Friday, September 4, 2015

East and West: The Liturgical New Year and the Theology of Mary

Welcome to yet another intermittent column as I compare Eastern and Western Catholic and Orthodox theological stuff. I'll look at things from liturgical celebration to theology to private devotions and go compare and contrast them.  Sometimes things'll look different, and sometimes they'll be much more similar than anyone who believes we shouldn't be reunited would like to think. Up first: the Liturgical New Year!

Everyone say Happy New Year to the Byzantines and Orthodox who are on the New Calendar! September 1st is the first day of the year liturgically. The beginning of the Eastern New Year is linked with the seasons: much as the beginning of the day is the setting of the sun so the beginning of the year is the end of summer and the preparation for winter. 

Sorry, couldn't resist. For those of you who don't like mixing theology and humor I am truly sorry for you.

The Gospel reading of the feast is Christ standing before the synagogue declaring that He, the Messiah, has come and the work of God has begun.

"On Mount Sinai You gave the stone tablets
Today in Nazareth You read the prophecy
O Christ our God in the flesh.
You took and opened the scroll
to teach the people that the Scriptures were fulfilled in Yourself"
(Stichera from Vespers)

We are to pay attention to Christ, Who is the center of all Scripture that we are to read for the year. The year is dedicated to God. The East also shows us St. Symeon the Stylite, a great ascetic who spent his life on a pillar, away from everyone. The year is to be dedicated to God for His kingdom is outside and inside our hearts. 

This contrasts with the Roman Calendar, where the New Year is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the fast (Put the eggnog down!) of Advent, which focuses on the parousia of Christ in all three year's readings as well as the Liturgy of the Hours. The West looks to the two comings of Christ with eagerness and hope.

"We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom."
-Saint Cyril of Jersualem, from a catechical instruction quoted in the Office of the Readings

Another thing I noticed when I looked at both halves is the context that the liturgical New Years are placed around. In the East you have the Birth of the Theotokos on September 8, followed by the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th. In the West you have the Immaculate Conception on December 8 followed by Christmas on December 25th. In fact, come to think of it, September and December are the only months of the year that begin with a Marian feast and end with a Christological one, East and West (meaning January, which has the feast of Mary followed by the Epiphany, doesn't count, although the fact that  it marks the start of our secular new year reinforces the theme even more strongly). It's almost like they're saying that this is the start of salvation history or something. 

"By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!"
-Kontakion of the Birth of the Theotokos

"Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain."
- Saint Anselm, from the Office of the Readings

Huh, how 'bout that.

It's interesting how it all lines up, isn't it? To the Church the beginning of Christ's salvation is with His Mother who, because of her yes, made all that followed possible. The whole world is indebted to Mary and so should celebrate her existence. To the East it's in her birth, that meeting of Joachim and Anna and Mary for the first time. To the West, it's the lovemaking of Joachim and Anna and God's favoring of it. Both are starts and, as a new parent, I can finally see why the East might prefer the birth over the conception. But there's something special about the conception as well that's amazing; the secret beginning that can only be known by you, your spouse, and God. Both are beginnings in their own right. The beatific vision of a child's face or the whispered secret that heralds the dawn.

But the Marian event is not the only special thing that goes on in both months. You also have the Exaltation of the Cross and the Nativity, both of which are 1st class feasts in the Eastern Church. The West doesn't emphasize the finding of the true cross quite as much, which is odd considering their emphasis on the Crucifixion, although they have Corpus Christi already, so I suppose they emphasize the Cross another time of the year with gusto. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross can be considered a type of the Incarnation: after all, who could possibly doubt Christ's life if we actually found the cross that He died on? The concreteness of the Faith is the most important element. After all, if we didn't have proof that God became man then what's the point of being a Christian? The East does this by saying: "Here's the cross, centuries later! How much more proof do you need?" and the West answers with a just as pertinent Feast Day that proves the historicity of Christ. God became a baby. A perfect little baby, literally. Both feast days are proofs of the reality of our Faith.

Ultimately, then, the Christian faith, East and West, begins with the following statements: God is man. He had a mother. He was here, He is historical. Christ is real, and He is coming into our hearts. It's the same doctrine but different ways of expressing it. It's almost like we were commenting on the same reality but in different ways, like men and women.  And, to be even less subtle about it, it's almost like both ways really are just a matter of preference: you're still celebrating Mary and Christ. I'm not saying the differences don't matter but it's the similarity between East and West that needs to emphasized, now more than ever.