Living year in and year out with a liturgical calendar – worship which moves from feast to feast – there is a freedom of sorts from the tyranny of your own one-sidedness. The liturgical calendar of the Church inevitably takes you through the whole story of salvation – in a manner that simply requires a year to be unfolded. On the other hand, this same liturgical calendar, particularly as it is manifest in the Orthodox Church, does not unfold the story of our salvation in a manner that is merely historical. Such an unfolding would simply order the events of our salvation along a timeline and place them one after another. The inner relationships between each event would be lost – or would simply be seen as governed by time. Instead, the liturgical life reveals an understanding in which time as a succession of things (chronos) is repeatedly overturned. Instead events are placed in such a way that their critical content (time as kairos) is revealed.
A few examples:
The great feast, the “Feasts of Feasts,” is that of Holy Pascha (Easter). Everything governing the liturgical celebration of this feast clearly marks it as the greatest feast of the year. There is no debate within Orthodoxy of Pascha versus Christmas – “which feast do you like the most?” That Pascha is the greatest feast is clearly stated in the Church’s Typicon (the directions for liturgical celebrations). For instance, no feast is, by Tradition, to be celebrated earlier in the day than the feast of Pascha. It holds the place of highest honor.
It also has a particular shape – from an Orthodox perspective. Thus there is a Vesperal Liturgy on the Eve of the Feast (a combination of Vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil in which there are generally 15 readings in Vespers, as well as the remaining required material for Vespers and Liturgy – with a few exceptions). There is also a Vigil of the Feast and, finally, the Divine Liturgy of the Feast itself.
Interestingly, this particular pattern occurs only two other times in the Liturgical Year: Christmas and the Feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ). These facts may seem like so much liturgical detail – the sorts of things that priests like to think about – but these patterns are themselves meant to point to the very meaning of the feast itself. It is one of the keys to its interpretation. Thus Pascha becomes the means by which both Christmas and Theophany are to be understood. Christmas is not called the “Winter Pascha” for no reason.
In both Christmas and Theophany – the central, saving action is paschal in nature. In each of these events, Christ saves us through His union with us – His Divine condescension. He humbles Himself to be born; He humbles Himself to be Baptized; He humbles Himself even to death on the Cross. It is His humility by which He unites Himself to our flesh and takes our nature upon Himself. Thus what He accomplishes in Himself is accomplished for all. St. Paul is able to say:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:3-5).
It is worth noting that such statements by St. Paul are as far removed from Baptism as an “Ordinance,” a mere sign of obedience, as is possible. His language is clearly the language of union. We are saved through our union with Christ. Indeed, the whole of our Christian life, in every aspect, is a life lived in union with Christ. Union with Christ is our salvation.
This liturgical commentary on the meaning of particular feasts is also reflected in the icons of those feasts. The icons for Christmas, Theophany and Pascha all have a similar pattern in which the action is set in the context of a cave, or cave-like space (this is often accomplished in the Theophany icon through the framing of the central picture with stylized mountains that echo the shape of a cave). This artistic similarity of the icons of the feasts is a “grammatical” clue by which the faithful are again instructed to understand the feast through the lens of Pascha.
Indeed, these liturgical and iconographic elements are not isolated nor are they later Byzantine constructs. The Scriptures themselves use a similar “iconic” shape in the telling of certain stories, by which we are taught to see one thing through another. Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary has commented in particular on the similarity between the stories of Good Friday (part of Pascha) and of Christ’s birth.
The New Testament (particularly the Gospels) tends to be written in this manner because it was already the means of reading the Old Testament. The events of the Old Testament were radically reinterpreted by Christ (as He instructed His disciples) in which He made known to them “beginning with Moses and the Prophets all the things concerning Himself.” Everything in the Old Testament was seen as pointing to our salvation in Christ. The story of Creation, the Fall, the Passover, etc., are all foreshadowings of later events. Their meaning transcends their own history and points to the shape of Christ’s saving mission.
Thus history was not seen by the Church as a chronology – a series of events that lead up to the birth of the Messiah – but rather as a constant foreshadowing of the things that were to be revealed in the coming of Christ. The meaning of these things of “the beginning,” were to be found in their End. Christ is both Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The Lamb is slain “from the foundations of the earth.”
Thus it is that in the Beginning we see the End. In Christmas we see Pascha – for in Pascha we see revealed the fullness of the love of God and of our redemption. How can it be that anything point elsewhere?