The End of the Church Year
Fr. Thomas Hopko · August 25, 2008
Fr. Tom couldn't let the Church Year end without looking back on the inspiring feasts during its last month, August.
The month of August is the last month of the Church year. The ecclesiastical year begins in September and so August, therefore, is the last month of the ecclesiastical year. And the month of August is in some ways a very strange month liturgically in the Orthodox Church; it’s kind of unusual. It has many features, [there are] many events in that month that it’s worthwhile thinking about a little bit, even though we’re almost drawing near to the end of the month now.
The first thing that we can think about is that August begins with what is called traditionally in the Orthodox Church the first Feast of the Saviour. In Russian they called it Perviy Spas: the first Feast of the Saviour. There are three Feasts of the Saviour in the month of August; August 1st is the Feast of the Wood of the Cross, the Procession of the Holy Cross. The 6th of August is the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. And then on the 16th of August—the day after the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos, the falling asleep of Christ’s Mother Mary—you have the third Feast of the Saviour, which is the Festival of the Icon Not Made by Human Hands, as it’s called, the Acheiropoietos - not made by hands, and it is a particular image of Christ’s face on a cloth. So you have these three Feasts of the Saviour that go from August 1st to August 6th and then to August 16th.
Now this first Feast of the Saviour that was celebrated on the 1st of August is a festival where in Byzantium they carried the wood of the Holy Cross and they blessed the springs of water with this wood and had a procession with this relic of the Holy Cross throughout the city. And then it was repeated in various cities and copied in various cities throughout the Empire. Some scholars think that the reason for this—which was connected with the two week Lenten period before the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which is on the 15th of August—was actually because this time of the year in that part of the world was what we might call today ‘disease season’. It was a time of great sickness: plagues, water, summer, whatever. But, in any case, scholars think that during that particular time there was a proclamation of a time of prayer and fasting, a time of holiness, a time of singing particular praises. And then it developed during those fifteen days to sing the special service called the Paraklesis to the Theotokos, the Mother of God, on each day of those fifteen days and then end with the celebration of the falling asleep and the entrance into the Kingdom of God of Christ’s Mother, Mary. So you had fifteen days of prayer and fasting and fifteen days of singing the hymn to the Theotokos for her help, for her healing, for her salvation upon the people and for the protection from diseases and sicknesses that seemed to be particularly rampant during that part of the year.
Now, the custom still exists—in fact I do it myself, on that first Feast of the Saviour, the first day of August—to have a special service of the Blessing of Waters. And very often the waters outside are blessed during the month of August; I serve a church up in Canada on a lake—and that’s why I haven’t been recording too much during this month, I’ve been kind of on vacation watching the grandchildren—but in any case every year up there around or [on] the Sunday nearest to the first of August we make a procession with the wood of the Holy Cross, with the Holy Cross, which in that case is always a cross made of wood. And we make the procession to the waters of the lake and we sing the service of the Great Blessing of Water over the lake and we throw the cross into the waters and the little children go in and take the cross out of the water—they like it very much. But this is a wonderful celebration to begin the month of August and to begin the fifteen days before the Dormition, as a kind of a sanctification of the cosmos, a calling for the healing of all creation on that day.
And it just happens, I think it just happens—although we Christians usually don’t believe in coincidences, we rather believe in providential care—that this first day of August is also the celebration in the Church of the Maccabean boys in the famous seventh chapter of 2 Maccabees in the Bible. And I would suggest that if you have a chance you could read that seventh chapter of 2 Maccabees in your Bible. It’s a beautiful story of the mother of these seven boys—in tradition her name is Solomonia—and her boys are being killed because they refuse to defile themselves and to eat the unclean foods and to blaspheme and to make sacrilege in the Temple of God, that is in fact being treated in a sacrilegious blasphemous manner by the occupying forces: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, [and] the Babylonians who kind of took over the Jerusalem temple. And it’s just a wonderful, wonderful story where these boys just refuse to break the law of God and then they are tortured terribly and their mother is urging them on not to give in, not to defile, not to break the law of God. And it’s almost like she’s a cheerleader, you know, urging them on, saying, “I bore you, I gave you life, but the life came from God.” And it’s one of those places in the Bible where you have a pretty clear statement about life beginning in the womb, from conception, and of God creating all things originally out of nothing, out of that which did not exist; God brought them into being and fashioned the human beings in their mother’s womb. And this particular mother is urging her children on not to break the law of God but to be strict with the law of God and then each of the martyrdoms of these boys is described and then she herself is killed in the end of the story.
St. John Chrysostom commenting on this particular feast—which must have been a feast day already in Constantinople when he was a bishop there, already at the end of the fourth century—he says these incredible words, he says: that woman died eight times. She died with each of her sons and then she died herself. And Chrysostom says: isn’t this so marvellous? Before even the coming of the Messiah, before even the resurrection of the Lord, before even the resurrection of all the dead in the Lord, before the victory of the salvation of the world in the Son of God, you have these people, these faithful righteous people, according to God’s law, absolutely refusing to break the law of God. And here Chrysostom, in other sermons also, he’s very fervent on the fact that, even before the coming of Christ, that the righteous person who would believe in God and trust his word and keep his commandments; that they would already be witnessing to the victory over death in the Messiah himself. That they were already, in some sense, anticipating the ultimate victory that God would effect in the world through his Messianic Son. Whom they did not really understand, […] it wasn’t very clear, but they trusted in God and had this marvellous grace and power of God even before the coming of Christ to die, to give their life rather than to disobey the Lord.
So all that takes place on the first day of August, and then each successive day, up until the 15th, the Paraklesis— and paraklesis means comfort, encouragement—and so there’s a special service sung, a canon sung to Christ’s Mother Mary for her help over disease and affliction and suffering in this world, which is going to culminate in the celebration of her own victory by faith and grace over death on the 15th of August. But before the Christians get to the 15th of August there is the celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ. And that comes on the 6th of August. And then there’s an octave for the Transfiguration that runs virtually right up to the celebration of the Dormition. The Leavetaking of Transfiguration takes place on the day the Prefeast of the Dormition occurs in the calendar and then the Christians celebrate the repose in Christ of his own Mother Mary and her full glorification, even in her body, as it is celebrated in the kingship and the Kingdom of God in the risen Christ who is her Son.
But let’s take a little look at the Transfiguration now. Oh, there’s so much that could be said about that. But what we should say today, just as we’re reflecting on these things is, I don’t know—I don’t know who knows—but I do not know why that particular date, 6th of August, was actually picked and why it was even providential that the Eastern Orthodox Church would celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration on the 6th of August.
In some ancient texts that celebration of the Transfiguration is called the celebration of the booths, of the tabernacles, in Christ the risen Lord. So there is a connection of Transfiguration with the tabernacles, the Feast of Tabernacles in the Bible. And that makes all the sense in the world, because, according to the Scripture, the Transfiguration which is the centrepiece of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is the high point, the centre point of those Gospels. Everything before it leads up to it and everything after it is interpreted in the light of it including the Lord’s Passion itself. That Transfiguration feast took place at the Feast of Booths. And we can remember now how it’s given to us in the pages of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
What happens in the Gospel is that Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan and he begins preaching and announcing the Kingdom of God. He begins doing all the Messianic signs—which by the way are all read on the Sundays following Pentecost in the Orthodox calendar; each of the Sundays after Pentecost during the summer months is one or another of the Messianic signs of Jesus: the healing of the blind man, the feeding of the five thousand, the casting out of the demons, the walking on the waves. We’re contemplating, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus as in fact God’s Son who has all the divine qualities and powers in the universe in his humanity—but in the Gospel we have Jesus doing all these things and then asking the disciples—in Matthew on the road to Caesarea Philippi—who do the people say he is? They give various answers: that he is a prophet or Jeremiah or they say he is John the Baptist risen from the dead—and that’s where you have even the little pericope there; the narrative about John being beheaded—because he was already killed and so people thought that maybe Jesus was John redevivus, resurrected. But then Jesus asks: who do you say that I am? And Peter gives the answer, in Mark and in Luke, he says, “You are the Christ.” In Matthew he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And then Jesus begins to teach that he has to suffer and die, be given up and mocked and spit upon and beaten and cursed and blasphemed and ultimately rejected, arrested and killed. And he says, at the same time, so do his disciples. And that very same narrative he says, “And if you will be my disciple you will deny yourself and you will take up your crosses and you will follow me. You will not be ashamed of me.” And so we have the first announcement of the Passion of Christ.
Then it says, in one Gospel it says “after eight days”, I believe that’s Luke and the other says “after six days”—depending on how you’re counting the days—it says Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on the high mountain. By tradition it’s Tabor. And on that mountaintop during the Feast of Booths he reveals to them his divine glory. He is transfigured and shows them that he is indeed God’s divine Son who has taken on human flesh. Because the kabod Yahweh, the glory of God, the light of God, the splendour of God, the shekhinah which the Feast of Booths was celebrating; the Feast of Booths was celebrating the indwelling of the splendour and glory of God among his people. They would build these booths and they would live in them and they would eat of the fruits of the earth that were now becoming ripe. And so, in the Orthodox Churches, they still bless grapes and fruit on the Feast of the Transfiguration with the Holy Water that they have consecrated on August 1st usually—that special blessed water that’s consecrated at the beginning of August, the first day—then on the sixth day they take that water and they bless the first fruits. Christ, of course, is the first fruit of our salvation, the first born of the dead, the first born of creation, the first fruits, the first entering into Paradise on our behalf and taking us with him.
So on that day, that Feast of Tabernacles in the Old Testament was celebrating not only the harvest feast but they would build these booths and live in them, anticipating the shekhinah. Anticipating the coming and the indwelling in the skene, in the tabernacle, in the booth, of God himself at the end of the ages. And that’s very typical of the Biblical feasts; they begin agriculturally, then they have a historical meaning and then they have an eschatological meaning, a meaning at the end, their final meaning. So in the Transfiguration you have Jesus anticipating the end of the ages by showing himself in glory.
And it’s interpreted, by the Church Fathers and the Orthodox Church, as that’s what Jesus meant before they went up to the mountain when he said, “Some of you standing here will not taste of death until you see the Kingdom of God coming in glory.” And for Peter, James and John he meant his revelation on Tabor and the Transfiguration, but he also meant his revelation to all the apostles and to the disciples, many disciples—according to Scripture, hundreds—after his being raised from the dead, after his entering into glory, they see the Son of God in glory.
But at the Transfiguration itself he goes to the mountain, he prays, Peter, James and John are there and then they see him transfigured; metamorphosized. His form changes and then there appear with him Moses and Elijah in the fullness also of a splendour, even in some kind of glorified bodies—I mean, they’re not disincarnate souls there; it’s Moses himself and Elijah himself with the risen Christ—and then, of course, as the services say, Moses and Elijah are there to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. He’s the fulfilment of the Law symbolized in Moses, and the Prophets symbolized in Elijah. Or, the Covenant of Law symbolized in Moses and the Covenant of Grace symbolized in Elijah who is taken up into Heaven in a fiery chariot to be alive and to appear at the Transfiguration in that way. They also signify, Moses and Elijah, not only the Law and the Prophets and the Law and Grace, the Covenants, but they signify Heaven and Earth. Because Elijah is whisked up into Heaven and Moses is buried in the earth. They signify the living and the dead because Elijah is exempt from biological death according to scripture and the stories of the Bible; he is taken up alive without biological death, to be the Forerunner, the announcer of the Messianic Age when it comes. And when we talk about John the Baptist and his beheading, which is celebrated on the 29th of August, we’ll see that connection between John the Baptist and Elijah that is given to us in the scripture.
But in any case, at Transfiguration, on this Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, you have Jesus being revealed for who he really is and what he really is: God’s divine Son. Ad therefore the voice of the Father is heard: “This is my beloved Son; my Son, my beloved. You listen to him. You obey him.” That’s a very important part of the Transfiguration story, because it isn’t just some kind of an idea of the glorification of the cosmos or some kind of naturalistic understanding of the splendour of God shining through the things that are, but that ultimate final transfiguration of the world is participated in positively, gloriously, only by those who believe in him and follow him and hear him and obey him and struggle to keep his commandments and admit it and repent in tears when they don’t. That’s the teaching of the Holy Scripture.
So we have this marvellous Feast of the Transfiguration. But it is connected to the Crucifixion. In fact it’s very interesting to point out that the 6th of August is exactly forty days before the 14th of September, on which the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And at the Feast of the Transfiguration, the hymn called the Katabasia—the canon that’s sung at Matins, the second ode that’s sung at the canon—is already the ode for the Exaltation of the Cross. It’s what will be sung on the 14th of September when the Cross is celebrated. And then of course the hymns of the Transfiguration are making this point all the time, following the Scripture; for example, in Luke’s Gospel it says that Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration spoke with Moses and Elijah about the ‘exodus’—in the RSV it says ‘departure’, but it’s about the ‘exodus’, that’s the word used in Greek—that he will make in Jerusalem. So even on the Mount of Transfiguration he’s speaking about his Passion, about his exodus, about his death and resurrection. About his being the new Pascha, the new Passover. In the Kontakion of the Feast it says:
Thou was transfigured on the Mount, oh Christ God,
revealing thy glory to thy disciples in so far as they could see it,
so that when they would behold you crucified they would know that your suffering is voluntary,
and that you came into the world to suffer and die,
being yourself the radiance of the Father.
And that expression ‘the radiance of the Father’s glory’, it comes from the letter to the Hebrews, the first chapter, I think it’s the third verse, that Jesus is called in the letter to the Hebrews the charakter tes hupostaseos autou meaning his exact, express image—the ‘his’ means God the Father. And then he’s also called the apaugasma tes doxes autou: the radiance of his glory. The radiance of God’s glory, the light of God, the light of the world, hypostatic, personified light; the very glory of God that shines. And in the Old Testament it shined from the face of Moses on the mountain. And Elijah entered into it also in his entrance into the theophanies of the Lord. So Moses and Elijah were both eyewitnesses of the glory of God prefigured in the Old Covenant. Now they see the same glory shining from the face of Christ. And St. Paul says that himself exactly in the letter to the Corinthians: he says the light that shined from Moses—that he had to even cover himself up, he was so radiant when he came from the mountain—is now shining, as he said apo prosopou tou kyriou; from the face of the Lord. Then he says: who is himself hos estin eikōn tou theou; who is himself the icon of God, the very image of God.
So you had this celebration on the 6th of August as a kind of Christian Tabernacle Feast. It’s also the Christian Tabernacle Feast that shows the glory of the Messiah before the Passion and we always remember on Transfiguration, we cannot forget, that the world is saved not on Tabor, but on Golgotha. Tabor prefigures and shows who the Messiah is, but on Golgotha when he is marred and without beauty and form, the suffering servant, who you can’t even look upon because he’s so beaten, as Isaiah writes in his prophecy, that man of sorrows is in fact the radiance of the Father. And he showed himself to be so before the Passion. And it’s interesting that in the really ancient Church, in the earliest Church, in the Western churches for example and certainly in the Orthodox—it seems certain, that in the Orthodox also—the second Sunday of Lent, Great Lent before the Lord’s Passion, was often given over to the celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ. That the Transfiguration was celebrated during Great Lent to show that it was connected to the crucifixion of Christ.
And in the Orthodox Church that still is somehow held because of the celebration of Gregory Palamas on the second Sunday of Lent, Great Lent, who is the one who insisted that human beings can experience the uncreated light of God in the Holy Spirit that shines from the face of the risen Christ in the final covenant in Christ in the Church of Christ. Through prayer, through fasting, through keeping the commandments, one can really be illumined with the uncreated light of the Transfiguration. Very few in every generation, according to the Fathers, but there are always some. Like St. Seraphim in the nineteenth century and Silouan in our century or last century; we hope to see who it will be in the twenty-first century who will witness to the uncreated light of God that transfigures the cosmos in the risen Christ who was crucified.
One thing also, that can also be mentioned here, that it’s simply incredible to think that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima by Truman in the Second War took place on August 6th. And I think, we Christians, every time we see the photograph of that huge mushroom cloud that dropped the first atomic weaponry to kill so many people… it was actually dropped on the Church’s Feast of the Transfiguration. What a transfiguration. What a metamorphosis. It’s almost in total contrast to what is celebrated on August 6th in the Church where you have this transfiguration for life, whereas in Hiroshima you have this incredible image of death and destruction.
But then the Church moves on through August. And here in America we have to mentions another thing, the 9th of August is the day of the Canonization of St. Herman of Alaska – the first saint canonized in America. It took place during the octave of the Transfiguration; it took place in Alaska; it took place thirty-eight years ago in 1970. And it’s so interesting to note, Father Alexander Schmemann—who many of us know about and he was our Dean at St. Vladimirs—he preached the sermon on the Canonization of St. Herman, and it’s so interesting that when that sermon was published in the newspaper it was called ‘The Days of Light and Joy’. And Father Alexander compared the Canonisation of Herman to the Transfiguration. He even used the same expression that St. Peter used on the mountain: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” And then he pointed out, and we’ve been thinking about this ever since, how that same light, that same glory, that same splendour that shone from the locus incarnate on the mountain shined from that little unknown monk up in Alaska. Totally unknown. We don’t even know his last name. He wasn’t a priest, he wasn’t a bishop, I don’t even know if he was a reader. He was a lay-monk, for sure. And he just prayed and fasted and cared for the people and was completely hidden and he is, in a sense, the real antithesis of the so-called ‘American way of life’. It’s so ironic and so like God to have the first canonised saint in America be St. Herman, because the man had no power, no position, no property, no possessions, no pleasures of life. He certainly had no public relations office. He had no projects, no programs, all those p-words; he had none of them. Nothing. Just nothing. And yet he is transfigured and he is shown as the great image of the transfigured person during the Feast of the Transfiguration. This little unknown property-less, possession-less, powerless, pleasure-less person, with no position, no prestige, no pre-eminence, no presvya as we say in Greek, honours, at all. Yet he is our first glorified saint; the North Star of Christ’s holy Church in America.
But then we move on to the 15th of August and there we have really, again, the marvellous celebration of the lowliest of the low among human beings who is the greatest of the greatest: Christ’s Mother Mary. The female slave. The lowly one. The poor. The one of low estate; the one who possessed nothing. The one who is virtually hidden all through the whole Gospels, practically. Especially after the resurrection of Christ: they say she was at Pentecost and then we know nothing else about her in the Holy Scripture. Never mentioned by St. Paul. Yet she was the woman who gave birth to life, as we say in the service: she was the Mother of Life.
And how wonderfully the Orthodox Church celebrates her funeral; it patterns Great and Holy Friday. There is a shroud, a winding sheet, and lying in it is the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ. And behind her, in a mandorla, there is the image of Jesus risen in glory holding her in his arms the same way she holds him in her arms in the icons of the Incarnation. You know, St. Athanasius and all the Holy Fathers said God became human to make humans divine. So in the icon of Mary holding the child we see God becoming man. But in the icon and on the winding sheet of Mary’s death we see man becoming divine. We see a mere mortal person, a woman, a lowly woman, being transfigured in glory by her son who is the Son of God himself, the Word Incarnate. And we see him holding her in exactly the same position. And those two icons: Mary holding the Christ-child and then, in that mandorla at her Dormition, Christ holding her body in his hands, her most pure life, her soul, it shows really the deification of the world.
And so, in the Church services on the 15th of August, it’s like a little Pascha in the summer; it’s like a summer Easter. Actually the same Psalm 119 is sung all the way through, with lamentations or praises - however you want to call them, in between each of the verses. And they’re sung with exactly the same melodies as the marvellous canticle with Psalm 119 over the tomb of Christ on Great Friday. And a tomb is put there. And the Epitaphios is carried with the singing: God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us. And then that whole Psalm is sung. Up at the monastery where I served it was all done so incredibly beautifully with the nuns singing over the dead body of Mary.
And she really died. Because she had to prove that by faith and grace human beings can destroy death by death in Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life, the first one in the tomb, so to speak, spiritually, that we know that that happens to, is his Mother Mary. And that is what’s celebrated on the 15th of August. What is celebrated is: here is this woman, the most perfect human being who ever lived, the most perfect Christian, but silent, secret, hidden, small, humble, of low estate, poor, having nothing. Yet she is the Mother of Life and enters into life. And that’s how we sing:
In giving birth you preserved your virginity
and falling asleep, in your dormition, your kimesis,
you did not forsake the world, O Mother of God.
For, being Mother of Life, you are translated into life
by him who dwelt in your virginal womb.
And it’s so interesting that on the Feast of Transfiguration that little touch is put in there in the troparion, in the Transfiguration main hymn, it says:
Thou was transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing thy glory to the disciples as much as they could bear it.
Let thy everlasting light shine also upon us sinners
Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, save us…
I can’t remember the exact words there, but…
Thou are translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.
And on Transfiguration it says:
Let thy everlasting light shine upon us sinners through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to thee.
That’s how it ends:
O Giver of Light, glory to thee.
So all this comes together in this incredible way in the month of August. It’s just such a marvellous month that we just went through and experienced all these things once again. And then the month will end on the 29th and the Church year will end also. Because it’s interesting: the Church year ends with Mary’s death but then it also ends with the death of the other greatest of the Old Covenant. And in fact, according to Jesus, he was the greatest born of woman. Mary belongs to the New Testament; John the Baptist belongs to the Old Testament.
And so, on the 29th of August, the Church celebrates the beheading of John the Baptist. The one who dies before Jesus so that he could be his forerunner, his prodromos, even into death. And that he could go into Sheol—so to speak, in symbolic language—and among the dead announce that the Messiah is coming also dead, also to those in death, in order to destroy death, to empty Hades and to raise up all who have died, giving life to those who love him and keep his commandments and being judgment through his mercy and love for those who do not want it. In the beginning of summer we had his nativity in June and in August we have his martyrdom, his being killed for the sake of Christ. The Church also celebrates his conception as it celebrates the conception of Mary.
These are the two great figures for Christians: John the Baptist, the greatest born of woman and then Mary, the least in the Kingdom, who shows that in the Kingdom, the least, the smallest, the most humble… and even her death, she was so hidden in her death. She didn’t die a martyred death, Mary. She didn’t even die publically. The Church contemplates around her death-bed, surrounded by all the Prophets and the Apostles and it even says that the Twelve are brought to her and Paul is there on the icon and they put in the icon—the Church puts in the icon by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration—the first Bishop of Jerusalem, James and the first Bishops of Athens, Dionysius, sometimes also Hieronymus [Hierotheos?], there’s two of them there. And it gathers the whole Church through the ages around the tomb of the Mother of God. And this is the spiritual truth. Whatever happened historically, this is the truth spiritually: that in Christ’s Mother’s death we see the whole of the Gospel, the whole of God’s economy, somehow coming together in that little woman who was his Mother to show that indeed all of us, by faith and by grace—because when you see the Theotokos, that’s all you see, is faith and grace: blessed is she who believed, rejoice, oh full of grace. So she is faith, she is grace—and that’s what our salvation is:
We are saved by faith through grace. Not by any works of ourselves, lest we should boast, nevertheless we are God’s workmanship, created for good works in Christ… (Ephesians 2:8-10)
…who has saved us. And by the power of the Holy Spirit we can have that same power that Christ himself had. Including the power even to transform death itself, like Mary did, into an act of life. For in the Liturgy her death is called a deathless death, a falling asleep, an entering into the Kingdom of God. And John the Baptist, he does the same thing, in a much more powerful and vibrant way, in a very different story.
But this August is one of the most interesting months of the Church year, where all different things come together: The slaughtering of those seven boys and their mother on the first day. The slaughtering of John the Baptist, with his head severed from his body, towards the end. The great Transfiguration on the mountain. St. Herman coming in at that time. And then, of course, also, that summer Pascha of the death and the resurrection of Mary by the power of her crucified and risen Son.