Together with these feasts which emphasize the theme of Emmanuel, there are several noteworthy commemorations of saints from the menaion.
Dec. 25: The Nativity According to the Flesh of Our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ
The Lord chose to save us in a way which restored our priestly role in creation, preserving our dignity and making us coworkers in the divinization of the cosmos. The Lord does not disdain the world that he has created, but raises it to wonders unhoped-for. Let us praise him in the words of the tropar: “Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom, for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to thee!” We commemorate the adoration by the shepherds and the magi on this day as well.
This first Feast of the “Emanuel Cycle” sets the tone for the rest: from December 25 to January 4, there is no fasting or abstinence permitted, even on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Dec. 26: Synaxis of the Theotokos
The day after most major feasts in our calendar is dedicated to the person who is in the “2nd role” in the action of the Feast. In this case, although Christmas is clearly about Christ, his blessed mother has the next place of honor. A synaxis is an “assembly,” and indeed we come together on this day after Christmas to continue our glorification of our Lord’s birth, and today, in a special way, of his mother.
Dec. 27: St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr
On the “Third Day of Christmas” we commemorate the first disciple to give his life in the preaching of the faith, as recounted in Acts 6-8. the 3rd, 4th and 5th days of Christmas are the “Days of the Martyrs,” commemorating those who died for Christ.
Dec. 28: The 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia
The evil emperor Maximian Hercules surrounded the Christians gathered in Nicomedia with his troops on Christmas in the year 302, and when the faithful refused to worship idols instead of Christ, the emperor had the entire assembly, 20,000 men, women and children, burned alive.
Dec. 29: 14,000 Holy Innocents
Today the Church remembers the children slain by the soldiers of Herod, searching for the baby Jesus, as recounted in Matthew 2:16-18. A tragic event in and of itself, it also speaks eloquently to the current worldwide crisis of the lack of child care as well as the epidemic of child abuse.
On this day, we also remember all Christians who have died from hunger, thirst, the sword and freezing. The hardships of life beset us all, and we must pray for those who have died, and work to save the living!
The Sunday after the Nativity: The Holy Righteous Ones — David the King, Joseph the Betrothed, and James, the Brother of the Lord
The first Sunday following Christmas is dedicated to three of the men in Christ’s family. The first is David, the king, prophet and psalmist, whose brilliance was marked by his sinfulness — and repentance. The forgiveness of the Lord was given him though Nathan the prophet, and we recall this in every celebration of the mystery of holy confession.
The second is the righteous Joseph, the Betrothed, the husband of Mary. Historically, there has been little cultus to St. Joseph among Byzantine Christians. He is revered as the upright foster father of the Lord, and the protector of his family. This is his only feast in the Byzantine Calendar.
The third is James, the Apostle, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, who is called, along with his brother Jude, a “Brother of the Lord.” This traditional reference has been explained in two ways. First, the Greek word “adelphos” may mean “close male relative” as well as “brother.” More popularly, however, it is supposed that St. Joseph, already a widower when he married Our Lady, had children by his first wife, and that James and Jude were among them.
St. James led the first Christian Community, and presided over the Council of Jerusalem [Acts 15:1-35]. He was later martyred for his faith. He is the author of one of the first Christian liturgies, which formed the basis of the later abbreviations by Ss. Basil & John Chrysostom. Byzantine Christians may celebrate the Liturgy of St. James on this Sunday, and on his feast day, Oct 23.
Jan. 1: Circumcision of Christ; The Feast of St. Basil the Great
On the eighth day after Christmas, we commemorate the revelation of the Lord as fully human as well as divine, emphasized by his full incorporation into his own people — the Jewish people — and into the Law, by the ritual shedding of his blood.
On this same day, we celebrate St. Basil the Great, and use the Liturgy ascribed to him. This is the anniversary of the death of the great teacher and Hierarch of the 4th Century. St. Basil, together with his friends celebrated on the 30th of January, is one of the greatest examples of the combination of scholarship, holiness and oratory.
January 1, although the first day of the civil new year, has no other ecclesiastical significance than these in the Byzantine Calendar (the first day of the Church year is September 1). For communities of the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), the feast of the Circumcision is their “titular feast,” since it was on this day that the divine child was given the name, Jesus, through which we are saved.
Jan. 2: St. Seraphim of Sarov
In 1833, this wonder-worker of Russia fell asleep in the Lord. St. Seraphim is celebrated by all as a great spiritual father, confessor, and priest, encouraging frequent communion and prayer.
Jan. 6: Theophany
The great feast of the Theophany ranks third among the feasts of the Lord, after Pascha and Pentecost. It was at his baptism that the Savior, in performing all things in righteousness, revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity to us, thus showing us the life that is promised in theosis (“divinization”).
At vigil the night before the feast, we serve the great blessing of water, sanctifying holy water, praying the magnificent anaphora of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem as our invocation of the Holy Spirit over the water. After it has been sanctified, we sprinkle the water in our homes, and drink of it. It is Byzantine custom to have the priest come to bless each home with theophany water every year. On the day of the feast, it is customary to bless the nearest large body of water.
The theophany is the central epiphany of the Lord, around which this season turns. It is here that Christ is revealed most clearly as both human and divine, and as one of the Holy Trinity, that has saved us!
Jan. 7: Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner
As on December 26, today we commemorate the “second character” in the drama of the preceding great feast, this time, the Forerunner and Baptist John. St. John ranks second among the saints, after the holy Theotokos herself. He is our example and guide, in his dictum “I must decrease, so that He (Christ) might increase.”
Both he and our blessed Lady teach us this, for their whole lives, both earthly and heavenly, have no other goal but Christ, and bringing all men and women to the Holy Trinity.
St. John is also an important sign of the necessity, so well understood by the Cappadocian Fathers and others, of actively speaking out and opposing figures in authority when they go against the clear teachings of the Gospel.
Jan. 10: St. Gregory of Nyssa
The brother of St. Basil, he was a great teacher and writer, helping to formulate the ending of the creed at the second ecumenical council (Constantinople — AD 381). A bishop who suffered for his refusal to accept the Arian heresy, he is undeservedly less read than the other Cappadocian Fathers, for his writing is unique, especially his work on death and the afterlife, which he ascribes to deathbed conversations with his sister, St. Macrina, and his teachings on Salvation (“apocatastasis”).
Jan. 17: St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony the Great was a hermit in the wilderness of Egypt in the third Century, and the founder of the eremetical way of life, with its descendants, cœnobiticism and monasticism.
Jan. 18: St. Athanasius and Cyril, Popes of Alexandria
These two great hierarchs of Alexandria each fought the major heresy of his day. St. Athanasius (4th C) stood almost alone against the forces of Arianism, which claimed that Christ was “almost but not quite divine like the Father.” St. Cyril (5th C), struggled against the Nestorians, who tried to artificially separate the divine and human natures of Christ.
Both saints understood well the vital necessity for our salvation of a correct (“orthodox”) understanding of the divine and human in Christ: “Without confusion or mixture, without division or separation.”
The title “pope” (meaning “father”) has been used from antiquity by two of the five great patriarchal sees: Rome and Alexandria.
Jan. 21: St. Maximos the Confessor
St. Maximos of Constantinople (7th C) fought to preserve the experiential faith of the apostles against the Monothelite heretics who tried to diminish the humanity of Christ by claiming that he had no human will. This would have meant that there is something incompatible with the divine in the human nature, and so St. Maximos, faithful to the handing on of what the apostles had experienced about our Lord, refused to accept this, and was arrested, tortured, maimed and exiled. Although one Pope of Rome, Honorius I, had earlier fallen into the error of the Monothelites, another, St. Martin the Confessor (feast: June 14), rejected it, and suffered the same fate as St. Maximos.
Jan. 24 Blessed Xenia of Petersburg
A namesake of St. Xenia of Rome (5th C), also commemorated today, the Blessed Xenia was a “fool for Christ” in St. Petersburg. She lived in poverty, but her holiness was evident even in her apparent folly.
Fourth Sunday of January — The Commemoration of the New Martyrs of Russia and Eastern Europe
On this day are remembered all those who perished under the Communist yoke of 1917 to the fall of Communism, the most terrible and scientifically efficient persecution the church has ever known. We pray that God will rebuild the indigenous churches of these lands, with justice and mercy.
Jan. 25: St. Gregory the Theologian
Called in the West, “St. Gregory Nazianzen,” St. Gregory was the most poetic theologian of the Cappadocian fathers. Portions of his sermon on the revelation of Christ at this season are sung at our Christmas services.
Jan. 27 St. John Chrysostom
This “Golden-mouthed trumpet of Orthodoxy” is the author of our most frequently used liturgy. He was patriarch of Constantinople, and in that position, was a powerful advocate for the poor, and for social change in the empire. He was often exiled for his efforts, and died thus, in Armenia, in 407. This feast marks the return of his body from exile to Constantinople in 438.
Jan. 28: St. Ephraim the Syrian
A 4th-century deacon, monk and brilliant melodist in Edessa, St. Ephraim is the greatest Semitic Syriac ecclesiastical writer. His work serves to remind us that the early church was indeed both indigenous and universal, not just Greek and Latin!
Jan. 30: Synaxis of the Great Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom
In the 11th Century, a dispute arose during the reign of emperor Alexius Comnenus: which of these three saints (all of whom have feasts in January) was the greatest? The saints themselves settled the question in a dream of St. John, Bishop of Euchaita. They declared: “We are one in God, as you see, and there is no dispute among us, neither is there among us a first or a second!” A common celebration was thus instituted.
Due to the great erudition of these three “Satellites of the Holy Trinity,” this day is celebrated among Greek Christians as the “Day of Greek Letters and Learning.”
Feb. 2: The Encounter of Our Lord in the Temple with Simeon and Anna
This great feast brings the “Season of Epiphanies” to a close, recalling the encounter of the Lord with his faithful people in the temple of Jerusalem [Luke 2:22-40]. He has come, not to abolish the Law, but is revealed as the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets.
Simeon recognizes this, and gives us his beautiful prayer, which we use each day at vespers: “Now, O Lord, dismiss thy servant in peace…” We have seen the Lord, and we have worshiped him. Now we are ready to begin the preparations for Great Lent, and the journey toward Pascha.