Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church
The feast of the Resurrection of Jesus, called Easter or Pascha, is the greatest of the feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In addition, there are other days of great importance in the life of the Church - the Twelve Great Feasts.
The Twelve Great Feasts
Eight greats feasts in honor of Jesus Christ, and four great feasts honoring the Virgin Mary - the Theotokos - comprise The Twelve Great Feasts.
- September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos
- September 14, the Elevation of the Holy Cross
- November 21, the Presentation of the Theotokos
- December 25, the Nativity of Christ -- Christmas
- January 6, the Baptism of Christ -- Epiphany or Theophany
- February 2, the Presentation of Christ
- March 25, the Annunciation
- The Sunday before Easter/Pascha -- Palm Sunday
- Forty Days after Easter/Pascha -- the Ascension of Christ
- Fifty Days after Easter/Pascha -- Pentecost
- August 6, the Transfiguration
- August 15, the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos
Short explanations of the feasts
Nativity of the Theotokos
Mary was born to elderly and previously barren parents by the names of Joachim and Anna (now saints), in answer to their prayers. Orthodox Christians do not hold to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, in which it is supposed that Mary was preserved from the ancestral sin that befalls us all as descendents of Adam and Eve, in anticipation of her giving birth to the sinless Christ. The Orthodox believe that Mary indeed received the ancestral sin, having been conceived in the normal way of humanity, and thus needed salvation like all mankind. Orthodox thought does vary on whether Mary actually ever sinned, though there is general agreement that she was cleansed from sin at the Annunciation.
Elevation of the Holy Cross
The Elevation of the Holy Cross commemorates the recovery of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The Persians had captured it as a prize of war in Jerusalem, and it was recovered by the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire ("Byzantine Empire"). The cross was joyously held up for veneration by the Christian faithful upon its recovery.
Presentation of the Theotokos
According to Tradition, Mary was taken -- presented -- to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she lived and served until her betrothal to Joseph.
Baptism of Christ
This observance commemorates Christ's baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, and the beginning of Christ's earthly ministry. It is known by the Orthodox as both Epiphany and Theophany. These are bundled, along with Christmas, differently in some eastern Christian traditions.
Presentation of Christ
In the Gospel of Luke 2:22-35, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. He was received in the arms of the elder Simeon, who then prayed, "Now let Thy servant depart (die) in peace,...for I have seen Thy salvation." This was one of the things that Mary "pondered in her heart" -- the fact that others recognized that her Son was the Messiah.
According to the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce to her that she would conceive and bear a son, even though she "knew no man." This date is selected to be exactly nine months ahead of Christmas, indicating that Christ was conceived at that time "by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary", as stated in the Nicene Creed.
A mere few days before His brutal crucifixion, Jesus was received by adoring throngs at his entry into Jerusalem on the back of young donkey. The crowds threw palm branches in his path in jubilation, and even the children shouted praises to Him. The Orthodox celebrate this day with joy, but with the realization that very sad events are soon to come. Among the Russian Orthodox, pussy willow branches are substituted in the celebration of this event, owing to the lack of availability of palm trees in Slavic climes.
Forty days after the Resurrection, while blessing His disciples (Gospel of Luke 24:50-51), Christ ascended into heaven, taking His place at the right hand of the Father (Gospel of Mark 16:19 and Nicene Creed).
Fifty days after the Resurrection, on the exising Jewish feast of Pentecost, while the disciples and many other followers of Jesus were gathered together to pray, the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of "cloven tongues of fire", with the sound of a might rushing wind, and they began to speak in languages that they did not know. There were many visitors from the Jewish diaspora to Jerusalem at that time for the Jewish observance of the feast, and they were astonished to hear these untaught fisherman speaking praises to God in their alien tongues. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2.
Jesus had gone with his disciples Peter, James, and John to Mount Tabor. Christ's appearance was changed while they watched into a glorious radiant figure. There appeared Elijah and Moses, speaking with Jesus. The disciples were amazed and terribly afraid. This event shows forth the divinity of Christ, so that the disciples would understand after his Ascension that He was truly the radiant splendor of the Father, and that his Passion was voluntary. Gospel of Mark 9:2-9
The Orthodox feast of the Dormition is very similar to what Roman Catholicism calls the Assumption of Mary. According to Orthodox Tradition, Mary died like all humanity, "falling asleep", so to speak, as the name of the feast indicates. (Catholic theologians are divided on the issue of whether Mary died. Today most would favor an actual death before the Assumption.) The Apostles were miraculously summoned to this event, and all were present except Thomas when Mary passed from this life. She was buried. Thomas arrived a few days later, and desiring to see her one more time, convinced the others to open her tomb, and behold! her body was not there. This event is seen as a firstfruits of the resurrection of the faithful that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. The event is normally called the "Dormition", though there are many Orthodox Churches with the name "Assumption". In Greek, "Dormition" is "Kimisis" -- falling asleep in death -- from which the word "cemetery" derives.