September 1 is the start of the ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church. The liturgical event is Sep 8 (this coming Tuesday), the celebration of the birth of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though I’ve been Orthodox for many years, I still approach the Orthodox liturgical year with wonder at the logic of how it works and when it starts and stops. As a result, this essay is from the perspective of a Protestant looking in.
In the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant), liturgical time is marked by two great cycles. The major cycle begins with Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — and ends with Pentecost. It’s structure is as follows:
- 40 days of preparation (Lent)
- The great feast of Easter
- The festal season that runs 50 days from Easter to Pentecost
The minor cycle begins with Advent and ends with Epiphany:
- 24 days of preparation (Advent)
- The feast of Nativity on Dec. 25
- The festal season that lasts 6 days until Epiphany, which in the West is observed with the Three Mysteries of the arrival of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle at Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.
In summary, there are two great cycles of what might be called Liturgical Time, one approximately 90 days long and the other approximately 30 days long. This leaves about 240 days of what is called Ordinary Time.
There is a wonderful theology that goes along with this. The Greek language has two different concepts for time. Chronos is the sort of time that can be marked with calendars and clocks. One hour follows the next, one day follows the next, one month follows the next. This is Ordinary Time. This is the concept that makes the arc of history possible.
In contrast to this is Kairos. Kairos is time, but it occurs differently. It breaks into chronos unexpectedly. It is time that has depth and fullness. It is, in a sense, divine time. The two great cycles are kairotic in nature, breaking into the Ordinary Time of the chronological calendar.
While this conception is internally consistent and theologically rich, it is fundamentally different than the Eastern Orthodox conception of time. The Orthodox church year is more like an onion. The innermost layer is the three day period of Good Friday (the death of Christ), Holy Saturday (the descent into Hades) and Pascha (the Resurrection of Christ). Enveloping that layer is what could be called the earthly ministry of God, which runs from the conception of Christ (the Annunciation) to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Enveloping this “earthly ministry of God” layer is what I would call the Incarnational layer of salvation. This takes a bit of explanation.
God’s activity on earth is normally clothed in the stuff of creation. The figure of “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is God’s presence and interaction with humans in a human form. At the burning bush, God is embodied in fire. During the Exodus God is embodied as both fire (to illumine) and smoke (to hide). In the life of Christ, the embodiment in the stuff of creation is represented by Mary, Jesus’ mother.
So it is that Mary the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”) is the Ark of the Covenant. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick explains this very well in a sermon given on Sep 8, 2010.
In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.
And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.
This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.
The great historian of theology, Richard Niebuhr, observed in several places that the Western Church always had difficulty fully embracing the incarnation. Thus the most common heresies in the West were and are those that deny the significance of creation as the means of salvation. Various forms of gnosticism and rationalism that deny the sheer physicality of how God presents himself pop up in the West over and over again.
Since the fourth century in the East, these sorts of anti-incarnational heresies have been relatively insignificant. I would argue that the very structure of how the East conceives of liturgical time, as mystery, enveloped in divine presence, enveloped in the very stuff of creation is a reflection of this radically different sensibility.
In the West where kairos, or divine time, breaks in upon ordinary time or chronos, unexpectedly and as if it is coming from the outside of time and space, there is a natural liturgical tendency to disconnect creation from the work of the Creator.
But in the East, where the Church Years begins with Mary’s birth (Sep 8) and ends with her death (Aug 15), and within that is the earthly ministry of God (Conception of Christ to the coming of the Holy Spirit) and within that is the mystery of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha, what we see first is creation. We see the new Ark of the Covenant. And when we, with fear and trepidation, look inside the carefully prepared Ark (which is the ordinary stuff of creation), we see the presence of God the Creator and the ineffable gift of salvation (or union of our physical beings with God).
So, Happy New Year. And this year, in the words of accidental Australian theologian Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get physical,” and begin our exploration of the very being of God by exploring the very depths of the creation of which we are a part.