The Good Nous is pleased to introduce to you the sequel to our last series, “Words of Love”. There we explored the words of love with the Circle of Love as our compass.
Our new series will be dedicated to the cycle of the Orthodox liturgical year, which officially begins on September 1st.* These cycles are complex, and the meaning behind them is not so much meant to be analyzed as it is to be lived and experienced. One of our purposes for reflecting on the year as a whole, is not to get lost in the details, but to bear in mind the year’s overarching narrative of salvation. We hope that this “Living Liturgical Commentary” will serve as a useful guide to the beauties and riches of the liturgical year.
*Note: We will primarily be following the New Calendar and Greek liturgical practice. This means that some posts will be relevant for followers of the (Old) Julian Calendar about 13 days after their publication.
An Unexpected Beginning
September 1st ushers in the Ecclesiastical Year. In modern times, this date may seem uneventful or even obsolete. After all, don’t we celebrate the New Year on January 1st? January 1st also matches the general mood of festivity around Christmas time. What’s more, the original purpose of September 1, the Indiction, or day of Roman tax assessment, is no longer relevant to us. However, the fact remains: September 1st, not January 1st, is the ecclesiastical New Year. It turns out the secular matter of the tax year is actually a perfect opportunity to spell out the goal of our series: how to make the leap from secular time to sacred time.
So why does the Church, in her wisdom, mark Roman tax day as the beginning of the liturgical year? Historically, it was up to the Roman rulers to determine the exact times and dates of the yearly cycle. The Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar was a solar calendar, and so it roughly corresponded to the agrarian calendar. They established each year’s, or fifteen-year cycle’s, tax on the basis of the success of the harvest, which occurred in late Summer in the Roman mediterranean. In the second section, we will see how the theme of taxes is surprisingly relevant to us, not only as we enter a period of financial hardship, but also in our perennial pursuit to follow the Gospel.
But let us first deal with some technicalities and explore what it means for the liturgical year to start anew. Now, to be exact, the Ecclesiastical Year marks the beginning of the annual cycle of Fixed Feasts. Fixed Feasts are the feasts with a fixed date, like Christmas which always falls on December 25th and the Dormition on August 15th.
The other major cycle of the liturgical year is the annual cycle of Moveable Feasts and Sundays, which ultimately depend on the moveable Feast of Feasts, Pascha. In the days of the early Church, it was determined that Pascha should always be celebrated on a Sunday, meaning it could not have a fixed date. The centrality of Pascha to the rest of the liturgical year cannot be overstated. Pascha is the prime mover of the moveable feasts, and liturgically speaking, every Sunday is a “little Pascha”.
Here are two columns showing the parallel cycles (although bear in mind, they are not to scale with each other):
1. The texts in (italics) are books used as guides to the liturgical year: Menaion, or “book of months”; hymns for each day of every month. The Triodion, or “book of three odes (for matins)”, for the Lenten and pre-Lenten period. The Pentecostarion, or “book of the fifty days”, used from Pascha to Pentecost. the Octoechos, or “book of eight tones”; hymns for each day of the week in the eight modes.
2. September is a major point of intersection between the two parallel cycles, because the date of the Conception of the Forerunner (Sept. 23) determines which Sunday will begin the Lukan Sunday Gospel cycle. This is related to the fact that the St John’s Conception signals the beginning of Christ’s economy of salvation as recorded by St Luke in his own gospel.
The Two Major Annual Cycles: Wheels within Wheels
If you are confused, then good. You should be. The complex parallel cycles of fixed feasts and moveable feasts are precisely what make our liturgical year so rich and varied. Every year is wholly unique. When trying to consider the cycles all at once, we get the impression of peering into “wheels within wheels”. The cosmos is spinning fast; the world and time we inhabit are dizzying. The Fixed Feast cycle is made up of the cycle of months, each of which begins with a blessing of the waters (agiasmos). As for the Paschal cycle, there are multiple cycles within it: the weekly Sunday gospels and epistles cycle, which circles through the ♰ four evangelists each year; the *11-week Resurrection matins cycle; the *eight-week cycle of eight tones, even the weekly reading of the Psalms.
Not to mention, all the above cycles are filled with exceptions. Fortunately, our priests and bishops’ liturgical books provide all the details and typika for how these cycles are to be intricately interwoven. One way to simplify it is to think of the annual cycle of the Fixed Feast as the dates of the 12-months and the cycle of annual Moveable Feasts as the days of the 52 weeks. As with the secular year, the two are not in sync; any set date, let’s say the 1st, could fall on any given day, a Monday or a Friday. At any rate, like the “wheels within wheels” of the priest and prophet Ezekiel’s vision, these dates and times and cycles lift us out of secular time into sacred time.
Let us take a step back to appreciate the cosmic vision that the Church vouchsafes for us. Ezekiel was granted his vision of God while the Jews were exiled in Babylon, subject to new hardships and under the hard yoke of foreign military force and taxation. God appeared enthroned by angels that looked like “wheels within wheels” and He was surrounded by “four living creatures” (Ez. 1). So likewise, into our own lives God makes a rapturous intervention, granting us the hearing of his “four living creatures”, the Four Evangelists. Indeed St Jerome connects the “four living creatures” of Ezekiel’s vision with the four seasons of the year. How fitting, then, that within the Sunday cycle the four evangelists have four seasons of their own. Then, each Sunday, after the hearing of the Gospel, we usher in the Lord of Glory as did those wheel-like angels of the vision: He is “borne by the angelic hosts” as we ourselves “represent the Cherubim.” Some people complain about a lack of visions and prophecies in our time, while failing to realize that, in the life of the Church, we are living out the visions of glory that prophets had thousands of years ago. “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Mt 13:17).
Death and Taxes
The riveting, though complex, cycles of Liturgical Time stand in stark contrast to the grind and monotony of Secular Time. Secular Time is characterized by two main things: Death and Taxes. As Benjamin Franklin, who stares at us from our hundred-dollar bills, once wrote in 1789, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” In turn, secular rule is the steward of those two things: it collects revenue to build armies, and armies conquer to get more revenue. Liturgical time gives us an escape from this vicious cycle. Instead of Death, we get the Resurrection. Instead of Taxes, Forgiveness.
Yet liturgical time is no form of escapism. It enables us to transcend the anxiety of Death and Taxes by making us confront them. In the months to come we will highlight how church iconography depicts Christ’s suffering and mortality in the Great Feasts leading up to Pascha. By establishing tax day as the Ecclesiastical New Year, the Church is raising our gaze up from the worried waiting of secular time to the immediate joy of sacred time. “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (Jn 4:35). Through the Gospels, Christ lifts up our eyes, and by means of earthly images, He portrays the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Gospel, the secular theme of taxation opens up to spiritual vistas. Tax-collectors feature everywhere in the Gospels. The Scribes and Pharisees are constantly posing questions to Jesus about taxes. Christ complies with the requirement to pay taxes. At the same time, He deals constructively with the controversial issue of the Roman tax in two ways: first, by showing how superior the Kingdom of Heaven is to the kingdoms of earth, and second, by personally befriending the tax-collectors (Mt 11:19). He turns the tax-collector Levi into the Evangelist Matthew, the preacher of the good news to the poor. The sure sign that the Kingdom of Heaven was nigh was not any brewing spirit of revolution against Roman overlords, but that the tax-collectors and centurions themselves were embracing the Gospel. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31). The authority of Rome wasn’t being violently overthrown; it was being converted.
Thus, Christ deals with the abusers of authority, the extortionate tax-collectors, on a personal basis, all the while preaching deliverance to the poor and captives, and remission of sins to all. The Gospel reading for the Ecclesiastical New Year is Christ’s entrance into public ministry, when He steps into the synagogue and reads from a scroll of Isaiah:
“For He lit a lamp, His own flesh, and swept the house, cleansing the world of sin, and He sought the coin, the royal image tarnished by the passions, and gathers His friends the angels upon finding it, and makes them partakers in the festivity” (Or. 45, On Pascha)
The liturgical year is nothing other than that joint festivity of Christ, His precious image-bearing coin man, and the angels.
So as much as we may bemoan the need to give back to the government the government’s due, these are but temporary dues to temporary rulers. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21). When it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, the divine tax that God demands of us each year is of infinitely more importance. “Render unto God what is God’s.” That means giving everything back to God, including Caesar’s things and secular time, since the “earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 23:1). And what He seeks above all is the precious coin that bears His stamp: the image of God within us. For our return and repentance, He will provide the remission of all our debts.