September is a month of transitioning from the close of some things and the beginning of others. We transition from summer to fall, from vacations to putting our nose to the grindstone, and from kids having time off to beginning a new school year. There are often mixed emotions regarding these. Some people are sad to see the sunny, warm days fade away. Others would love to have more vacation time visiting family and friends and most children are not eager to start another school year. As things start to pick up, our minds become inundated with thoughts about all we need to do as we make these transitions. During this month, it’s easy to lose sight of another transition, the start of a new Ecclesiastical year. In the midst of our own clamoring about, the Church subtly has her own transition. Having celebrated the Dormition of the Mother of God in mid August, the Church is already preparing for a new year, September 1st, and its first major Feast Day, the Birth of the Mother of God on September 8th.
In our day-to-day life we have many thoughts swimming through our head; work, children, finances, health, etc. Some experts estimate that the average person has around 45 thoughts per minute, which is mind-boggling, no pun intended. The point is, we can entertain a lot of thoughts in a day as our minds become occupied with many things. Within the Orthodox tradition, primarily our spiritual literature, we are taught to “manage” our thoughts by narrowing them down to just a few, with special attention given to one thought or rather one phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain use to say that thoughts are like planes that fly above us, you can see them, you know they’re there, but don’t give them a place to land. That is to say, though we will have a lot of thoughts, it’s best not to engage them because they simply become a distraction for us as we attempt to be “God conscience” throughout the day. This is quite a challenge for most of us, because we are so inundated with information, and typically have so many things going on each day. In this, we can easily lose sight of the “one thing needful” (cf. Lk. 10:42).
As Orthodox Christians, being “God conscience” is an important goal. One sign of spiritual maturity is when a person thinks of Christ most of the time. Managing thoughts in such a way so as to not surrender the mind to meaningless, troubling or disturbing thoughts is an ascetic endeavor that all of us need to embrace if we wish to progress on the spiritual path of purity of heart. St. Paul emphasized the importance of managing thoughts in his letter to the Philippians when he said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things (4:8). In other words, don’t surrender your mind to just any and every thought that comes along, but choose wisely what you allow your mind to dwell on.
One way that the Orthodox Church assists us in this endeavor is through the Feast days of the Ecclesiastical year. These feasts are placed throughout the calendar year in such a way so as to help us be mindful of the salvific events of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like anything, however, having something available to us does no good if we do not make some effort to engage what’s being provided, and the Feast days of the Church are no exception. As we begin the New Ecclesiastical Year, I encourage all of you to think in terms of the “living through” the Festal Cycle of the Church. That is to say, living from feast day to feast day, being consciously aware of each Feast prior to it happening, and more fully during its observance. We begin this cycle of major Feast Days with September 8th, the Feast of the Birth of the Mother of God and September 14th, the Feast of the Elevation of the Precious Cross. For your convenience I have listed the Major Feast Days of the Church, those of Christ and the Theotokos. Part of developing a life that has at it’s center the Major Feast Days of the Church is preparing for them ahead of time through fasting (if the Church calls for this), by reading about them prior to attending, and, of course, by attending the services when they are offered.
Here are the Major Feast Days of the Church:
Sept. 8: Nativity of the Theotokos
Sept. 14: Elevation of the Precious Cross
Nov. 21: Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple
Dec. 25: Nativity of Christ
Jan. 6: Theophany of Christ
Feb.2: Presentation of Christ into the Temple
Mar. 25: Annunciation of the Theotokos
Sunday before Pascha: Palm Sunday (Our Lord’s Entrance in Jerusalem)
PASCHA! The Feast of Feasts
40 days after Pascha: Ascension
50 days after Pascha: Pentecost
Aug. 6: Transfiguration of Christ
Aug. 15: Dormition of the Theotokos
Practical suggestions for observing these Festal days:
- Over time, obtain an icon of each of the Major Feast Days. The icons don’t need to be full size, a 5×7 will be fine.
- Place the icon on a stand in a prominent place in your home a few days before, on and after the feast day so it can be seen by everyone in the home
- Have a small vigil lamp in front of the icon. You can burn olive oil or if you prefer use a vigil lamp that is electric. Some people have safety concerns about a live flame.
- Learn something about the Feast each year. There is a lot to learn about each one.
- Learn the hymn for that Feast.
- Attend the services dedicated to the Feast (Great Vespers, Orthros & Liturgy).
Living from Feast Day to Feast Day has to be intentional and a priority, otherwise year after year will pass and we won’t engage them in meaningful and edifying ways. One note of caution, don’t force this practice on anyone else. Strive to do this yourself. We can all get a zealous streak in us and we want EVERYONE to jump on board. Not everyone will be where you are though, and so it’s better to do this because of your love for Christ and because you want to be transformed by these feasts. Let your transformation speak for you, that way you won’t have to use words to “convince” others to join you (cf. Mt. 5:16). May all of you have a blessed year of joy, good health, and spiritual growth!
With love in Christ, Fr. Timothy