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The Orthodox Church celebrates Twelve Great Feasts in the course of each year.  This number does not include Pascha, the "Feast of Feasts".  The Great Feasts commemorate six events in the earthly life of our Lord (His birth, presentation in the temple after forty days, baptism, transfiguration on Mount Tabor, His trimphant entry into Jerusalem, and His Ascension); four events in the life of the Mother of God (her birth, entry into the temple, the giving to her of the news of the Incarnation, and her blessed repose); the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord.  Each Great Feast is observed with great solemnity, and a number of them have associated traditions and blessings that are much-loved by the Orthodox Christian faithful.

On 21 September (8 September on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Nativity, or Birth, of the Mother of God.  As the church year begins on 1 September, this is the first of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church.  On it we commemorate the wondrous birth of the Holy Virgin to her elderly, righteous, but hitherto childless parents, Joachim and Anna, the circumstances of which are preserved in the memory of the Church.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in Jerusalem by the middle of the Fifth Century AD, and throughout the Christian world by the middle of the Seventh Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the role of the Holy Virgin in the Incarnation of Christ.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures at All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Genesis 28:10-17 (Jacob dreams of a Ladder reaching to Heaven); Ezekiel 43:27 – 44:4 (The East Gate and the Prince); Proverbs 9:1-11 (Wisdom has built her house); Luke 1:39-49, 56 (The visitation and the Magnificat); Philippians 2:5-11 (The Hymn to Christ); and Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28 (Martha and Mary, The truly blessed).

On 27 September (14 September on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.  Of all the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, this one alone does not commemorate an event from the earthly life of our Lord or His Mother.  On it, rather, we commemorate the finding of the Cross of the Lord by Saint Helen in 326 AD and the restoration of the Cross to Jerusalem in 629 AD after it had fallen into the hands of the Persians.  This commemoration is known to have been observed throughout the Christian world by the Seventh Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the salvation that we have through the Cross of Christ.  An important element of the All-night Vigil on this Great Feast is the “bringing-out” of the Cross for veneration and the singing of the hymn, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship Thee, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify”.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures at All-night vigil and Divine Liturgy are Exodus 15:22 -16:1 (At Marah and Elim); Proverbs 3:11-18 (God’s discipline, Wisdom as a tree of life); Isaiah 60:11-16 (The splendour of Jerusalem); John 12:28-36 (The prediction of Jesus’ death); 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 (True Wisdom); and John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30-35. (The Crucifixion and death of Christ).  For the sake of the Cross of Christ, this is a day of fasting.

On 4 December (21 November on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple.  On it we commemorate the dedication of the three year-old Holy Virgin to service in the Temple of Jerusalem by her elderly and righteous parents, Joachim and Anna, the circumstances of which are preserved in the memory of the Church.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in Jerusalem by the end of the Fifth Century AD, and elsewhere in the Christian world by the Ninth Century AD.  As with the Great Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the focus of the liturgical texts is the role of the Holy Virgin in the Incarnation of Christ.  A recurring theme in the services is that the Holy Virgin entered the Temple to herself become the “living temple” of God.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures at All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Exodus 40:1-5, 9-10, 16, 34-35 (The Tabernacle erected and arranged); I (III) Kings 7:51, 8:1, 3-4, 6-7, 9-11 (The Ark is brought into the Temple); Ezekiel 43:27-44:4 (The East Gate and the Prince); Luke 1:39-49, 56 (The visitation and the Magnificat); Hebrews 9:1-7 (The Earthly Sanctuary); and Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28 (Martha and Mary; The truly blessed).

On 7 January (25 December on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas, the Great Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  On it we commemorate the birth of Christ, the circumstances of which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures and preserved in the memory of the Church.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in Rome early in the Fourth Century AD, and in the great centres of the Christian East by the end of that century.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the union of Creator and Creation in the person of Christ.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Matthew 1:18-25 (§2, The birth of Jesus Christ); Galatians 4:4-7 (§209, Adoption through Christ); and Matthew 2:1-12 (§3, The visit of the Magi, The star of Bethlehem).

On 19 January (6 January on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates Theophany, the Great Feast of the Baptism of Christ.  On it we commemorate the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, the circumstances of which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in by the middle of the Fourth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the manifestation of God, the enlightenment He brings to the world, and the renewal of creation in Christ.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Mark 1:9-11 (§2, The baptism of Jesus); Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7 (§209, The work of grace); and Matthew 3:13-17 (§6, The baptism of Jesus).  A particular feature of the services for Theophany is the Great Blessing of Water, ideally served at a spring, river or lake, but often simply served in church.  In our parish this Great Feast has an added significance as it was the patronal feast of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Theophany, a parish that functioned in Mayfield (Newcastle) from 1994-2009.

On 15 February (2 February on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.  On it we commemorate the presentation of Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem on the fortieth day after His birth, the circumstances of which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures.  This commemoration is known to have been observed early in the Fourth Century AD, becoming more widespread in the middle of the Sixth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the submission of Christ, the Giver of the Law, to the requirements of the Law, and much of the hymnody draws on the words of Righteous Symeon the God-Receiver: “Now lettest Thy servant depart in peace, O Master” (Luke 2:29-32).  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are a composite reading from Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus (Exodus 12:51, 13:1-3, 13:10-16,22-29; Numbers 8:16; Leviticus 12:1-4; and Numbers 816-17, Consecration of the Firstborn); Isaiah 6:1-12 (Isaiah before the Throne of God); Isaiah 19:1-5,12,16,19-21 (God’s judgement against Egypt); Luke 2:25-32 (§8, The presentation of the Infant Lord in His Temple); Hebrews 7:7-17 (§316, A change in the priesthood); and Luke 2:22-40 (§7, The presentation of the Infant Lord in His Temple).  A particular feature of the services for the Meeting of the Lord is the blessing of candles, customarily replaced in New South Wales parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia with the blessing of fruit.

On 7 April (25 March on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Annunciation of the Mother of God.  On it we commemorate the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Holy Virgin that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in the Fifth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is on the Incarnation of Christ and the Holy Virgin’s obedience to God’s will.  The canon at Matins takes the form of a dialogue between the Archangel and the Holy Virgin.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures at All-night vigil and Divine Liturgy are Luke 1:39-49,56 (The visitation and the Magnificat); Hebrews 2:11-18 (§306, The Lord shares in our humanity); and Luke 1:24-38 (§3, The announcement of Jesus’ birth).  As this Great Feast can from year to year fall on different days during Great Lent, on Pascha itself, and during Bright Week, the form of the services can vary considerably.

The Great Feast of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, is celebrated on the Sixth Sunday of Great Lent.  On this day we commemorate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-1, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19) following His raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).  This commemoration is known to have been observed by the Fourth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is on Christ as King, victorious conqueror of death.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Genesis 49:1-2,8-12 (Jacob calls his sons; Judah); Zephaniah 3:14-19 (Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion); Zechariah 9:9-15 (Prophecy about the coming of the Messianic King of Jerusalem); Matthew 21:1-11,15-17 (§83, The Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem); Philippians 4:4-9 (§247, Counsels of Peace); and John 12:1-18 (§41, The anointing at Bethany and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem).  A particular feature of the services for Palm Sunday is the blessing of palms during All-night Vigil.

On Thursday of the Sixth Week of Pascha, forty days after the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, the circumstances of which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures.  This commemoration of Apostolic origin is known to have been observed throughout the Christian world by the Fourth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is on the raising up to Heaven of humanity in Christ and on the promise of the Holy Spirit.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Isaiah 2:2-3 (The mountain of the Lord); Isaiah 62:10-12, 63:1-3, 7-9 (The redeemed of the Lord); Zechariah 14:4, 8-11 (Living water shall come forth out of Jerusalem); and three passages culminating in the Ascension of the Lord: Mark 16:9-20 (§71); Acts 1:1-12 (§1); and Luke 24:36-53 (§114).

The Great Feast of Pentecost is celebrated on the Eighth Sunday of Pascha.  On this day we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Disciples as they were gathered together in Jerusalem on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the ancient celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses observed on the fiftieth day after the Passover.  This commemoration is known to have been observed by the Fourth Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is on the coming of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of the Holy Trinity, for which reason this Sunday is also referred to as Trinity Day.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29 (The Spirit on the Seventy Elders); Joel 2:23-32 (The pouring out of the Spirit); Ezekiel 36:24-28 (A new heart and a new Spirit); John 20:19-23 (§65, The gift of the Holy Spirit); Acts 2:1-11 (§3, The coming of the Holy Spirit); and John 7:37-52, 8:12 (§27, The offer of Living Water).  It is customary on this day to decorate the churches with green branches and flowers in honour of the Life-Giving Spirit.  Following Divine Liturgy, Vespers is served, at which three long prayers are offered whilst kneeling.

On 19 August (6 August on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  On it we commemorate Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the circumstances of which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures.  This commemoration is known to have been observed in Jerusalem in the Seventh Century AD.  The focus of the liturgical texts is the divine glory of Christ.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures for All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Exodus 24:12-18 (Moses on the Mountain); Exodus 33:11-23, 34:4-6, 8 (Moses’ closeness to God); 1 Kings 19:3-9, 11-13, 15-16 (The Lord speaks to Elijah); Luke 9:28-36 (§45, The Transfiguration); 2 Peter 1:10-19 (§65, We were eyewitnesses of his majesty); and Matthew 17:1-9 (§70, The Transfiguration).  A particular feature of the services for Transfiguration is the blessing of grapes and other fruits at Divine Liturgy.

On 28 August (15 September on the Church Calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Dormition (“falling asleep”) of the Mother of God.  On it we commemorate the wondrous repose of the Mother of God, the circumstances of which are preserved in the memory of the Church.  This commemoration is known to have been observed by the Sixth Century AD.  As with the other Great Feasts of the Mother of God, the liturgical texts focus on her role in the Incarnation of Christ in addition to the historical events commemorated.  The appointed readings from the Holy Scriptures at All-night Vigil and Divine Liturgy are Genesis 28:10-17 (Jacob dreams of a Ladder reaching to Heaven); Ezekiel 43:27 – 44:4 (The East Gate and the Prince); Proverbs 9:1-11 (Wisdom has built her house); Luke 1:39-49, 56 (§4, The visitation and the Magnificat); Philippians 2:5-11 (§240, The Hymn to Christ); and Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28 (§54, Martha and Mary; The truly blessed).  A particular feature of the services for Dormition, much-loved throughout the Orthodox Christian world, is the arrangement of a “tomb” in the centre of the church, on which is laid a large and ornate image of the Mother of God in repose.

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