God ordained the honoring of the Sabbath, the months and festivals, not because He wanted these days to be honored by men as days, for that would be serving the creature more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25), implying that days are naturally worthy of honor and therefore of worship themselves. But through the ordinance to honor the days, He symbolically ordained the honoring of Himself. For He, Himself, is the Sabbath, the source of rest from the cares and labors of life. He is the Pascha, the Liberator of those held in the bitter servitude of sin; He is the Pentecost, the beginning and end of all.
These words of Saint Maximos the Confessor, living in the seventh century suggest the true beauty and function of church feasts – we feast not to remember Christ, but instead to encounter Him and to Feast with Him! But, how is this possible?
Sister Nonna, an assistant professor of Church History at St. Paul School of Theology in the introduction to her translation of St. Gregory of Nazianus’ Festal Orations explains “the feast is a place of mutual encounter and interchange of gifts between God and his people in which God always gives himself first.” She suggests that this interchange occurs because:
In festal celebration the boundaries of sequential time are transcended as the original saving events and the present experience of the congregation join together. The past events of Christ incarnate life and the Spirit’s decent, the preset experience of the Christian community, and the future participation in God’s Kingdom are made one. The joy of the feast is a participation in Paradise restored. The transcendence of temporal boundaries also brings a transcendence of cosmic boundaries as the human worshipers join the angels in their witness, awe praise, and hymnody. In this context the worshippers are invited to an encounter with Christ that is both communal and deeply personal, an encounter that brings grace, joy, and salvation.
Similarly, St. John of Kronstadt teaches:
How closely the Church in heaven and the Church on earth are connected! What love the Church has! She unceasingly remembers the Church in Heaven, she calls upon its members in prayer, and gives glory to them for the great deeds wrought upon earth for God’s sake. She unceasingly prays for the whole body of the Church on earth, and intercedes for the departed, in the hope of the resurrection unto life eternal, and of union with God and the saints. Let us enter into the spirit of this great love of our mother the Orthodox Church, let us be penetrated with it. Let us look upon all our brethren as our own members, as we are all members of the Church in heaven, and she will be our active and speedy helper and intercessor.
“What does the daily invocation of the saints signify — of different ones each day, during the whole year, and during our whole life?” St. John provides a telling and comforting answer:
It signifies that God’s saints — as our brethren, but perfect — live, and are near us, ever ready to help us, by the grace of God. We live together with them in the house of our Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them, and they with us. God’s saints are near to the believing heart, and are ready in a moment to help those who call upon them with faith and love.
It is for this reason that St. Ambrose of Optina concluded, “He who does not respect the feasts of the Church does not have success.”
As essential as feasts are to living a life in Christ, or at least, in proximity to Christ and His holy ones, feasts are not as has been explained by a contemporary writer: “institutions which are legislated by some ecclesiastical authority apart from the interest and consent of the people. If there were no popular interest and veneration of a certain holy person, there would be no official canonization and no liturgical festival established in their honor.” Therefore, to celebrate a Feast for the Feasts sake is not a result of and an affirmation of our devotion to God nor an expression of our sincere piety.
What must we do to live a spiritual life during feasts? Father Paisios of blessed memory when asked this question had the following response:
To live through Christ’s feasts in a spiritual way, we must keep our minds focused on the holy days themselves and not on the work that we have to do to prepare for them. We should think about the events of each holy day (Christmas, Theophany, Pascha, and so on) and say the Jesus Prayer glorifying God in our heart. This way we will celebrate with reverence every feast day of the Church… For the true monks, every week is Holy Week. Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday they experience Holy and Great Wednesday, Holy and Great Thursday, and Holy and Great Friday, that is the days of the Passion of Christ, and every Sunday is for them Pascha, the Day of the Resurrection. Why must we wait until Holy Week to remember the Passion of Christ?...
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 pray 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 mind thinks divine thoughts, we get to live through these holy events, and in this manner we are transformed. We think of a Saint for whom we have a special devotion, or of the Saint whose feast day we are celebrating, and our mind rises higher toward Heaven. And when we keep the Saints in mind, they keep us in mind too, and they come to our assistance. This is how we can start a friendship with them, one that will last forever. And so, even though we may lie alone, we will actually share our lives with everybody: with the Saints, the Angels, the whole world. Imagine, being alone, and feeling their company! This is the living presence of the Saints who are God’s children and will reach out to help us, their poor brothers and sisters.
I conclude this lesson on Festal living with the words of St. John of Kronstadt:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, with His great love and joy, which fill 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 Saints will treat us, we will become drunk in spirit.