There is a story about a Jewish person who was being sent to a concentration camp.  He believed he could smuggle one book into the camp and he asked his rabbi what book that should be.  The rabbi told him to take his religious calendar, because that would effectively ground him in his faith.[1] 

The Byzantine Christian calendar, like all liturgical calendars, provides grounding for the faith. The calendar provides:

  • Sanctification of sacred time.  The Liturgy of the Hours (known as the Divine Office or Divine Praises in the Eastern Churches) provides sanctification for the hours within the day.  The calendar provides sanctification of days and seasons.
  • Education of the congregation.  The typical Byzantine liturgical calendar will provide the name of the saint or event being commemorated each day as well as some short commentary. Using the calendar every day can learn teach someone a lot about their religion (particularly if they participate in the Divine Liturgy or the Liturgy of the Hours for that day).
  • Liturgical information.  The calendar will often describe what the appropriate readings, services, and the color of the celebrants’ vestments are for each day.

The liturgical year begins on September 1.  This date was tied into the fiscal calendar and tax year of the Byzantine Empire. Salvation history then unfolds from that date.  The first major feast day of the liturgical year is September 8, the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. This is the logical beginning of the Christian salvation story. The last major feast day of the liturgical year is the Dormition (the Falling Asleep or the Assumption of the Virgin)[2] on August 15. This is a logical chronological ending to the salvation story as the Bible shows Mary outlived Jesus.[3]

There are fixed and moveable feast days.  The seasons of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost depend on the date of Easter Sunday, a moveable feast. The actual date of Easter was discussed and settled at the First Ecumenical Council.  However, interpretation of that resolution has split the Christian community.  Orthodox churches using the Julian calendar tend to celebrate Easter later than the Western celebration. There have been recent discussions about fixing the date of Easter on one particular Sunday in April as a compromise solution.  Only time will tell if this is accepted by all churches involved.  It would be a great triumph if all of Christianity once again celebrated Easter on the same day.

Each date on the Byzantine calendar is devoted to a saint or saints. First, we need to determine when a day begins. The Byzantine churches begin the day at sundown of the previous day, following Biblical precedent.[4] Therefore, vespers (evening prayer) is the first prayer service of the liturgical day. The Byzantine churches do not generally remove saints from the calendar, but simply add the names of new saints to be commemorated on that day. [5]   A unique feature of the Byzantine calendar is the synaxis, or the next day following an important feast.[6] A person having a connection to the feast day will be commemorated the following day after the feast.  Examples of synaxes are:

  • The Theophany (Baptism of Jesus) is celebrated on January 6.  St. John the Baptist is remembered on January 7.
  • St. Peter and St Paul, the Prime Apostles, are commemorated on June 29.  The Twelve Apostles are commemorated on June 30.
  • The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is February 2.  The Synaxis of St. Simeon and Anna is the next day.
  • Pentecost Sunday is celebrated fifty days after Easter.  Holy Spirit Monday is celebrated the following day.
  • The Nativity of Jesus is celebrated on December 25.  The Virgin Mary is remembered on December 26. 

These are just examples of synaxes.  There are many others.

Each day of the week is also devoted to the Passion of Jesus or to particular saints.  Angels are remembered on Monday.  John the Baptist is remembered on Tuesday. Wednesday and Friday are devoted to the Holy Cross. [7] St. Nicholas of Myra is commemorated on Thursday.  Saturday is devoted to the martyrs and praying for the dead.  Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is a joyous day celebrating Christian salvation.

Major feast days have Pre-festive and post-festive periods.  For example, the Feast of the Theophany has a four day pre-festive period from January 2 to January 5.[8]  Post-festive periods generally last eight days (an “octave”), but there are some exceptions.[9]  The last day of the post-festive period is known as the Leave-Taking of the feast.  Many of the prayers used on the day of the feast are repeated on the Leave-Taking.

Finally, there are liturgical seasons.  The Byzantine calendar encourages the practices of both fasting and feasting to remind Christians of their faith.  The following are fast periods:

  • The Great Lent, that begins on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, and lasts until the Saturday before Palm Sunday[10];
  • Holy Week (a separate liturgical period in the Byzantine calendar);
  • The Apostles Fast that begins on the Monday after the Sunday After Pentecost[11], lasting until June 28;
  • The Dormition Fast, which begins on August 1 and lasts until August 15, the Dormition of the Theotokos; and
  • Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year except where fasting is prohibited.[12]

The most intense periods of fasting are Holy Week and the Great Lent.

 There are seasons where fasting is prohibited:

  • The week following the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee[13];
  • Bright Week, the week following Easter;
  • The week after Pentecost;
  • The week after Christmas; and
  • Saturdays and Sundays in general.[14]

Easter also has a unique celebratory season that lasts for forty days until Ascension Thursday. 

This all may sound confusing but those living and celebrating in this cycle embrace it whole-heartedly. The prayers and readings for each day change depending on the date, the day of the week, and the season, providing a never-ending variety of education and spiritual exercises.  Of course, volumes have been written on the Byzantine liturgical calendar, and this was just a brief introduction to the subject. The following articles provide additional information about the calendar and discuss some of its complexities.  

[1] I have never been able to find the source of this story, but it suggests a crucial point about any liturgical calendar.

[2] Eastern tradition holds the Virgin died and was then bodily assumed into heaven.  Roman Catholic dogma is much fuzzier on this issue.  The Catholic Catechism is silent on the issue.

[3] See the Acts of the Apostles 1:14.

[4] Genesis 1:6

[5]  Nevertheless, the church will often rank saints within a day for commemoration and service purposes.  For instance, St. Polycarp was previously commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent.  He has been replaced with the commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas, the great supporter of hesychasm. While I also have a great devotion to hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer, I am sad such an influential person in the early development of Christianity has been displaced in the liturgical calendar.  Polycarp knew St. John the Evangelist (or the Theologian as he is known in the Eastern Church) and collected the letters of Ignatius of Antioch as he was being sent to Rome for his martyrdom.  Eventually the martyrdom of Polycarp was one of the first widely chronicled martyrdoms in Christianity. It is a beautiful story well worth reading.

[6] This is not entirely unknown in the Roman Catholic Church where All Saints Day (November 1) is followed by All Soul’s Day.

[7] Wednesday is the day Judas betrayed Jesus.  Friday is the day or His crucifixion.

[8] January 1 is the commemoration of St. Basil the Great and the Circumcision of Jesus.

[9] One example of this is the post-festive period of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.  The celebration of the Nativity of the Virgin is September 8.  Another major feast day with a preparation period is September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross.  The octave of the Nativity of the Virgin is therefore shortened to allow the full celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross.

[10] That Saturday is known as Lazarus Saturday.  The resurrection of Lazarus is commemorated that day. Baptisms were often performed on Lazarus Saturday in the Ancient Church.

[11] That Sunday is within the Octave of Pentecost and is known as All Saints Sunday. The Apostles Fast begins on the day after, and lasts until June 29, the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.  Since Pentecost is a moveable feast, the fast period can be shorter or longer depending on the date of Easter.

[12] Certain other days such as the Beheading of John the Baptist (August 29) are also fast days.

[13] The reason for this is discussed in another article on this book.

[14] Exceptions to this rule include the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) and the Beheading of John the Baptist (August 29).