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Liturgical cycles and forms

a) The Yearly Cycle of Services

Every day of the year is dedicated to the commemoration of particular saints or sacred events; these are the feasts. Some feasts are immovable; they are always observed on the same date; for example, the Nativity of Christ (and the Christmas Fast which precedes it) and the Dormition of the Mother of God (and the Dormition Fast.) There are also movable feasts, whose date varies from year to year. These include all those feasts which are connected with Pascha (Easter), such as Palm Sunday, the Ascension and Pentecost.

Pascha is the most joyous of Christian feasts. It is "the feast of feasts and the festival of festivals." Our Lord Jesus Christ arose from the dead on the day after the Jewish Passover (Pascha), which fell on a Saturday in the year in which He was crucified.

Since the Old Testament Passover was celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so that it fell on different dates in different years, the Pascha of the New Testament was also celebrated on a date related to that of the Old Testament Passover. The First Ecumenical Council decreed that the Christian Pascha should always be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, but separately from the Jewish Passover.

Tables, called Paschalia, have been compiled, indicating when Pascha falls in any given year. The earliest date on which Pascha can fall is April 4 (March 22 by the church calendar), and the latest date for Pascha is May 8 (April 25 by the church calendar.) Lent, or the Great Fast, begins seven weeks before Pascha. Each Sunday of Lent is dedicated to a particular commemoration (See the brochure Great Lent). One week before Pascha Palm Sunday is celebrated. Forty days after Pascha the Ascension of our Lord is commemorated, and ten days later comes Pentecost (Trinity Sunday, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles).

Here is a list of the twelve great feasts of the Church and their dates according to the civil calendar: The Nativity of Christ (January 7); the Baptism of our Lord (Theophany ó January 19); the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple (February 15); the Annunciation (April 7); the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday ó the last Sunday before Easter); the Ascension of our Lord (40 days after Pascha); the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Pentecost or the Day of the Holy Trinity ó 50 days after Pascha); the Transfiguration of our Lord (August 19); the Dormition of the Mother of God (August 28); the Nativity of the Mother of God (September 21); the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 27); the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 4).

After Pentecost the Church begins the cycle of the eight tones (particular melodies), with which is associated the cycle of daily readings from the Epistles and Gospels.

b) The Weekly Cycle of Services

In addition to the yearly cycle of services, there is also a weekly cycle, in which each day of the week is dedicated to a particular sacred event or saint. Sunday is dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ; Monday, to the Angels; Tuesday, to Saint John the Baptist and the Prophets; Wednesday and Friday, to the remembrance of our Saviourís suffering on the Cross (hence Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting; it was on Wednesday that Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles, betrayed Christ to the Jewish high priests; Wednesday, besides being dedicated to the Cross, also honors the Mother of God); on Thursday are commemorated the holy Apostles and their successors, the holy Hierarchs, among whom St Nicholas the Wonderworker is especially venerated; on Saturday the martyrs, holy monks and nuns and all the saints are honored. Saturday is also the day on which all the faithful departed are commemorated.

c) The Daily Cycle of Services

In keeping with biblical tradition, the Churchís day begins in the evening. The biblical account of the days of creation mentions the evening first: "And the evening and the morning were the first day" (Gen. 1:5); therefore, the first service of the church day is Vespers, the evening service. There are nine divine services offered every day: Vespers, Compline, Midnight Service, Matins, the First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours and the Divine Liturgy. The full cycle of daily services is usually carried out only in monasteries and some very large parish churches, which have many people and more than one priest.

Vespers is the service celebrated at the end of the day, in the evening. At Vespers the faithful give thanks to the Lord for the past day and ask His grace for the coming evening.

Compline is the service celebrated after the evening meal, or supper. It consists of a series of prayers before going to sleep, in which the faithful ask the Lord for forgiveness of their sins and for protection from the devilís temptations during sleep.

The Midnight Service is generally a monastic service, read at midnight, in commemoration of our Saviourís prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. The prayers of the Midnight Service urge those at prayer to be vigilant and always to be ready for the day of judgment, which will come suddenly, like the bridegroom who came at midnight in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

The Hours are very short services, read in the course of the day, usually without any singing. The First Hour corresponds approximately to the hour after 6 a.m. by our time, since in antiquity the hours were counted from sunrise. At the Third Hour, corresponding to 9 a.m., the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles is recalled. The Sixth Hour (12 noon) commemorates the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Ninth Hour (3 p.m.) ó the Death of our Saviour on the Cross.

The most important of all the divine services is the Divine Liturgy, which is usually celebrated before noon. At the Liturgy the whole earthly life of the Saviour comes before the spiritual gaze of the faithful, and in particular the Mystical (Last) Supper, at which our Lord Jesus Christ established the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In this sacrament a miracle takes place. The Holy Spirit descends upon the bread and wine and transubstantiates them, changes their very substance. The bread becomes the true Body of Christ and the wine in the chalice becomes the true Blood of Christ.

In the monasteries of antiquity these services were performed separately, each at its own appointed time. When the services came to be celebrated in parish churches, they were grouped together for convenience in two aggregates, the evening services and the morning services. The evening services include Vespers, Matins and the First Hour. The morning services are the Third and Sixth Hours and the Divine Liturgy. The Ninth Hour, Compline and the Midnight Service are usually omitted in parish churches.

On the eves of Sundays and great feasts the evening service, consisting of Vespers, Matins and the First Hour, is celebrated with greater solemnity than on weekdays. This service is called the All-Night Vigil, because the early Christians used to begin the service in the evening and end the next morning, when they would celebrate the Liturgy, at which the faithful received Holy Communion.

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