What Are the Great Feasts?
Sometimes we receive the question: What are the Feasts, anyway? Those coming from a tradition that does not celebrate Church Feasts may even think we go to church and eat a big meal together. Do be sure—sometimes we do! But that's not what it means.
Oxford Dictionary's first definition of feast is "a large meal." But the second definition is "an annual religious celebration." This comes from the Latin festus, "joyous." It is a joyous day of celebration for the Church.
In the Orthodox Church there are many levels of Feasts. Every day of the year is at least a minor feast of a Martyr or Saint who lived or died for faith in Christ. Some Saints are universally celebrated with greater festivity.
But there are also major celebrations dedicated to the Lord Jesus and to the Virgin Theotokos called "Great Feasts," which have a major significance in the story of our salvation and the life of the Church. The Twelve Great Feasts are principal among them: eight dedicated to the Lord and four dedicated to the Theotokos. In chronological order of the original events, these are:
The Birth of the Theotokos (September 8). We celebrate the Virgin's birth, which was the beginning of God's plan to enter into our humanity through her.
The Entrance of the Theotokos (November 21). Her entrance into the Holy of Holies revealed her role as the one who would give birth to God in the flesh: our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Annunciation (March 25). The Virgin's acceptance of her role in God's plan, to conceive the God-Man in her womb by the Holy Spirit.
The Birth of Our Lord (December 25). The God-Man, Jesus Christ, was born in the flesh, joining the divine and human natures, creating the bridge by which humans can truly become holy.
The Presentation of Our Lord (February 2). Fulfilling the law, the Lord's human mother and foster father offered thanksgiving. God's promise to Righteous Symeon that he would see the world's salvation is also fulfilled.
The Baptism of Our Lord (January 6). We celebrate the Lord's baptism, not of repentance but to reveal baptism and sanctify the waters; and we celebrate the manifestation of the Holy Trinity.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord (August 6). The Lord was revealed in His full divinity before the Crucifixion, assuring His disciples of His power.
The Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday). The beginning of Holy Week and the revelation of Christ as the long-awaited Messiah through the words of the children shouting "Hosanna!"
The Resurrection of Our Lord (Pascha). The Feast of Feasts, the day of our salvation which stands above and apart from the Twelve Great Feasts.
The Ascension of Our Lord (40 days after Pascha). The feast of the Lord's ascent into heaven and sitting at the Father's right hand to await the Second Coming and Last Judgment.
The Descent of the Holy Spirit - Pentecost (50 days after Pascha). Ten days after the Ascension, the Son fulfilled His promise to send the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, ordaining them to preach the Gospel to the whole world.
The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15). After His Mother's death, according to the Church's ancient tradition, the Lord Jesus raised her to the glorified body in heaven. This gives believers hope and a concrete picture of the General Resurrection and glorification that we will all see someday.
The Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). This is the only Great Feast which did not occur during the New Testament era. In the days of Saints Constantine and Helen, the True Cross was found at Calvary and was divinely given to the Church as a testament to the Lord's saving death.
Even from the days of Moses, God always granted his people festivals and remembrances, scattered throughout the year like jewels, giving the faithful bright seasons of joy to anticipate and celebrate.
The ancient Hebrews had holidays, but as Christians we do not celebrate these, because they were under the shadow of the Law. The Jewish festivals were either left behind, or in the case of some, such as the Passover (Pascha), they were reinterpreted and given their full meaning in the light of Christ.
These are the twelve principal festivals celebrated by the Orthodox Church, long established from the earliest days of Christianity. Through the holy icons, we can make these celebrations concrete in our homes with our families in a very special way.