The Byzantine liturgical tradition is extremely deep and rich.  The church calendar is an example of this.  It is used to reinforce theology and tradition. For instance, the Byzantine calendar has an interesting way of describing perfection. Obviously, the concept of perfection is a characteristic of the Godhead.  Let’s see how the Byzantine calendar deals with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist.

The Eastern and Western Church calendars celebrate Christmas on December 25. The Annunciation, or the visit to the Virgin Mary by Gabriel the Archangel is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months prior to Christmas.  These dates make a powerful statement about both the humanity and divine nature of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus was born a man, but there is a suggestion of divinity about him as demonstrated by the perfect nine-month pregnancy of Mary.

More controversial topics are birth of the Virgin Mary and the pregnancy of St. Anne, traditionally thought to be the mother of Mary.  The Eastern and Western Churches both celebrate the birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus on September 8.  This date has added significance in the Eastern Church since the Byzantine Church year begins on September 1.  There is a certain logic in this dating, as Christians consider the birth of Mary to be the beginning of their ultimate salvation and therefore should be celebrated close to the beginning of the church year. The Dormition, or Assumption of Mary is commemorated on August 15, near the end of the Eastern Church Year. (How was September 1 picked to begin the liturgical year?  It tied into the Imperial tax year.  That is a story for another day though).

Note the difference in the terminology between the East and the West.  Dormition, or Falling Asleep, implies death.  The Assumption has taken on different connotations, as we are all familiar with the Western artistic tradition of Mary being elevated into heaven with a cherubic countenance.  Over the years you will find an increasing number of Western Catholics who believe Mary was also part of Jesus’ divine perfection, and therefore did not die. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is silent on the subject.  This is in contradiction to the earliest thinking of the Church Fathers. 

When is the conception of the Virgin celebrated?  In the East, it is celebrated on December 9, the beginning of a pregnancy one day less than perfect.  In the West, the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8, making the pregnancy of St. Anne a perfect pregnancy.  The calendars are making powerful statements.  The Eastern Church holds Mary was essential to Christian soteriology, but only God is perfect.  The Western calendar states something quite different. The rise of the Coredemptrix theology in the West may in part cause some confusion amongst rank and file Christians.

Another interesting example of how the church calendar demonstrates the concept of perfection is St. John the Baptist.  John’s birth is celebrated on June 24, or approximately six months prior to the birth of Jesus.  The Gospel of Luke clearly portrays John being born before Jesus, but the more interesting passage is John 3:30, which states, “He must increase but I must decrease.”  The length of the day begins to decrease at approximately the birth of John the Baptist, while it begins to increase around Christmas time. The Churches used the seasonal cycles to remind Christians of this passage.  The Conception of John the Baptist is celebrated on September 23, making Elizabeth’s pregnancy one day longer than a perfect prefect pregnancy.  Again, the Eastern Church makes the point John the Baptist is also important to our soteriology, but again only God was perfect.

This entire narrative is contained on the icon screen of a Byzantine Church. It is as if the calendar had been translated into images. If one looks at the icon screen in a Byzantine Church, the icon of Jesus is to the right of the Royal Doors, holding the place of honor.  The icon of Mary is to the left of the Royal doors and the icon of Jesus (his right) . Sitting to the right is a place of the highest prominence and Mary sits to the right of Jesus.  The icon on the Royal Doors is of the Annunciation, the beginning of the Christian New Testament, and a clear demonstration of the importance of the event.   The icon of St. John the Baptist is to the left of Jesus, away from the Royal Doors, but still in a place of prominence.  Mary and John bracket Jesus, just as the terms of their mothers’ pregnancies bracket the perfect pregnancy of Jesus.