Elements of the Liturgical Year
The liturgical year is composed to two cycles, the movable and immovable. Each cycle is subdivided into liturgical periods or liturgical weeks. The weeks came into the liturgy from the civil calendar. Each Sunday and weekday commemorates an event from the life of Christ, or His Mother or it is dedicated to the memory of a saint.
The system of dividing time into weeks received religious approval among the Jews, inasmuch as the Sabbath rest was enjoined by the Law under the severest sanctions. On the Sabbath all servile work had to be laid aside from the performance of divine worship. The Jewish practice of celebrating the Sabbath was, in turn accepted by Christians, especially by converts from Judaism. There is no written evidence of the Sabbath having been abrogated by Christ or the apostle, but St. Paul declared that its observance was not binding on Gentile converts who soon formed the majority of those converted to the faith. Accordingly, the observance of the Sabbath fell more and more into the background and the first day of the Jewish week, the present Sunday, came to be the principal day of rest and worship. This was the “Lord’s day,” formerly called among Greeks and Romans “the day of sun” from which comes the English name. “Sunday.” The early Christians even kept this name for a long time, giving it a Christian implication: “on this day Christ rose from the Grave as the rising Sun of Justice.” (St. Ambrose). In Slavonic, Sunday is called Voskreseniye – (Resurrection), while in many other Slavic languages the ideas of Sunday is stressed and is often called the “day of rest” for example, “nedilja” (no work). Sunday is held in honor as the day of our Lord’s resurrection and as the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, every Sunday honors the triune God, who created, redeemed and sanctified us.
Sunday was the day on which the Eucharist was performed. Christian worship since earliest times consisted of two parts. Already in the letters of the pagan Pliny, we find mention of a nocturnal service during which the Christians sang psalms, recited prayers, and read passages from Holy Scripture. The Eucharist itself followed at dawn. In time, Christians began to perform the liturgy on Wednesday and Friday and in the East, every Saturday. On Wednesday, which is the day of betrayal by Judas, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated to atone and sacrifice for the disgraceful deed. Friday, the day of Christ’s death, the Liturgy, was offered in thanksgiving for our redemption. Saturday, the day the creation was completed, the Liturgy of gratitude for our creation was celebrated.
Every day of the liturgical year is kept as a commemoration of Christ, of His Holy Mother, or of a saint. But not every day is a feast day, which must be celebrated solemnly. Solemn feast days are those days which the Church has appointed and instituted to be celebrated in honor of the major events in the life of our Lord, His Mother or the saints. They are solemn days proclaimed as such by the Church, to be publicly celebrated according to certain liturgical rules and customs.
Feasts are designated according to the person with whom they are associated. The days celebrating events in the life of Christ are called feasts of the Lord; those concerning His Mother are called feasts of the Mother of God; and those commemorating saints are called feasts of the saints.
Pre-festive and Post-festive Periods
Since the Church considers certain feasts especially sacred, she has initiated days of preparation, which are called the pre-festive days. There are often days in which the theme of the feast continues to celebrated or commemorated, as if the Church wished to prolong the feast. These days constitute the post-festive period or post-festive days. The length of these periods varies according to the importance of a given feast.
Days of Fast
During the liturgical year, there are days of joy, of jubilation and of triumph; but there are days of mourning, fasting and exercise of the virtue of temperance. The Life of our Lord, included not only Christmas, Easter, the Ascension and Transfiguration, but also days like Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Moreover, our Lord told His followers that they would fast and do penance after His departure from the world. There are some feast days whose nature and position demand a serious preparation, consisting not only of prayers and special services but also of fasting. Days of fasting play an important part in the liturgical year because they either prepare us spiritually for a worthy celebration of certain greater feasts or they serve to commemorate a mournful event. Thus, we fast before Easter to prepare ourselves for Christ’s glorious resurrection. We fast on the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in order to be physically in accord with the atmosphere of this tragic event.
The great majority of the days of the year simply commemorate a saint or saints, but have no festive character. These are simply “weekdays.” Each day in the immovable cycle of the liturgical year is dedicated to the memory and honor of a saint. In addition, each day of the week, by virtue of its position, has its own liturgical commemoration.
Every Monday is dedicated to the angels, who rank highest among God’s creatures. Tuesday is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, who after the Mother of God and the angels, with the approval of our Lord Himself (Mt. 11:11), is honored above all other men. Wednesday is the day of our Lord’s betrayal, the day of which His passion begins, and therefore dedicated to the Holy Cross and sorrowful Mother of God who stood beside it. Thursday is the day of the apostles, among who successors the Church honors especially St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra. Because Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross on Friday, this day is dedicated to His passion and death. Saturday under the influence of Jewish belief is set aside in memory of the creation of the world. God rested on this day, reminding us of the eternal happiness of peace in union with God. This is why Saturday is dedicated to all the saints, to the faithful departed and to our communion in faith with them.