As I was planning for the church services for the Ascension of our Lord - Thursday May 29, I thought to write regarding the importance of the 12 Great Feasts. Of course, I want to encourage attendance, after all this is one of the 12 greatest feasts of the Church year - and historically attendance was not viewed as optional at these! In fact these days would have been holidays in Russia and the Byzantine empire, not days just to stay home - but holidays so that the people could go to the church services. But of course we live in a different world today, and most will have to work on this day, but Wednesday evening attendance is much more possible for many. Remember that in the liturgy of the Church, the day begins the evening before (6 pm to be precise), so that vespers or vigil on the evening before the feast are central to the feast day celebration with the Divine Liturgy the next morning finishing off the celebration as the highpoint.
The 12 feasts are extremely important because on them we celebrate and participate in the great events that happened for us and for our salvation in Jesus Christ. In this they are like Holy Week and Pascha where specifically we remember and participate in the Passion, Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent, Holy Week and Pascha are not included in the 12, but are viewed as equally important. In fact, Holy Week and Pascha are viewed as being in a class by themselves and Pascha is viewed as the greatest of all feasts.
Probably the most obvious of the 12 Great Feasts is Christmas. In the church services for Christmas we read the old testament prophecies, the epistle lessons and gospel accounts of the birth of our Lord. We also sing many hymns that truly are profound meditations on this great mystery of our salvation. It is the same with the Ascension, which is one of our fundamental articles of faith – it’s in the Creed! Do you truly understand what the Ascension is about? What does it mean for you and for your faith? If you attended the church services for Ascension you would learn the answers to these questions! What many may not realize is that it is in vespers, matins or the vigil service (which is a combining of vespers and matins) that most of the scripture readings and hymns associated with the feast occur. The Divine Liturgy is pretty fixed in form, and has less parts particularly associated with the feast; and the changeable parts for the liturgy associated with the feast (including festal antiphons, troparion, kontakion and prokeimenon, epistle, gospel and alleluia verses) all occur in the first third or so of the liturgy. So the habit of some of never coming to vespers hinders them from ever learning the deep truths of the faith. Equally bad is coming late for liturgy which means that some arrive after all the changeable parts (the parts that contain the teaching) are over! The profound ignorance of many Orthodox people on the basic articles of faith is due to a number of factors, but is in no small part due to poor habits of church attendance. Ask any monk about the faith - and he will be able to tell you much - not because he has any formal education at all in the faith (he likely never went to seminary or studied theology) - but he has learned a lot simply by attending all the church services. Even illiterate monks and nuns historically have had a deep understanding of the faith! It is because all the basic teachings of the Orthodox Church are found in its prayers and hymns. And the 12 Great Feasts have been specially highlighted by the Church as extra important.
St. Innocent of Alaska points out that “it is the binding duty of every Christian, when he reaches maturity, to know his faith thoroughly; because anyone who does not have a solid knowledge of his faith is cold and indifferent to it and frequently falls into either superstition or unbelief. How many Christians or, rather, how many people baptized in the name of Jesus Christ have perished and are perishing only because they have and had no desire to turn their attention to the foundations of the Orthodox faith! Whoever despises this duty will be speechless at the Dread Judgment.” (from “Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven,” p. 21)
Of course, we should all read and study to the extent that we can, but by far the simplest and best way to learn about our faith is by attending the various church services. Orthodoxy is more caught than taught. It is certainly not this way with many other versions of Christianity, but with Orthodoxy definitely so!
Another reason to attend these church services is simply to enter into deeper union with the Lord. After all, Orthodox worship is hardly just a mental experience. You may learn much, but it is primarily about entering into the mysteries of God by spiritual experience. On the first Pentecost Sunday after Christ was raised from the dead, the Holy Spirit descended onto the gathered early Church. So powerful was their spiritual experience that those people’s lives were permanently changed from that moment on. What if you were alive back then and you missed it? Wouldn’t that be tragic? Now certainly not every church service can compare to the original Pentecost, yet we worship the same Lord, and He is alive! This is another major reason to prioritize attending the 12 Great Feasts, and church in general - you could miss something! You could miss out on a spiritual experience, maybe something you have longed for, something that you may not even realize that you need. Only God knows the deepest needs of our hearts.
Eight great 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 Exaltation of the Cross
November 21, the Presentation of the The otokos
December 25, the Nativity of Christ/ Christmas
January 6, the Baptism of Christ — Theophany, also called Epiphany
February 2, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
March 25, the Annunciation
The Sunday before Pascha (Easter) — the Entry into Jerusalem or Palm Sunday
Forty Days after Pascha (Easter) — the As cension of Christ
Fifty Days after Pascha (Easter) — Pente cost
August 6, the Transfiguration
August 15, the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos
Besides the Twelve Great Feasts, the Orthodox Church knows five other feasts that rank as great feasts, yet without being numbered among the twelve. They are: the Circumcision of Christ (January 1), the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), the Beheading of St John the Baptist (August 29), and the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos (October 1)