Holy Feasts

On the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

The Feast of the Nativity, or, as it is known in America, "Christmas," is an ancient Feast whose origins are somewhat obscure. By the fifth century AD it is mentioned by the Council of Isaac (AD 410) in conjunction with the Feast of the Epiphany: ". . . we should together, as one, keep the holy feast, the first-born of blessed feasts, the glorious day of the birth and epiphany of Christ our Savior." [Chabot, J. B., ed., Synodicon Orientale, Paris, 1892, p.20, lines 15-16 (Eng. trans. by M. J. Birnie).] At some later time the Epiphany was separated into two Festivals, one celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the other celebrating his Baptism (and retaining the name "Epiphany"). All the churches (with the exception of the Armenians) adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, leaving the Feast of the Epiphany on the older January 6 date.

The Feast of the Nativity is an occasion for emphasizing in ritual and word the incarnation of the Son of God, the divine Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14). But it is a time, too, when we are most acutely conscious of his humanity, when the wonder of the incarnation is accompanied by a very clear realization of the helplessness of the infant Jesus, his dependence upon his parents, the precariousness of his situation. We ponder anew each year the implications of the divine condescension, the love of the Father, the willing self-emptying of the Son, and the brooding power of the Spirit. We are astounded at such love, and warmed by our celebration of it. “God so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)

On this Feast, "the first-born of blessed feasts," we are moved by love to love. We are inspired by obedience to obedience. Our hearts and minds are exalted from wonder to wonder at the humble beginnings of the great drama of our redemption from sin and death. And we are grateful in all.

The Feast of the Epiphany

On January 6 the Church of the East, along with most other Christian churches, celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany (Beth Denkha) is an ancient festival observance of the Church. It has been celebrated at least from the 3rd century of the Christian era. The word Epiphany is of Greek origin, and it means "manifestation", and the Greek title of the feast has usually carried over into other languages, though it has been translated among the Syriac-speaking churches ("Denkha" carries the same meaning). The feast was from the beginning a celebration of the Baptism of Christ, and was one of the three principle feasts of the early Church: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. From the 5th century the Western churches began to transform the feast-day into a celebration of Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles, and the three "Kings" (Magi) became the central figures (apart from our Lord) in the day's festivities. However, in the Eastern churches the commemoration of the Baptism is still the central feature.

The word "manifestation" refers to the public revelation of the special relationship Jesus of Nazareth had with the God of Israel: “Now when Jesus was baptized, as soon as he had gone up from the water the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him, and lo, [there was] a voice from heaven saying, `This is my beloved Son, with whom I have been well-pleased.'” (Mk. 3:16-17) Here a miraculous occurrence before the large crowds that had come to be baptized by John (or to observe him and hear his preaching) confirmed the unique status of Jesus, setting him off on his ministry of teaching, healing, and proclaiming the advent of the Kingdom of God. But more than that, the Holy Trinity was here first proclaimed openly, opening up a vast new world of understanding, though the fullness of what it all meant would not be known until the final triumph of our Lord over sin and death, and his glorification and session at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

This two-fold revelation--of the Sonship of Christ and of the Holy Trinity--is our reason for rejoicing and celebrating this special day. "Creation was made glad in its Lord and acknowledged its Savior who was baptized and who revealed in the Jordan the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father who cried out and proclaimed, `This is my beloved Son with whom I have been well-pleased,' and the Spirit who came and remained upon him, making known his glory in the presence of the nations." ["Anthem of the Mysteries" for Epiphany.]

The Feast of the Resurrection

The Feast of the Resurrection (Easter) is the oldest and most glorious of all Christian Feasts. The importance of the celebration is emphasized by the long period of fasting which precedes the Feast, and the especially festive period of rejoicing which follows it. The catechumens, after a long period of preparation lasting throughout Lent (and in some places up to three years), were from ancient times baptized early on Resurrection Day, and received their first Communion in the following services. The beginnings of the yearly memorial of Christ's resurrection go back to the first century of the Christian era, and possibly even to the time of the Apostles.

The odd name "Easter", by which this celebration is known in English-speaking lands, has uncertain origins. The Venerable Bede (8th cent.) claimed it was connected to the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess "Eostre". If so, it would not have been unusual for common folk to refer to the festival as Easter, even after their conversion to Christianity, since the Feast of the Resurrection was celebrated at the same time.

The importance of the Resurrection for Christians cannot be understated. It is the Father's vindication of his Son and the source of promise and hope to all those who put their faith in him, and this is the reason for our joy at that time. At the same time, Christians must remember that the vindication of the Son was the culmination of his passion, death, and burial. The Resurrection is the last part of a process beginning with his obedience on Good Friday. The two stand together, not separately. Each gives meaning to the other. And as our lesson for the feast from the epistle to the Romans tells us, if we are to rise with him we must first die with him.

The Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost

The Church of the East, along with the whole Christian Church, celebrates the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. These Feasts close out that part of the year that began with the first Sunday of Advent (Subara), and which emphasizes the incarnation and earthly ministry of our Lord. The remainder of the Church year is devoted to calls to repentance and conversion, and to emphasis on Christian living and preparation for the second coming of Christ.

Ascension Day, which occurs 40 days after the Resurrection Festival, commemorates our Lord's ascension into heaven from the Mount of Olives (Mk. 16:19; Lk. 24:51; Acts 1:9). Though St. Luke's Gospel leaves you with the impression that our Lord ascended on the same day he rose from the dead, Luke corrects this impression in his second writing, Acts, where he places the event on the fortieth day. In the interval our Lord appeared to his Twelve Apostles and others at various times, teaching them the meaning of the events which had occurred, and commissioning them to go to the nations and proclaim his Gospel. The important theological meaning of this event is that our Lord ascended and took his seat at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, and now exercises all power in Heaven and on earth (Jn. 14:2; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 6:20).

The earliest records of this Festival indicate that it was notable for its processions (zuyakhe). These were to commemorate Christ's procession with his disciples from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. In the Church of the East Ascension Day traditionally marked the beginning of regular processions out of the church (the umra) during the "Anthem of the Chancel" (`Onitha d'Qanke). The congregation would go out to an outer court where the liturgy continued through the Scripture readings and sermon. At the end of the sermon an extra Anthem was provided called the "Anthem of the Gospel", which commented on the Gospel reading for the day. When they came to the "Gloria" of this hymn they would proceed back into the church for the rest of the liturgy. This continued through all observances of the Qurbana until the last season in the Church Year, the Hallowing of the Church, when the liturgy would again be done entirely indoors. A practical reason for this tradition was that the oppressive heat of the Middle East made it necessary to offer some relief to the worshippers during that part of the service which did not involve going to the Altar.

Ten days after the Feast of the Ascension, the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The name Pentecost is from a Greek word meaning "fiftieth day". This is the name the Greeks gave to the Jewish Feast of Weeks. The Feast of Weeks, which occurred fifty days after the Passover among the Jews, originally celebrated the first-fruits (reshitha) of the grain harvest. Later it took on an added significance, commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses.

The Feast of Pentecost is the third of the three most primitive festivals of the Church Year: Epiphany, Resurrection, and Pentecost. It is the most important of the Church's festivals except for Resurrection (Easter). It commemorates the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church as a whole (our Lord had given the Holy Spirit to the Apostles on the day of his resurrection [Jn. 20:22]), and the public manifestation of signs of God's favor (tongues of fire, a mighty wind, the gift of languages). The first Christian Pentecost was, we might say, the birthday of the Church.

On this day the head of the Apostles, Peter, preached the first Christian sermon, and on this day many converts were made among Jews who came from far distant lands to keep the festival. These took the Gospel back with them to the lands they came from, and thus the early spread of the Christian message began. It was a day of glory, and its consequences were monumental. This is why it is the second-ranking Christian feast.

The Feast of Pentecost affirms our confidence that the Holy Spirit remains with us and is the source of our understanding of the truth. He alone is the infallible voice of God to the world. The Church is the temporal vehicle through which he speaks, and the Holy Scriptures are his inspired written voice. But the Church, being made up of men, and the Scriptures, needing men to interpret them, both require his real presence with us to ensure that divine corrections can be made to our feeble efforts at interpretation of the truth. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn. 16:13)

The Feast of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)

Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James, and his brother John, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter responded and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If You want, I will make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And raising their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.

When they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

The Feast of the Cross

The Cross symbolizes all the love, compassion, and purpose of God for us. In it the meaning of sacrifice and self-giving is discerned. By means of it atonement between God and man was effected by the Father's only Son, and men are reconciled to one another through him “who, being in the likeness of God . . . emptied himself and took the likeness of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men, and in form was found as a man. And he humbled himself and was obedient unto death, the death of the Cross.” (Phil. 2:6a,7-8) The Cross symbolizes the Tree of Life, whose fruit Adam was forbidden to eat, though his children now eat freely of it sacramentally in the Holy Mysteries of Qurbana.

On September 13 we celebrate together the Feast of the Cross. More specifically, we celebrate the finding of the Cross by Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, during excavations in Jerusalem for the building of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. On this occasion the three crosses used in the crucifixion of our Lord and the two thieves were uncovered, and by miraculous intervention it was shown which of them was the Cross of our Lord.

In the Western churches the Feast is celebrated on September 14 each year--one day later than in the Church of the East. George of Arbela, in his Exposition of Church Offices, explains this by saying that the Cross was found on the 13th and was distinguished from the two others on the 14th. This was a common explanation in the East for the differing dates during the 10th century when Mar George, the bishop of Mosul and Arbela, wrote (he gives a complicated rationale for the 13th being the proper date to celebrate.) Actually, the Western churches no longer celebrate the Finding of the Cross, but instead they celebrate the day on which the Cross was shown publicly in Jerusalem after it had been recaptured from the Persians, who had taken it in warfare in AD 614 and carried it off to Seleucia-Ctesiphon, their capital. It was returned to Jerusalem in 629 after it had been recaptured by the Romans during a successful campaign in Persia. These two different Feasts are more commonly known as the Finding of the Cross and the Exaltation of the Cross. Of course, standing under the celebrations of the finding and exalting of the Cross is the symbolic power of the Cross itself: “The message of the Cross to those who are perishing is madness, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . For the Jews ask for signs, and the Arameans seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to the Jews, and folly to the Arameans.” (1 Cor. 1:18,22)

"On this Feast of the Finding of the Cross of Christ the King let us sing glory with the spiritual hosts to him who by his Cross gained the victory, brought about peace in the heights and the depths, and gave his Church his Body and Blood. Hallelujah!" ["Anthem of the Bema" for the Feast of the Cross.]