to answer that question on their own. The answers, of course, will be multiple and quite varied. But I again repeat that I hope that that is at least a meaningful question that everyone will think over. To repeat: The calendar is what it is for this year, and we will have some choices to make on Sunday – consciously or not. If it gets down to socializing; going to see a film; or watching one more football game; what does such a choice say about your response to the previously-mentioned commitment to the life of the Church? Is it possible to tear yourselves away from those choices and choose the Church instead? Of course, anyone can rationalize and say: “I have already been to church once today, and that is enough!” Yet again, thinking outside of the box, or moving outside of your comfort zones, you may just decide: let’s go to church and honor the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!

Perhaps this may seem like making a bit too much over one service. I acknowledge that. But I began to think about this earlier in the week as I looked ahead to our liturgical cycle and then decided to write about it, treating this service as something of a microcosm that encompasses other pressing questions of our Church life. In addition, this does offer me the pastoral possibility of periodically raising those types of questions that you may gloss over or ignore. We tend to settle into routines that are hard to break, and the routine of “only once on Sunday” is particularly entrenched.

The Feasts of the Church are wonderful. They are deeply expressive of what we believe and even of who we are. They connect us to Christ in a mystical manner. They allow us to continually praise and venerate the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos. Most Christians today have no awareness of them. We want to remain the Church that not only has a festal cycle “on paper,” but one that brings us together in faith and love as a community committed to Christ and His Body the Church. We will have that opportunity this coming Sunday evening and/or Monday morning with the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.

Great Vespers on Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m.
Resources for the Feast

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