Beloved Orthodox Christian! Have you ever wondered why it is the Orthodox Church has an annual cycle of feasts and fasts? What about the monthly commemorations in the Coptic Calendar? Why do we commemorate the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ by fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays? Why is Christ’s Resurrection commemorated every Sunday on what we call the Lord’s Day? Why are certain hours of the day set aside for prayer according to our Agpeya; and why do these hours correlate to specific events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ? The answer to all these questions, dear friend, can be found in what we call the “sanctification of time”!
What it Means to Sanctify Time
The word “sanctify” means to set apart and make holy. So to “sanctify the time” is to take time which is part of the natural creation, set it apart from earthly matters, make it holy, and offer it back to God through a life well pleasing to Him. In order for us to understand, then, how it is that the Holy Orthodox Church helps to sanctify the time, we must first understand the nature of time itself in relation to man’s life.
Cyclical and Linear Time
Time itself was a part of the original creation of the world since God in His divine essence always exists in the eternal present. Time, then, was introduced at the moment of the natural creation of the world and of man. And time, we can say, is experienced by us human beings on two levels, as being cyclical and linear. Cyclical time refers to the natural cycle that resulted from the creation of the earth and the universe. Thus, we learned that when the earth rotates around its axis over a twenty-four hour period, one day is completed. The earth rotating around the Sun takes place over one year, or 52 weeks, or 365 days. Similarly we can say that the week came into existence after the 7th day of creation. And thus we have time as a cyclical reality…a constantly repeating cycle of hours, days, weeks, months and years. This is what we see on our calendars every day.
However, time also exists for man in a linear reality which came into being after his fall. As such, with the introduction of death and corruption into our nature, man began to experience time linearly as birth, growth, aging, and death! Putting the two together, man experiences time beginning with his birth into the world, gradually progressing through the reality of cyclical time into the subsequent phases of linear time until his death! In order to now begin to place this into its proper spiritual context, we can summarize this reality of time by saying that from the moment man is born into the world, he begins a journey towards death; birth and death being only separated by an amount of time (cyclical time) known only to God! Thus, the only certainty we have from the moment of our birth is our impending death.
Time and Salvation in Christ
The meaning of life and death for us as Christians is inseparably tied to the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Incarnation, Death and Resurrection! That is to say, beloved friend, that the purpose, meaning, and goal of our lives from the moment of our entrance into the world until our physical death from the world is only found in Christ and His Works of Salvation which He wrought for mankind! The life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ provide the answer and purpose to our lives. Do you see then O Christian how precious and fragile time is?! Time is either drawing us closer to Christ and eternal life or, God forbid, leading us away from Christ to eternal damnation!
The purpose of the Church’s mission in the world, then, is to make the reality of Christ, His person and His works, known to man leading him to salvation. This is done by sanctifying time both in its cyclical and linear realities. That is to say, that the Christian, by participating fully in the life of the Church, sanctifies his birth and death and all the days, weeks and years in between these two events by receiving and experiencing the new life in Christ made possible by His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection!
Let us proceed then to examine in what ways the Church accomplishes this task, that is, to sanctify time in both its cyclical and linear realities.
The Church’s Sanctification of Cyclical Time
The Church celebrates in its annual cycle the major and minor feasts of the Lord, feasts for the Holy Theotokos, angels, and saints.
In the case of the Lord’s Feasts especially, we are not merely commemorating historical events as we might do secular holidays. Actually, the “remembrance” of these events is not really a “remembrance” at all but rather an “entering into” the reality, grace, power and joy of those events. So while the events may have taken place in the timeline of human history, the efficacy, joy and experience of those events are ever-eternal and are always made present in the life of the Christian who is united to Christ! This is the proper meaning of the Greek word anamnesis (“Do this in ‘remembrance’ [anamnesis] of Me”) and the reason why the celebration of the Eucharist is never a new sacrifice, and yet not merely a symbolic remembrance of something in the past. The sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ, Glory be to Him, happened once and only once and the efficacy of such act is eternal, covering the sins from the beginning to the end of the world. However, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we “enter into” the reality of that one same sacrifice and receive its perpetual effect in our lives, namely the forgiveness of sins.
And so it is with all the feasts of the Lord — by celebrating them, the Church is not merely recalling something into the memories of her members, but making known the ever-present realities and graces of those events into the lives of all who accept them and strive to live by them. In other words, it is not so much the Lord’s Feast that we celebrate, as if He was in need of such, but rather Humanity’s Feast, since it is humanity that eternally benefits from all that the Lord accomplished.
As we said then, dear friend, the Church has an annual cycle of feasts and fasts and through this annual cycle the year is sanctified. The month is also sanctified, for example, by the monthly commemoration of the Feasts of the Annunciation, Incarnation and Resurrection which takes place on the 29th of every Coptic month. Furthermore, the Holy Theotokos is commemorated every 21st of the Coptic month. The week, of course, is sanctified by celebrating the Lord’s Day every Sunday and fasting on every Wednesday and Friday of the week. The day and hour is sanctified through the canonical hours of the Agpeya (1st, 3rd, 6th, etc.) which each commemorate something in the works of Christ, relating them to our own life. And of course, we can also sanctify every minute and second of our lives through the constant remembrance of God and unceasing prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer (“My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). This, then, is how by participating actively and fully in the life of the Church, we can sanctify the reality of cyclical time in our lives. Again, to restate, beloved reader, the Church’s life provides for the faithful in Christ a constant means by which we can both experience the fullness of Christ’s salvific works in us and, in return, offer back a life well pleasing to God, through the sanctification of every year, month, week, day, minute, and, even, every second of our lives. Now, what about linear time?
The Church’s Sanctification of Linear Time
Again, we said that linear time begins with birth, continues through the stages of growth and aging, and concludes with death. Beloved, this is where the sacramental life of the Church plays such an essential role in our salvation. Soon after our birth in the flesh, we are born “by water and spirit” through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, and thus our life from its very beginning is sanctified in the Lord. As we continue on through the stages of growth and aging, we receive our heavenly food and drink, as nourishment that is necessary for growth, through the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. We also constantly renew our Baptismal grace through the Mystery of Repentance (Confession) every time we fall into sin due to our human weaknesses. It is also during these stages that we might receive other of the sacraments which may be necessary for our healing and salvation such as the Mysteries of Unction, Marriage or Ordination. Of course these latter sacraments are given depending on the circumstances and callings of each person uniquely. What about death? How is it, you might ask, that even the event of our death is sanctified?
As you may know, dear reader, the Orthodox Church has a special liturgical service for those who have departed, sometimes called the “Funeral Service” or, more properly, the “Funeral Liturgy”. This service is not a memorial service as is usually common in the West, but it is a “liturgy”, i.e. part of the corporate or public worship of the people. And while it is not counted among the Seven Mysteries of the Church, it is certainly “sacramental” (i.e. a means of receiving Divine Grace), since none of the prayers or actions of the Church are merely symbolic or empty. That is to say, dear friend, that while the Church in her experience has recognized seven unique actions (i.e. the Seven Mysteries) in which the Grace of God is intensely imparted to the faithful, the grace of God is not limited to those actions in the life of the Church! The complete life in the Church is sacramental!
And so in the funeral service, the deceased is brought to the center of the Church where incense is raised and prayers are offered. Beloved, I would like to share a story with you about an experience I had that really gave me a profound glimpse of this idea of the sanctification of death.
One day, I visited an Orthodox bookstore in San Francisco, California, which is attached to a large Russian Orthodox cathedral. When I finished purchasing some items from the bookstore, I thought to myself to check if by chance the Church was open (it was early afternoon on a weekday) so that I might take a blessing and view the Church’s beautiful iconography. As it happened, the Church door was open and as I entered, I immediately noticed that some type of liturgical service was in progress. I inquired with an elderly gentleman who was at the very back of the Church what the service was and he told me that it was a funeral service. Obviously, it was not an appropriate time to take a tour of the Church so I purposed to leave and yet the elderly man insisted that I could simply stand in the back and observe as long as I wished.
What I witnessed was truly amazing! The deceased was an elderly woman, not a cleric or anyone of any perceived importance — the casket was open and placed in the middle of the Church towards the Holy Sanctuary. The deceased woman was surrounded by what was certainly a sizeable group of family and friends, all holding candles and participating in the liturgical chants while the priest censed the deceased woman’s body along with other parts of the Church. After some time, a long line formed of everyone in the Church — man, woman, and child, in which one by one each one of them approached the open casket, kissed the cross held in the hands of the deceased woman and then proceeded to kiss her forehead. There was no wailing in the Church, no apparent fear of the woman’s lifeless body, and no sense of sadness among all that were there. What was apparent, however, was a sense of dignity, holiness, and resolute faith in the resurrection. The death of this pious elderly woman was viewed by those around her as an holy event, her body was seen as holy because she is a Christian, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and her departure was seen as a holy transition from this perishing world to the “paradise of joy”. Truly, what I witnessed that day was the sanctification of death!
In conclusion, dear friend, the purpose of everything we have discussed above is not that we become liturgical experts, but rather that we begin to understand that everything the Church does in this world she does for our salvation. If we enter fully into her life and remain in her bosom, we shall find everything we need so that our whole lives, yes even time itself, might be sanctified for the Lord!
St. Paul the Apostle says to us, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil…” (Eph. 5:15-16). Time, then for us today, is either going to be a means of evil or holiness, it is either wasted or sanctified; it will either lead to death or life. Brothers and sisters let us sanctify the time!