CHURCH TIME - Orthodox Catechism

CHURCH TIME

The Church exists on earth, yet at the same time she is turned towards heaven; the Church lives in time, yet breathes eternity. This experience of communion with eternity forms the basis of the church calendar and the cycle of worship throughout the year, week and day. It is in the year that the Church recollects and experiences the whole history of the world and the human person, the entire ‘economy’ of the salvation of the human race. In the yearly cycle of feasts there passes before us the life of Christ from His Nativity to His Crucifixion and Resurrection; the life of the Mother of God from her Conception to her Dormition; and the lives of the saints glorified by the Church. In the scope of a week and of a single day the entire history of the salvation of the human race is also renewed and recollected in worship. Each cycle has its center towards which it is directed: the center of the daily cycle is the Eucharist, the center of the weekly cycle is Sunday and the center of the annual cycle of celebrations is Christ’s Resurrection, Easter.

The Resurrection of Christ is the main and defining event in the history of the Christian faith: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor 15:14). If Christ had not risen, Christianity would have remained but one of the many moral teachings and religious outlooks alongside Buddhism or Islam. Christ’s Resurrection instituted the Church as a new life, a new divine-human existence in which the human person becomes god because God has become a human person. From the very beginning of the Church’s existence the feast of Christ’s Resurrection became the foundation stone of the Christian calendar.

The feast days of the Church are not merely recollections of events happening in the distant past: they make us part of the spiritual reality behind them, which has a timeless and fixed significance for all of us. Each Christian receives Christ as his personal Savior, Who became incarnate for him personally. Therefore all the events of Christ’s life become the personal experience of every Christian. The feast day is a contemporary actualization of an event that occurred once in time but it is forever happening outside of time. At the feast of the Nativity we hear in church, ‘Today Christ is born in Bethlehem’; at Epiphany, ‘Today the nature of the waters is sanctified’; and at Easter, ‘Today Christ has trampled down death and risen from the tomb’. If people not of the Church live with reminiscences of an already irretrievable past or hope in an unknown future, in the Church they are called upon to live by the ever-present ‘today’, which is the reality of everyday communion with God.

The feast of Christ’s Resurrection, while it occurs only once a year, penetrates the entire church year. The radiance of Easter is reflected in the whole cycle of worship. Easter is not simply a calendar date. For the Christian, Easter is always present as a communion with the risen Christ. St. Seraphim of Sarov throughout the whole year met all who approached him with the Paschal greeting, ‘Christ is risen!’ It is said of a hermit of old, who abided in unceasing prayer and was famed for his sanctity, that when a disciple came to him with some food and said, ‘Elder, today is Easter!’, answered in reply, ‘Is it really?’ Of course, neither St. Seraphim, for whom everyday was Easter, nor the hermit who did not know its precise date, denied the church calendar. But they both lived by their experience of eternity and knew that Easter was not a single day of the year, but an eternal reality of which they partook daily.

The yearly cycle of feast days is, as it were, a reflection of eternity in time. Church time is an icon of the eternity. As in an icon a timeless spiritual reality is reflected in material colors, so in the church calendar the realities of eternal life are reflected in the dates of the secular calendar. As an icon encompasses the energy and presence of the one depicted on it, so church time is full of eternal energy and of the presence of Christ, the Mother of God, the angels and saints, whose memories are commemorated throughout the year.