We find ourselves in the midst of great celebrations. We have commemorated the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord; we look with anticipation to His Baptism in the Jordan and His Presentation to the Temple, not to mention that we celebrate today the Feast of St. Stephen the First Martyr of the Christian Church, as well as the other saints whom we commemorate with festal services this season.
We are not unlike other groups of people in history; each culture or people has given thanks on particular days, be it for success in work or from benefits received and also begged aid from high in times of need. In the Old Testament, God set aside particular days for his people on which they would celebrate in a particular manner, dictated by Him. When the Christ was incarnate, when He was Baptized and when He was transfigured – both of which manifested the Trinity – when He was Crucified and when He was Resurrected, these days were commemorated by His disciples as important days in God’s divine plan of salvation. As time passed, those men and women who lived virtuous lives in Christ would also be commemorated with a yearly anniversary; Christians would call their examples to mind and encourage the emulation of the saints on their feasts. By the reign of Manuel I in the twelfth century, he celebrated 66 full panagyries without Sundays and 27 half feasts.
If we celebrate the Feasts of the Lord, (dominical or despotikai) the Feasts of the Theotokos (Marian or Theometorikai), of the saints (sanctoral), or those occasional feasts (the consecration of a church, a council, a miracle, or a transfer of relics amongst other occasions) our calendar is practically a continual festal celebration that encourages a deeper, daily, communion with God the Father, in the Son, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Hymns are joyously chanted, the Scriptures are thoughtfully read, a dedicated fast is maintained or broken, almsgiving is generous as God is benevolent to each of us, and other rituals particular to the day are incorporated into the celebration. Then, at a particular moment, we are invited as individual members of the corporate Body of Christ to experience the festival in a most intimate manner through the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
When we partake of His Precious Body and Life-giving Blood, we have truly celebrated a Feast in all its’ splendor and in a manner well pleasing to God. It is at that moment that we have absorbed the event, making it new, making it our own, and unto eternal life.
Reflecting upon the importance of participating in the feast and holidays of Christ and His Saints, Father Paisios of blessed memory explains,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, with His great love and joy, which fills the souls of the faithful during His holy feast days, exalts us spiritually and truly resurrects us. All we need to do is participate in these feasts and celebrate them with a spiritual appetite; for once we taste the heavenly wine to which the Saint will treat us, we will become drunk in spirit.
Its’ for this reason that Fr. Paisios suggests:
We must study and live through these divine events all the time. When someone studies the events of each feast day, he will be naturally moved to prayer with particular reverence. Then, during liturgical services, our mind will be absorbed by the events we are celebrating and we will follow with great reverence the chanting of hymns. When our minds think divine thoughts, we get to live through these holy events, and in this manner we are transformed.
Although we Orthodox boast a host of theological words to express our transformation in Christ, the essence is that we rightly choose to set ourselves apart from the world and seek citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Celebrating a feast of the Church calls us out of the world, if only for while, to participate in God’s life with the angels and with the saints. It’s in these moments that the angels and the saints become familiar. As one father has expressed, we interact with the saints as God intended without divisions as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ sustained by His Grace. As friends or more intimately as family members, we pray for them and they in return pray for us. And, together we glorify, petition and worship God together with one voice and one heart.
Although our natural inclination is to draw closer to God our Creator and our Savior, that is, to become holy, we are ever bombarded with cares of the world. It’s no wonder that the narthex is meant to transition from the world so that we can focus upon the divine once we enter the nave or the sanctuary. The challenge though is getting people to enter the narthex in the first place!
Secularism takes many shapes and forms in our day and age. For some, the Feasts of Christmas and Pascha are not so much feasts of the Nativity of Jesus or His Third Day Rising from the dead, but instead simply feasts of foods - lamb on Easter and pork on Christmas. Some simply celebrate these feasts, tragically so, with colored eggs or decorated trees. To others they aren’t even feasts; these holy days are but ethnic commemorations of Greek Easter and Russian Christmas which might gather family and friends around a table, but the saints, the Mother of God, the Lord Himself remain uninvited guests.
Secularism has also affected Sunday, once considered the Lord’s Day and a day of rest. It’s sad to think that for over 1900 years, Christians managed to keep Sundays free of work, sports and chores. Within less than 100 years, we’ve not only found time for these by stealing time from spiritual things, from Christ, work, sports, those played and those watched as well as chores have become priorities, even valid reasons to not celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
Although secularism can remove the luster of our Christian feasts, the deep-rooted human desire to celebrate remains. We create new festivals with ritual processions, singing, music, banquets and traditions to give life meaning. As Fr. Schmemann of blessed memory wrote,
This is exactly the meaning of the feast at its deepest and most primitive level: man liberating himself from a life chained solely to necessity and unbreakable law. This is why feasts and celebrations become the repository and expression of his understanding of life’s goals and meanings.
Put another way, at least according to Fr. Schememann, “Tell me what you celebrate and I will tell you who you are…”