Feasts of the Lord
In addition to the feasts that we have already mentioned in connection with the Easterand Christmas cycles, there are many other feasts that are related to the life of Jesus Christ. We will cite three examples here of important feasts celebrated by many diverse currents of Christianity.
– The Presentation of Our Lord. On February 2 (or on February 14 for the Armenians),Christians commemorate, forty days after Christmas, the presentation of Jesus in theTemple. The narrative is retold in the Gospels (cf. Luke 2:22-38). This day is also a celebration of the consecrated life of those Christians who have chosen to serve God in a special way, particularly monks, nuns and other religious.
– The Annunciation. On March 25, Christians celebrate the feast of the Incarnation. This is the day to commemorate the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and the annunciation that to her, a virgin, would be born a child (cf. Luke 1:26-38). In the Holy Land, the town of Nazareth is the center of attention on this day.
– Christ the King. The Roman Catholic liturgical year ends with a final Sunday celebration of Christ the King (some time at the end of November).
Feasts of Mary
The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth has a very special place in the life of many Christians. The Orthodox, Eastern and Catholic Churches venerate Mary with particular devotion and their liturgical calendars are full of feasts that remember events in her life or the consecration to her of churches or shrines. The Protestant Churches (Lutheran, Calvinist or Evangelical traditions) have generally shied away from Marian devotion and these feasts have left little trace in the Protestant liturgical calendars.
The two central Marian feasts for both Byzantine and Latin tradition Christians are connected to the beginning and the end of the life of the Virgin.
– The Dormition and the Assumption of the Virgin. Mary’s falling asleep (Christians do not use the word death for Mary) and her bodily assumption into heaven are not recounted in the New Testament. However, Christian tradition developed the understanding that Mary, mother of Jesus, did not end up like all flesh. Instead her body was assumed into heaven. This feast is celebrated on August 15. The Latin preface to the Eucharist on this day proclaims:
Today the Virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way. You would not allow decay to touch her body, for she had given birth to your son, the Lord of all life, in the glory of the Incarnation (Preface, Feast of theAssumption of the Virgin Mary).
– The Immaculate Conception. Highly developed in the Latin tradition, the conception of Mary is also celebrated in the Byzantine tradition, where it is called the Feast of the Maternity of Anne. Mary, believed to have been preserved from any taint of original sin, is also said to have been miraculously conceived by her mother Anne (Hannah). This feast is celebrated on December 8 (Roman Catholic) or 9 (Byzantine). The Byzantine Kontakion of the feast is heard:
Today the universe rejoices, for Anne has conceived the Mother of God in a manner provided by God himself: for Anne has borne the one who is to give birth to the Word in a manner beyond all telling.
– There are many other Marian feasts. Some of these are based upon her life, including the Nativity of Mary (September 8) and her presentation in the Temple (November 21). The entire month of May is dedicated to Mary in the Catholic tradition and the month ends with the feast of her visit to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (May 31), the day of special pilgrimage to the village of Ein Karem, where Elizabeth lived. Many other feasts are more local in nature commemorating the many churches, places and peoples dedicated to her. Other popular Marian feasts relate to her apparitions to individuals or groups of persons (for instance at Lourdes, France (February 11) or Fatima, Portugal (May 13).
The Feasts of the Saints
The Christian calendar is full of other feast days that commemorate the saints who have given models of Christian life. The Protestant Churches do not venerate the saints butOrthodox, Eastern and Catholic Churches have a vast array of saints who might be classified in three groups: those from the Old Testament, those from the New Testament (who walked with Christ) and those from the centuries of Church history. Each region has its own local saints as does each Church. Here we will mention only a few of the more important feasts:
Among the Old Testament saints feasted in the different Christian liturgical cycles, we find:
– the Patriarch Abraham, who is commemorated in the Roman Catholic Church on October 9.
– the prophet Moses, who is commemorated by various traditions on September 4 or 5.
– the king David, who is commemorated in the period just before or just after Christmas. In the Roman Catholic Church his feast is on December 29.
Among the New Testament saints feasted, we find:
– John the Baptist, who is commemorated by various feasts connected to his life, the most important being the feast of his birth on June 24.
– Peter and Paul, who are commemorated by various feasts, the most important being their common feast on June 29.
– Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, who is commemorated on March 19.
– Mary Magdalene, who is commemorated on July 22.
In the Christian traditions that venerate the saints, almost every day might be the celebration of a particular saint. Some countries, towns or parish churches have their own local traditions and churches and individual Christians celebrate their patron saints (for whom they might be named).
Among the myriad saints that have appeared in the history of the Church, we find:
– Anthony of Egypt, the founder of monastic life, celebrated on January 17.
– Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity to the Slavs, celebrated on February 14.
– Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland, celebrated on March 17.
– Mark, who wrote the second of the Gospels, celebrated on April 25.
– Athanasius, Church Father in Alexandria, celebrated on May 2.
– Justin Martyr, Church Father from Nablus in the Holy Land, patron saint of philosophers, celebrated on June 1.
– Ignatius of Loyola, great Church reformer and founder of the Jesuit order, celebrated on July 31 (celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church).
– Maximos the Confessor, Church Father and opponent of heresies in the East, celebrated on August 13.
– John Chrysostom, Church Father and composer of the Byzantine liturgy, celebrated on September 13 in the Roman Catholic tradition and on November 13 in the Greek Orthodox tradition.
– Therese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite renowned for her ascetic life, celebrated on October 1 (celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church).
– Cecilia, Christian martyr and patron saint of music, celebrated on November 22.
– Nicholas, bishop in Smyrna and the figure behind Christmas’ Santa Claus, celebrated on December 6.
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates All Saints on November 1. This is a commemoration of the multitude of saints, both those recognized officially by the Church and those who have disappeared without trace. The night before is what is popularly known as Halloween (Hallowed evening). The day after All Saints, Roman Catholics celebrate All Souls, a day of special prayers for all those Christians who have died. This recalls the fact that in the early Church, all Christians (those baptized) were known as saints. Many important churches are also commemorated in the Christian liturgical calendar on the date of their foundation.
New feasts are regularly added to the Church calendar, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, as the Church recognizes new contemporary models of Christianfaith. Recent examples include two victims of the Nazi Holocaust: Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz (his feast is celebrated on August 13) and Edith Stein, a renowned Jewish philosopher who became a Carmelite nun and died at Auschwitz (her feast is on August 9). The liturgy and the liturgical calendar are realities that are living expressions of the life of the faithful and thus ever evolving as they take on new expressions in traditional forms.
Feasts of the Church of Jerusalem
Local churches have special feasts connected to their particular traditions and history and the Holy Land is no exception. However, what is unique in the Holy Land is that many of the universal celebrations of the Church, especially those that commemorate biblical events, can be celebrated in the very places associated with the historical memory. Thus Holy Land Christians can ideally (when the political situation permits) go to Jerusalem for Easter, to Mount Zion for Pentecost, to Bethlehem for Christmas, to the Jordan for the Baptism, to Nazareth for the Annunciation, etc. This gives a particular pathos to Christian celebrations in the Holy Land.
There are a number of feasts that have special significance in the Holy Land and we might mention a few examples:
– The Feast of Saint George, celebrated on April 23. Saint George is a patron saint of the Holy Land, remembered in Christian tradition as a captain in the Roman army, who defied the anti-Christian edicts of the Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century and was martyred for the faith. Depicted as a warrior battling a dragon in order to save a king’s daughter, St George is seen as the defender of the Church from the forces who seek to destroy it. He is enormously popular throughout the Middle East, where there are many churches in his honor and Christians named after him. The Emperor Constantine constructed a great church in his honor in the town of Lydda, the hometown of George’s mother where she returned with him from Cappadocia after she had secretly become a Christian. The main ceremony honoring the saint on this day is held in Lydda. In one of the Byzantine hymns to his honor, the faithful chant:
O George the soldier, you have lived according to the meaning of your name: by carrying on your shoulder the cross of Christ, you ploughed the earth that was made barren by Satan’s errors. Uprooting the thorns of pagan worship, you planted the vine of Orthodox faith, wherefore you gave forth healing for the faithful throughout the world. Since you have become a trustworthy husbandman of the Trinity, we beseech you to intercede for the safety of the world and the salvation of our souls.
– The Feast of Saint James, celebrated on May 3. Saint James, a leader of the Jerusalem community in the New Testament (cf. Acts 15), is considered the patron saint of the Church of Jerusalem and Orthodox and Catholic alike claim this saint as patron of their Jerusalem churches.
– The Feast of the Prophet Elijah, celebrated on July 20. Elijah, great prophet of Israel, who lived on Mount Carmel, is an important figure in Christian spirituality. The Churches of the Holy Land make a festive pilgrimage to Mount Carmel on his feast day and the processions that take place there attract many non-Christians too. Elijah is seen as a defender of the true faith, slaughtering the prophets of Baal and suffering persecution because of his fidelity. Known in Arabic as “Mar Iliyas”, many churches andmonasteries are named for him as are new born children. In Christian Scripture and tradition, strong links bind Elijah to John the Baptist. The Carmelite monks in the Roman Catholic Church see Elijah as their founder whereas the Greek Orthodox have an important monastery named after him (on the way to Bethlehem).
– Among the modern examples of holy men and women in the Catholic Church, thePope proclaimed blessed a Palestinian Carmelite nun, Mariam Bawardi from Galilee, who lived in the 19th century. Her feast day is on August 26.
– In the first part of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church constructed a local Marian shrine at Raf’at, today alongside Beit Shemesh. There, once a year, on October 25, Christians gather to venerate Mary as Queen of Palestine.
– For the Christians of the Holy Land, Mar Sabba (Saint Sabbas) is the local founder of Holy Land monasticism in the sixth century. His monastery in the Judean Desert is inhabited until today. His feast is celebrated on December 5.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
– Once a year all Holy Land Christians come together to pray and celebrate Christian unity in diversity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was introduced in 1908 and is traditionally observed between January 18 and 25. In the Holy Land and particularly in Jerusalem, this week, observed the last week in January, from Sunday to Sunday, has become an important time in the Christian calendar when Christians from all different confessions pray together. During the eight days, prayers are held each day in a different church according to a different rite. Perhaps the most moving time of prayer is that held on the Thursday of this week. Christians gather in the Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion. This particular shrine, once Franciscan, is not now part of the property of any particular Church although Christians can visit there. Representatives from all the different Churches of Jerusalem lead together the prayer and chant in many different languages, rites and melodies. At the end of the prayer there is the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the rarely opened room of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, situated just above the Room of the Last Supper. This room is also no longer part of Christian held property. Mounib Younan, the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, has composed a litany widely used during this week of prayer:
Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus, and for all people according to their needs. (…)
Eternal God, you know the troubles and pains of the people of Israel-Palestine: We pray for the victims of injustice and violence but also for those who have caused suffering. We pray for those who cannot enter their places of work. We pray for young people who are losing their hope for the future and for mothers who are tired of bloodshed and killing. We pray for the bereaved families, who have lost their beloved ones. Lord, in your mercy – hear our prayer.
We pray for the recovery of the injured. We pray for those who have to live with permanent disability. We pray for politicians; grant them wisdom and courage to search for reconciliation and peace. Lord, in your mercy – hear our prayer.
We are all created in your image. Grant us courage to recognize every person\’s human, religious, civil and political rights. Help us to build a culture of peace, justice and reconciliation. Free us from all hatred and bitterness. Lord, in your mercy – hear our prayer.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (Jn 14:27) Give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts. Merciful God, accept our prayers and yearnings. You are our only strength, refuge and hope. In the name of Jesus – our liberator and redeemer. Amen.