Focus on the Faith: The Orthodox Church New Year
The Orthodox Church has always celebrated the beginning of the New Year on September 1, following the tradition of ancient Rome, and in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus in about 3 BC. This was the custom in Constantinople until its fall in 1453, and in Holy Russia until the reign of Peter the Great. September 1st is still festively celebrated as the New Year at the Patriarchate of Constantinople; among the Jews also, the New Year, although reckoned according to a moveable calendar, usually falls in September. The service of the Menaion for January 1 is for our Lord’s Circumcision and for the memorial of Saint Basil the Great, without any mention of its being the beginning of a new year. Now, some thoughts about the inner meaning of the Church New Year…
It can be jarring to move suddenly from the end, back to the beginning of something. It reminds me of a certain board game we used to have. I would always be way ahead on the game board, when suddenly, some kid, would draw a terrible card with which he could send ME (not him) tumbling all the way back to the beginning space. But this is what Orthodox believers do as we move from August 31st — the last day of the old year, to September 1st, the first day of the new year.
It is part of the goodness of God, that He, who has no beginning and no ending, the Eternal Trinity, should take such care to give us a year which begins and ends, and then begins all over again. In our human and finite state we need fresh starts, and this is one of them. From the peaks of Pascha, Ascension, Pentecost, and Transfiguration, we move back to beginnings, the Nativity of the Mother of God, and then in December of the Son of God Himself. We start this wonderful cycle all over again. But the Holy Spirit, as we trust Him, will renew this new year to us, and give us a whole new understanding of it.
“Behold I will do a new thing”, God says through the prophet Isaiah (43:19). The new wine will come to us in new wineskins (Matthew 9:17).
The God who has put eternity in our hearts, knows our human frailty. He knows that marriages need their anniversaries, and all of us, especially children, need their birthdays from year to year. We in the Orthodox Church also hold a special place for the anniversaries of those who have died in Christ. We recall every year the glorious deaths of the saints. But the whole of this is held in a solid framework – the Orthodox Calendar. Through the God inspired wisdom of our fathers and mothers, we have a beautifully constructed lectionary, which flows through the year, like the streams of an effortless river, blessing whatever they touch.
It is significant that the last great feast of the old year is that of the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God. Her human passing was to heaven’s glory. And the first great feast of the new year is her Nativity. It is not that Mary is more important that Christ, around which most of the Calendar revolves. Mary is not God. She did not exist from eternity. But she is honored in this way because she is our supreme example. She lived a life of complete obedience to God.
Orthopraxis: Why Do Some Women Cover Their Heads?
Q. Why do some women cover their heads with a scarf in church while others do not?
A. This is an ancient practice that comes to us first from Judaism and then from the early Christian church. It pre-dates Islam by a couple thousand years at least! In fact, the holy apostle Paul makes a point to the believers in Corinth that this is one practice that should NOT be done away with. If we look at St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter eleven, we see his explanation – it has to do with glory. You see, in the church and especially in the worship of the church, we have many symbols. These symbols unite us to heavenly realities and mysteries. The veiling of women is a symbolic act, much like the vestments of bishops, or priests, or deacons. As these point to the nature of the spiritual world, the glory of God, the glory of angels, etc., the woman, by veiling her hair, puts on a vestment of sorts which also points to heavenly truths. And what are these? Firstly, as St. Paul says, that God created the world, then He created man (Adam) and from man he took his wife (Eve.) Even though she is taken from his side, woman is different from man. She is her own person. She was created to be his helper but not his slave. She is taken from his side to signify that it is at his side that she stands, as St. John Chrysostom points out. In the Jewish scheme of things, both men and women covered their heads to pray. In the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the pagan gentiles) neither men nor women covered their heads to pray. St. Paul seems to split the difference. Interestingly, he allows the women to retain the symbol of the covering of human glory in the presence of God, but not the men. And perhaps this was more important for the women, for by covering their heads with a sign of God’s glory (the veil) rather than human glory (the unveiled head, their hair) they also show that they undo the deception of Eve. Eve was tricked by her head; fooled by the serpent by suggestions. The Orthodox woman, because of Christ’s Cross, and following the example of the Most Holy Theotokos, shows in a symbol that she is not fooled by the arrogant suggestions of the evil one. In fact, the symbol of the veil reveals that she is fully illumined and reflects the glory of God. So as Moses, when he descended from the holy mountain was radiant with the glory of God and hence was compelled to veil himself in the presence of others (Exodus 34), so she is veiled as a sign of that same closeness to God.
Must, then, every woman cover her head in Church? This is the wrong way to ask the question. Everything that we do in the church we do in complete freedom. Even in St. Paul’s day there were those who did not understand. There were Jewish Christian men who grumbled and judged harshly those men who prayed without covering their heads. There were also Gentile Christian women who felt uncomfortable covering their heads. St. Paul answers both of these groups with these words: “If any one is disposed to be contentious, tell him that this is what we do as well as all of the other churches of God” (I Cor.11:16). Tradition does not force, it invites. But it always has a reason for what it does.
From the Fathers: THE HOLY FATHERS ON THE PRECIOUS AND LIFE-GIVING CROSS
The Cross, is wood which lifts us up and makes us great … The Cross uprooted us from the depths of evil and elevated us to the summit of virtue.” (St. John Chrysostom)
“The holy Fathers relate a story that when the thief of the Gospel came to the gates of the Kingdom, the Archangel with the flaming sword wanted to chase him away, but he showed him the Cross. Immediately the fire-bearing Archangel himself withdrew and permitted the thief to enter. Understand here not the wooden cross. But which? The Cross in which the chief Apostle Paul boasts and concerning which he writes, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus’” (Gal. 6:17). (St. Anatoly of Optina)
“As you contemplate the sticks that Isaac was laid upon, reflect on the cross. As you look on the fire, meditate on the love. Look too on the ram suspended by its two horns on the plant that is called ‘Sabek’ (See Genesis 22:13 LXX). Look too on Christ, the Lamb of God, suspended by his two hands upon a Cross. The plant called Sabek means ‘forgiveness’, for it saved from slaughter the old man’s child. It foreshadows the cross that forgives the world its sins and grants it life. The ram hanging on the Sabek plant mystically redeemed Isaac alone. While the Lamb of God hanging on the cross delivered the world from Death and Hell.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian)
Lives of the Saints: The Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich
The Holy Virgin Mary was born of aged parents, Joachim and Anna. Her father was of the lineage of David, and her mother of the lineage of Aaron. Thus, she was of royal birth by her father, and of priestly birth by her mother. In this, she foreshadowed Him Who would be born of her as King and High Priest. Her parents were quite old and had no children. Because of this they were ashamed before men and humble before God. In their humility they prayed to God with tears, to bring them joy in their old age by giving them a child, as He had once given joy to the aged Abraham and his wife Sarah by giving them Isaac. The Almighty and All-seeing God rewarded them with a joy that surpassed all their expectations and all their most beautiful dreams. For He gave them not just a daughter, but the Mother of God. He illumined them not only with temporal joy, but with eternal joy as well. God gave them just one daughter, and she would later give them just one grandson; but what a daughter and what a Grandson! Mary, Full of grace, Blessed among women, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Altar of the Living God, the Table of the Heavenly Bread, the Ark of God’s Holiness, the Tree of the Sweetest Fruit, the Glory of the race of man, the Praise of womanhood, the Fount of virginity and purity; this was the daughter given by God to Joachim and Anna. She was born in Nazareth, and at the age of three, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. In her young womanhood she returned again to Nazareth, and shortly thereafter heard the Annunciation of the Holy Archangel Gabriel concerning the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, from her most-pure virgin body.
The Nativity of the Most-holy Mother of God
O greatly desired and long awaited one,
O Virgin, thou hast been obtained from the Lord with tears!
A bodily temple of the Most-holy Spirit shalt thou become,
And shalt be called Mother of the Eternal Word.
The Burning Bush they called thee,
For thou wilt receive within thyself the divine fire:
Ablaze with fire but not consumed,
Thou shalt bear the Golden Fruit and offer it to the world.
Thou shalt be the Bearer of Him Who bears the heavens,
To Whom all of heaven offers up praise!
The Miracle of miracles shall come to pass within thee,
For thou shalt bear heaven, thou who art “more spacious than the heavens!”
Thou art more precious to us, O Virgin, than precious stones,
For thou art the source of salvation for mankind.
For this, may the entire universe glorify thee,
O Most-holy Virgin, O white Turtledove!
The King of Heaven shall desire to enter the world,
And shall pass through thee, O Beautiful Gate!
O Virgin, when thou dost become woman thou shalt bear Christ for us;
From thy body, the Sun shall blaze forth.
Upcoming events in September (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)