Pancake Week

Date varies. February 20-26, 2012

There’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival in Russia. Lent doesn’t descend on Orthodox Christians in one big swoop as in Catholicism, but in a series of events with increasingly strict regulations.

Triodion begins a full month before Lent.

Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.

The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.

In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.

Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev, 1919

The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.

Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.

The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.


“So this Rabbi and a tax collector walk into a temple…”

Yes, this has all the makings of a great joke, but it’s actually Luke 18:10. Eastern Orthodox Churches recall the story of the Pharisee and the Publican today, the fourth Sunday before Easter. A different section of the New Testament is read each weekend during Lent.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The first parable of the Triodion (literally, ‘three odes’) stresses humility before oneself and before God…

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men—thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all that I possess.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Father George Morelli compares Lent to “a boot camp refresher course that we take each year so Christ’s teachings can be better lived in us…”

Next weekend churches focus upon the Return of the Prodigal Son and the Commemoration of the Dead.

The following weekend: the Last Judgment and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Luke 18 is also the chapter where Jesus is asked:

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

from Priscilla

(World’s Largest Needle in Milan, Italy)

Well, we’ve got the needle. All we need is a man rich enough to clone a foot-tall dwarf camel!

Don’t laugh. You know some billionaire out there is trying right now…

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar

Feasts of the Cross

September 14

September 14 is the Triumph of the Cross, in the Roman Catholic Church, or the Exaltation of the Cross in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It commemorates the rediscovery of the cross on which Christ was executed. The True Cross was discovered by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326 AD.

Constantine later ordered a church to be built at the spot where the True Cross was found. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated on September 13, 335. The following day, September 14, a portion of the Cross was placed outside the church for followers to worship.

The Cross was taken by the Persians in 614 AD. Fourteen years later it was reclaimed by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Today’s feast day also celebrates that recapture of the Cross in 628.

Other names for the Feast:

  • Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross (Eastern Orthodox)
  • Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross (Greek)
  • Holy Cross Day (Anglican)
Proving of the True Cross, Jean de Colombe, 1410
Proving of the True Cross, Jean de Colombe, 1410

“Hail, O Cross! Brighter than all the stars! To the eyes of men thou art exceedingly lovely!” (Magnificat Antiphon I)

“The pieces of this true cross, which are worshipped in different parts of Catholic countries, would, (says a competent judge,) if collected in one place, amount to more splinters than might be taken from the mainmast of a man-of-war.” (Ingram Cobbin, 1842)

Feast of the Dormition of Theotokos

August 28

Dance with joy, O peoples!
Clap your hands with gladness!
Gather today with fervor and jubilation;
Sing with exultation.
The Mother of God is about to rise in glory,
Ascending from earth to heaven.

Theotokos of Kazan
Theotokos of Kazan

It’s called the Dormition, or the “falling asleep”. On its own, falling asleep might not sound like ample reason for a feast, no matter how much you like to sleep, but it’s a very big deal in the Orthodox Church. That’s because Dormition in this case refers to the departure from earth and subsequent ascension of Theotokos, ie. “god-bearer”, the Virgin Mary.

In Roman Catholicism, it’s known as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Although the Assumption is celebrated on August 15, in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar that equates to today, August 28th.

The Dormition is a major feast in Eastern Christianity, so major it’s preceded by a strict two-week fasting period. During the fast Orthodox Christians refrain from eating red meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products. The Feast of the Transfiguration falls right in the middle of the fast (How’s that for confusion?) during which time fasters are allowed to go wild and eat fish.

In early Christendom, the stories of life of the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion received far less play than those preceding the Annunciation…

Already by the second century, Christians had begun to circulate stories of the Virgin’s life before the Annunciation, but evidence of a similar concern with the details of her life after her son’s ascension does not emerge for several more centuries.

Stephen Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption

As the 4th century author Epiphanius writes:

“The holy virgin may have died and been buried…Or she may have been put to death—as the scripture says, ‘And a sword shall pierce through her soul’…Or she may have remained alive, for God is not incapable of doing whatever he wills. No one knows her end.”

But by the eighth century monk John of Damascus wrote:

If her childbearing was remarkable and of saving worth for the world, surely her falling asleep was glorious, too—truly sacred and wholly worthy of praise. (Daley, 1998)

Between those epochs we have the foundation of the written history of the Dormition. According to Orthodox tradition, Mary died a natural death, the same as any mortal. Her soul was received by Christ. All the Apostles except Thomas were present at her death. Three days later, Thomas (always the odd man out) finally arrived and pleaded with his fellow Apostles to see her once more.

“We are all servants of the one Lord, Jesus Christ. How, then, is it that ye were counted worthy to behold the repose of His Mother, and I was not?…I beseech you, my fellow disciples: open the tomb, that I also may look upon her remains, and embrace them, and bid her farewell!”

But when they opened her tomb, her body had disappeared. “All that remained were her burial clothes, which emitted a wonderful unearthly fragrance.”

Like Son, like Mother. Mary’s body was resurrected and ascended into heaven on the third day after her death.

“Neither the tomb nor death had power over the Theotokos, who is ever watchful in her prayers and in whose intercessions lies unfailing hope. For as the Mother of Life she has been translated unto life by Him Who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.”

— Feast of the Dormition

Transfiguration of Jesus

August 6

a: a change in form or appearance; metamorphosis
b: an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change

The transfiguration, celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church each year on August 6, refers to what is perhaps history’s greatest Kodak moment: Jesus talking with the prophets Moses and Elijah (Elias) on the peak of Mount Tabor in 27AD.

Only the Apostles Peter, John and James witnessed the event, and unfortunately none of them posted pics it to their myspace account. (If you have a photograph of the Transfiguration, please email it to us!) Nor do we have any record of what was discussed, for the disciples were too distant to hear the conversation, and Jesus forbade them from even mentioned the event until after the Son of Man had risen.

What we do know comes from nearly identical versions in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Jesus led the three Apostles to the mountaintop where “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light,” says Mark.

Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus,” continues Matthew.

Peter offered to set up three shelters, one for each prophet, but as he spoke a cloud enveloped them. “A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him,” concludes Luke. When the Disciples looked again, the two prophets had disappeared.

Theologians have debated the literalness of the Transfiguration. Most take the Transfiguration as a factual description of an actual event, especially in the Orthodox Church. Others view it as an allegory.

One interpretation of the Transfiguration is that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets.

In Jesus’ time, Moses was seen as having delivered the Law from God to the people and codifying it during their 40 year trek across the desert. In fact, after Genesis and half of Exodus, that’s what most of the first five books of the Bible are: lengthy lists and descriptions of the laws that governed ancient Hebrew society, from the now obscure laws concerning the treatment of slaves, the ritual sacrifice of goats, and proper stoning technique, to principles still considered the basis of Western law, such as “Thou shall not kill.”

Elijah meanwhile, may have represented the Prophets. Elijah is a prophet in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths (“Ilyas” in Islam), but occupies very little space in any of those religions’ spiritual texts. One of his claims to fame was that he was said to have never died. Instead he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. It was believed his future appearance on Earth would be an imminent predictor of the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, folks take St. John the Baptist for Elijah.

For all its celebration among the churches themselves, the event receives very little attention from the general Christian public. And these days a child is less likely to learn about transfiguration from Matthew, Luke, or Mark than from Harry:

“Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back.”

— Minerva McGonagall, HP 1:8

[2008: This year the Transfiguration falls only a few days away from Islam’s Al-Miraj, the Ascension of the Prophet. During what is often called the “Night Journey,” Muhammad travels first to Jerusalem in a single night, then up to the heavens where he meets the prophets of Islam’s past, including Jesus, Moses, and Abraham. Like the Transfiguration in Christianity, Islamic religious leaders debate whether Al-Miraj is an actual event or symbolic allegory. And like Jesus, Muhammad is transformed prior to the encounter, not by light but by the Qur’an’s most famous open-heart surgery.]

Greek Orthodox Transfiguration

Romanov Holiday?

July 17

Tsar Nicholas II

It’s not an official holiday yet, but with the Russian Orthodox Church’s beatification of the last Russian Tsar and his family in 2000, the Romanovs do have their own saint day—July 17—the anniversary of the day they were executed in 1918.

Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar, is a touchy subject in the former Soviet Union. He and his family met a horrifying end at the hands of revolutionaries who banned all religion in Russia except worship of the state. But Russians also recall that Nicholas’s decisions wrought unrecoverable damage to one of the strongest empires on earth.

Nicholas’ reign was troubled from the get-go. Four days after his coronation in 1896, a panic during his banquet festivities in Moscow resulted in the trampling-to-death of nearly 1,400 celebrants. Though not the Tsar’s fault, Nicholas’ decision to attend a ball at the French Embassy that night anyway did not win kudos from the Russian people.

The following decade saw the tragic massacre known as Bloody Sunday, where striking workers and their families hoping to bring a petition to Nicholas II in St. Petersburg were instead gunned down by police. Public reaction to Bloody Sunday led the Tsar to allocate power to the political body known as the Duma.

But the end of his reign must be attributed to his refusal to pull out of World War I, even when his country was on the verge of total political and economic collapse. Mass mutinies led Nicholas to suspend the Duma, but members of the Duma and the Soviet, as well as leading generals, demanded Nicholas’s abdication. By 1917, the Tsar’s most loyal troops were lying under the sod of western battlefields; he abdicated in March.

Russia’s short-lived democratic government shielded the Romanovs in St. Petersburg, but during the October Revolution, that government was ousted by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks wanted to leave no chance that Russia would return to the old aristocratic system. On July 17, 1918, the Bolsheviks gunned down Nicholas and the entire royal family in a cellar in St. Petersberg, including his wife Alexandra, their four daughters, and their 14 year-old son Alexei.

The Romanov Royal Family
The Romanov Royal Family

On July 17, 1998, eighty years to the day after their deaths, the royal family was interred in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. They’re considered saints after the 2000 beatification, but not martyrs. To be a martyr of the Church, one’s death must be a direct result of one’s Christian faith. The Romanovs are honored instead as “Passion bearers”—those who met death in a Christ-like way.

Defenders of the Motherland Day

Pascha – Orthodox Church

April 24, 2011

April 4, 2010

In March the Protestant and Catholic Churches celebrated Easter; last week Jehovah’s Witnesses observed the Memorial of Christ’s Death; but today the Eastern Orthodox Church gets the last word, celebrating the Resurrection in what is known in many countries as Pascha.

The English word Easter is thought to derive from early pagan deities such as Eostre. In most Christian countries the holiday celebrating the Resurrection is referred to by variants on the Greek Pascha. (Pascha, or pesach in Hebrew, was the holiday Jesus and His disciples observed on the occasion of the Last Supper. Often translated as “pass over,” pesach can also mean “hover over” as in to protect, or safeguard.)

The Orthodox Paschal cycle repeats every 19 years, as opposed to the Western Paschal cycle, which repeats every 84 years. One proviso of the Orthodox date of Pascha is that it cannot fall before the Jewish Passover, which partly accounts for the different dates when Easter is celebrated.

Lewis Patsavos, in Dating Pascha in the Orthodox Church, points out a conundrum in the New Testament:

In the Gospels the Last Supper is described as a Passover meal, while St. John records the death of Christ as the same hour in which paschal lambs were sacrificed in preparation for the holiday.

Two traditions grew out of this discrepancy. One in which Pascha was observed on Passover itself, “regardless of the day of the week. The other observed it on the Sunday following Passover.”

The latter approach won out, which is why virtually all Churches celebrate Pascha on Sunday.

In Pascha Means Passover Reverend Anthony Michaels draws an analogy between the sacrifice of the lambs in Egypt by the Hebrews, the blood of which was meant to protect them from the tenth plague, and the “Sacrifice of the Son of God who is the ‘lamb that takes away the sin of the world.'”

The site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection is believed to be the present day site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


“It stands on a site that encompasses both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where he was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world.”

Sacred Destinations