The Twelve Great Feasts — (Part 2)

The Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos (Aug. 15).

Liturgically, the most important Feast of the Theotokos is that of her Dormition or Falling-Asleep. Prior to this Feast there is a strict two-week fast, beginning on August 1, which is broken only by the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6. This Feast possesses two distinct aspects inseparably linked in the mind of the believer. On the one hand, there is death and burial and, on the other, resurrection and the assumption of the Mother of God. As part of the Inner Tradition of the Church, this event was mystery that was not designed for the ears of the outside world, but which was revealed to the faithful within the Church.

True believers know that insofar as the son of God assumed human nature in the womb of the Virgin, She who was the means of His Incarnation was resurrected and taken up into Heaven in the Divine Glory of Her Son. Arise, O Lord, and go to Thy resting place, Thou and the ark of Thy might (Ps. 132:8). The Son transported His Mother to the eternity of the life to come, for being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life by the One Who dwelt in her virginal womb (from the Kontakion of the Feast).

Thus, if every year we commemorate the anniversaries of the deaths of the Saints the Martyrs, Apostles, Venerable Mothers and Fathers, Sainted Hierarchs, etc. so much the more we commemorate the death of the Most-Holy Theotokos who did not see the corruption of the grave common to all humanity. And not only did her soul ascend to heaven, but her body also. As she was a perfect example of that obedience which all Christians are called upon to exercise, and as she alone was the Mother of God, her body did not see the natural corruption which follows death, but was raised from the dead and carried to the glory of the King of All in the heavenly mansions.

According to the Inner Tradition of the Church, the Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos took place in the following manner: Having reached an advanced age, the Most-Pure One wished to leave the body and go to God as soon as possible, since the one unceasing desire of her soul had always been to see the sweet face of her son sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. Many tears she shed as she prayed to the Lord to take her from this present vale of sorrows.

The All-Chaste One lived in the house of St. John the Divine on Zion and often she went to the Mount of Olives, which was nearby, offering there in solitude her fervent prayer to her Son. Once, as she was praying alone on the Mount, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and announced that soon (after three days) she would depart and be with Christ. The Archangel told her that she should not be troubled, but should receive his words with joy as she was being called to immortal life and to the eternal King of Glory.

As a sign of the triumph of the Mother of God over death that bodily death would not have power over her, just as spiritual death had not had dominion over her, and that she would merely fall asleep for a short time and then, as if waking from sleep, she would rise and shake off death like sleep from the eyes and would see in the light of the Lord’s face the immortal life and glory to which she would go with shouts of joy and spiritual happiness the Archangel handed the Most-Holy Virgin a branch from Paradise. The Most-Blessed Mother of God was filled with unspeakable joy and, falling down on her knees, she fervently thanked her Creator.

Before her departure from this life, the Most-Pure Lady wanted to see the Holy Apostles who were already scattered all over the world for the preaching of the Gospel. On her knees she prayed that this might be possible and that at the hour of her death she might not see the Prince of Darkness and his terrible servants, but that her son and God Himself would fulfill His promise and come and receive her soul into His holy hands. As she knelt, the olive trees growing on the Mountain bent, as if they were animate, and when the Pure Theotokos rose, they straightened themselves out again, honoring her as the Mother of God.

Returning home, the Most-Blessed Lady showed the branch from Paradise to St. John and told him to carry it before her bed. Then she began to make preparations for her burial. St. John sent word to St. James, first Bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of the Lord, and also to all other relatives and neighbors, informing them of the imminent decease of the Mother of God. In turn St. James informed all the Christians living in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns. With weeping they came to the home of the Pure Virgin to await her death.

As the multitude was gathered at the home of the Theotokos, suddenly there was heard a loud noise, like thunder, and a cloud encircled the house of St. John the Divine. At the command of God, angels seized the Apostles who were scattered to the ends of the earth and, bringing them on clouds to Jerusalem, placed them on Zion before the door of the house. St. John greeted them and told them of the speedy departure of the Most-Holy Mother of God. Later the Apostle Paul, accompanied by his close disciples, Dionysius the Areopagite, Hierotheus and Timothy, as well as the Seventy Apostles arrived at the home.

On the fifteenth day of the month of August, as all were awaiting the final hour, there suddenly shone in the room an ineffable light of Divine Glory which dimmed the lamps that had been lit in the house. The inhabitants saw the roof of the room opened and the glory of the Lord descending from Heaven Christ the King of Glory Himself with the hosts of angels and archangels, with all the heavenly powers, with the holy Fathers and Prophets who of old had prophesied about the Holy Virgin, and all the righteous souls, approached His Immaculate Mother.

After greeting Her Son, the Virgin surrendered her pure soul into His hands. She felt no pain whatever, for the end was as if she had fallen into a sweet sleep. At once there began angelic singing and with triumphant songs the heavenly hosts accompanied the soul of the Mother of God as she went in the arms of the Lord to the dwellings on High.

After her demise, the Holy Apostles bore the Most-Pure Body of the Mother of God to the Garden of Gethsemane, where she was placed in a tomb. The Holy Apostles stayed by the tomb of the Most-Pure One without leaving the Garden for three full days, singing psalms day and night. In addition, for all this time there was heard in the air the wonderful singing of the heavenly hosts praising God and blessing His Immaculate Mother.

By God’s special arrangement, one of the Apostles, St. Thomas, was not present at the glorious burial of the body of the Immaculate Mother and he only arrived at Gethsemane on the third day. Grieving that he had not been granted the last greeting and blessing of the Most-Pure One, Thomas wept bitterly. Taking pity on him, the Apostles decided to open the tomb so that he might at least see the dead body of the Blessed Mother. But when the tomb was opened, the body of the Mother of God was not there, but only the burial clothes, giving off a wonderful fragrance!

With weeping and reverence the Holy Apostles kissed the burial clothes, praying that the Lord would reveal to them where the body of the All-Pure One had disappeared to. Later, after having eaten a meal in the Garden, the Apostles suddenly heard angelic singing. Looking up, they saw standing in the air the Immaculate Mother of God surrounded by a multitude of angels. She was enveloped in an ineffable light and she said to them: Rejoice, for I am with you always! Filled with joy, instead of the usual Lord Jesus Christ, help us! the Apostles cried: Most Holy Mother of God, help us! From that time they taught the Holy Church to believe that the Immaculate Mother of God on the third day after her burial was raised by her Son and taken with her body to Heaven.

Thus, the Lord, by His special Providence, delayed the arrival of St. Thomas until the day of the Falling-asleep of the Mother of God so that the tomb might be opened for him, so that the Church, in this way, might believe in the resurrection of the Mother of God, just as previously through the same Apostle’s unbelief the Church had come to believe in the resurrection of Christ. Thus were accomplished the Falling-asleep of our Most-Blessed Lady the Mother of God, the burial of her undefiled body, her glorious resurrection and the triumphant assurance regarding her ascension to heaven in the flesh.

Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1).

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity! In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos! You were translated to life, O Mother of Life, and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 2).

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

Great Feasts of the Paschal Cycle.

The Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem (Sunday Before Pascha).

On the Sunday before Pascha, the Holy Church celebrates the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem. Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (John 12:1). While tarrying there, in the house of Lazarus, many of those who had accompanied Him on the way from Jericho managed to reach Jerusalem and spread the tidings that Christ the Savior was coming there for the Feast of the Passover, and had stopped for a while in Bethany. Hearing this news, Christ’s enemies, the scribes and Pharisees came to Bethany, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, Whom He had raised from the dead (John 12:9).

The number of people believing in Christ the Savior was growing from day to day, and even some of the Jews who had up until then been hostile towards Him, seeing the miracle He had wrought, believed in Him. This made the scribes and Pharisees even more angry, and they resolved to kill not only Our Lord Jesus Christ, but the righteous Lazarus as well.

Jesus Christ did not want to increase the spite of His foes, the scribes and Pharisees, and for this reason He often avoided direct and open confrontation with them. But the time had come to take all the wrath and spite of these people upon Himself. So that His enemies would have no justification for their unbelief and would not be able to say afterwards that He had hidden His glory and His predestined Messianic mission from them, Our Lord made a ceremonial entry into Jerusalem, fulfilling all that the Prophets had foretold of Him. After spending a day in Bethany, Jesus Christ set out for the Holy City.

Calling to Himself two of His disciples in all likelihood Peter and John Our Lord asked them to bring from a nearby village a she-ass and her colt. The disciples went and fulfilled everything: finding at the gates of the town a she-ass and her colt, they brought them to the Savior. The young colt had not been ridden or borne a yoke before (1 Sam. 6:7). The disciples then spread their clothes upon it.

Thus Jesus entered Jerusalem, not in a royal chariot drawn by horses, but on a young ass, covered, not with rich cloths, but with the well-worn robes of the disciples. In this way, as the Evangelists John and Matthew tell us, the sayings of the Prophets were fulfilled: Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass (Matt. 21:5).

The meek and humble entry of Our Lord Jesus Christ in to Jerusalem was a symbol of peace and humility, for it represented a complete contrast to the triumphal processions of kings at that time. The way in which Christ entered Jerusalem showed that His Kingdom was not of this world, but that He was sent by His Father in Heaven. Jesus was accompanied by throngs of people who had followed Him from Bethany or had met Him on the way.

Having ascended the Mount of Olives, He stopped. From this hill a beautiful view opened out over Jerusalem. The tumultuous joy of the people following the Great Miracle-Worker who had raised Lazarus from the dead, grew even greater at the sight of this beautiful and sacred city.

Not only the disciples, but all who believed in Him rejoiced with a great joy, for they believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Who, according to the erroneous beliefs and expectations of the Jews, would sit on the throne of David, the king of glory, and be their ruler and rescue them from the Roman yoke.

At the gates of Jerusalem Jesus was met by a great multitude of people, rejoicing and waving palm branches, who, as St. Matthew tells us, bestrewed the way with them and their garments (Matt. 21:7-8). All this was an expression of particular reverence for the Messiah Whom they had come out to welcome. [We note here that in the Russian Orthodox Church, branches from the pussy willow are used instead of palm branches, obviously on account of the harsh climate.]

During the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the whole people, who had come in their multitudes to celebrate the Passover and those who had witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection and had been astounded by this great miracle, cried in joyous rapture: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest! (Matt. 21:9). The humble and meek procession of the Savior through the streets of Jerusalem surpassed and eclipsed all the triumphant processions that humanity had ever known.

Seeing the joy of the multitudes around Him, however, the Savior grew sad, and since He loved His people and His city, His heart was filled with sorrow. He knew that the same people, who rejoiced now and cried Hosanna! and saw in Him their salvation, would in a few days cry out in rage: Crucify Hint! Crucify Him! (John 19:6). The Savior also knew that the fair and holy city of Jerusalem which He was entering, would soon be desolated and not a stone be left one upon another. As He drew night to the city, Jesus wept over it, saying, Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).

But it was not for Himself that our Lord wept. He wept and grieved because He knew that God’s chosen Jewish people were perishing in ignorance and error. The Lord grieved not only for Jerusalem and the Chosen People, but for the whole universe; His gaze reached across the centuries, and saw the sins of future generations, and it was for them that He grieved in His soul; for them He wept and prayed.

Thus, the triumphant entrance of the Savior into Jerusalem which we celebrate on Palm Sunday was accomplished. In the Lord’s Entrance, we see His way to voluntary suffering and death for our salvation. And we also see the image of Christ’s spiritual Kingdom the Kingdom of Truth, Peace and Humility.

Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1).

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy Passion, Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to Thee: O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!

Another Troparion (Tone 4).

When we were buried with Thee in Baptism, O Christ God, we were made worthy of eternal life by Thy Resurrection! Now we praise Thee and sing: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 6).

Sitting on Thy throne in heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God! Accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He that conies to recall Adam!

The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ (40th Day after Pascha).

On the 39th day after Pascha we celebrate the Leave-taking of the Feast of Feasts, commemorating the last day of the Risen Christ’s earthly sojourn. The day following is celebrated as His Leave-taking His Glorious Ascension into Heaven. As Holy Scripture tells us, after Jesus had spoken with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven. Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away (Acts 1:9-12).

The Lord ascended to Heaven not to sadden us with His departure, but in order to do what was best for us. It is to your advantage that I go away, He had told His disciples. For if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you (John 16:7). I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth…. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things (John 14:16, 26). The Savior saw that His mission on earth was accomplished. The goal of His Incarnation was to proclaim the Divine Truth to the world, to direct men onto the path of repentance and salvation, and deliver us from Eternal Death. The Lord accomplished our salvation and man acquires it through the action of the Holy Spirit.

The Lord knew the trials and tribulations that would be endured by His disciples mockings, scourgings, imprisonment and even death. And thus the Lord ascended to His Heavenly Father that the Spirit might descend from the Father as the Comforter, and fortify His Friends.

The Lord ascended to Heaven in order to prepare for us, too, the path to the Heavenly Mansions, to open the Gates of Paradise, and Himself to be our Guide. Heaven that had been closed to men before the Resurrection now at the Ascension was opened by Christ the Savior.

None of the righteous men of the Old Testament the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and men pleasing to God could enter Heaven. No one has ascended into heaven but He Who descended from heaven, the Son of man (John 3:13), the Lord had said. Our first parent, Adam, closed the Gates of Paradise, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed at the gates. But the New Adam, Our Lord Jesus Christ, through His Ascension, opened the way to Life and Heaven itself. He was followed by the souls of the holy Forefathers, Prophets and hosts of righteous people of the New Testament. All worthy Christians who follow in the footsteps of their Savior, enter Heaven in this way today and so they will in the future.

The Lord ascended to intercede for us with His Heavenly Father. Towards the end of His earthly mission He had said: I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you., I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:2-3). This same thought was also expressed by the great Preacher of Christ’s teaching, St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews: Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24). These words fill us with hope, for we now have in Heaven a great Mediator and Advocate for the world with God Christ Our Lord.

Our Lord ascended in a cloud on high, symbolizing the rising smoke of an acceptable sacrifice. Thus the sacrifice was accepted by God and Christ the Lamb that was slain is ushered into the preserve of God where He will be eternally offered in the Holy Eucharist. Therefore we must be worthy of the great mercies of God, capable and ready to receive them. All the power, all the fruit of His divine Ascension, therefore, belong to us, for when He ascended on High, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8). This is why the Church repeatedly proclaims: Clap your hands, all you nations, for Christ is ascended up to the place where He was before [from the Vespers of the Feast].

Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).

O Christ God, Thou hast ascended in Glory, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing they were assured that Thou art the son of God, the Redeemer of the world!

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 6).

When Thou didst fulfill the dispensation for our sake, and unite earth to heaven: Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God, not being parted from those who love Thee, but remaining with them and crying: I am with you and no one will be against you!

The Descent of the Holy Spirit (50th day after Pascha).

On the 50th Day after Pascha, the Holy Church celebrates the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Holy Pentecost). When the Day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4).

In His farewell discourses to His disciples, the Lord told them, I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; you know Him, for He dwells with You, and will be in you…. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things… (John 14:16-17, 26). These words of the Lord were accomplished on the 50th Day after the Passover (Pascha), for the Seal of the Holy Spirit was seen on the Apostles in the form of fiery tongues, just as, in Holy Chrismation, we receive the Seal of the Holy Spirit in the form of the Holy Chrism.

The people who were present were greatly amazed at the sight, and especially that each one of them, no matter what nationality, heard the Apostles speaking to them in their own language. But others mocking said, They are filled with new wine (Acts 2:13).

Then Peter got up and spoke to them: Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on My menservants and My maidservants in those days I will pour out My Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:14-21).

Peter went on to speak of the Risen Christ and His redemptive acts, reminding them that this Jesus God raised up, and of that… all [of the Apostles were] witnesses (Acts 2:32). He continued: Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy spirit, He has poured out this which you see and hear (Acts 2:33).

Many of those hearing were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:37-38, 41).

A special characteristic of this day is the singing of the Troparion to the Holy Spirit: O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: Come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One! In addition, seven Kneeling Prayers are read by the Priest during the Vespers which immediately follows the Divine Liturgy of that day, while everyone are on bended knees, this being the first time kneeling is permitted since Holy Pascha.

Troparion of the Feast (Tone 8).

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, Who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit; through them thou didst draw the world into Thy net. O Lover of Man, Glory to Thee!

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 8).

When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-Holy Spirit!

Excerpt taken from “These Truths We Hold – The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings”. Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. Copyright 1986 by the St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.

To order a copy of “These Truths We Hold” visit the St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary Bookstore (new window will open).