Orthodox Time and the Last Weeks of the Old Year

Orthodox Time and the Last Weeks of the Old Year

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Time seems to move slower for many in America in early to mid-August, traditionally a time of vacation or of a “re-set” before the start of the academic year. It is also, in our region of Central Pennsylvania, often a time for fairs and festivals, such as the West End Fair near us, which celebrates rural and farm life moving into harvest time.

More deeply for Orthodox Christians, these days are also the waning of the Church year with some of its most significant feasts, most notably the Feast of the Transfiguration and the Feast of the Dormition.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is not placed in the calendar in a linear sense in the period before Pascha, as recounted in the Gospels, but as part of the culmination of the ecclesiastical year, which, like the Jewish year and day, begins again in the evening or waning of the solar day and year. It opens a bridge to the new year, with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross 40 days later on the other side. It reminds us, near the end of the ecclesiastical calendar, of theosis, which is the aim of Orthodox Christian faith and ascetic struggle, in the midst of the fast leading toward the Feast of the Dormition, commemorating the great exemplar of theosis, the Theotokos or Mother of God.

The Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross (Aug. 1) and the Feast of the Icon Not Made With Hands (Aug. 16) also bracket this period.

Moving to September 1, the start of the Ecclesiastical Year, we also move toward what the Ecumenical Patriarchate and some other Orthodox churches have proclaimed as a day to commemorate Creation, and the need for stewardship and care of Creation as Christians. This is also a special day for me, unworthily, because it was the day of my baptism as an adult convert into Orthodoxy. But the cosmic significance of it was marked on the Byzantine calendar by the counting of the new year from Creation, so that on that calendar September 1 would mark the start of the year 7523 Etos Kosmou, based on accounting of the years from Creation since the Septuagint. This is similar to the Jewish calendar’s tracking of years from Creation, and different from the Western counting of years A.D., from the time of Christ, the calculating of which has involved inaccuracy.

Of course, many today would see the calculation of years from the start of the world as a great inaccuracy according to current scientific models. However, the old system is a reminder of our personal connections to Creation through scriptural accounts and traditions of the Church, including the biblical genealogies whose networks we in a sense join when we are baptized into the Church that is, in the Orthodox view, Israel today. It is also in a sense an antidote to the impersonality of “geological time,” which de-centers the earth in the understanding of nature today as something that is more an object to be manipulated by human technology, rather than a precious gift from God as part of our relationship with Him.

This August, I began an experiment that may only last until my work resumes in earnest with the start of the academic year. I set a clock in my study, and my watch, according to Byzantine time, which is still kept on Mount Athos. This involved not only the calendar year just mentioned, but also hours set, not by cellphone 24-hour time beginning at a standard matrix of midnight worldwide (according to different time zones emanating in true Western colonial style from Greenwich, England), but from sunset. So each night the time needs to be reset slightly on its 24 hours. As I write this, it is 8:45 a.m. on my computer, but around 12:25 on my watch and study clock, for example.

To me this serves as a reminder (however mechanical in my life otherwise governed by computer and cell-phone time!) of the different senses of time and non-time in patristic tradition. These include the time of human social convention, as on my computer. But also they include the time of natural cycles and times and seasons in Creation, as St. Basil the Great described them in his commentary on Genesis. And Georgios I. Mantzaridis described other aspects of temporality and non-temporality in Orthodox Tradition in his book Time and Man: The eternal, which is immortality but still in created time in a sense, of angels and in effect the human soul, and the everlasting, which is not in time and is the non-temporality of the Divine, as in the uncreated divine energies and God.

These strands and layers of time and non-time in Orthodoxy show us the rich plexity of time and non-time in Creation, beyond the “eternal present” described by Blessed Augustine of Hippo, which has become in a twisted secular form the basis for our modern homogeneous matrix of cell-phone time. Some philosophers today argue that “time-plexity” in personal experiernce and cultural understanding encourages a deeper empathy with the environment around us and other cultures. We may speak jokingly of time differences between cultures—such as “Greek Time” or (as my wife refers to my sense of time) “Celtic Time.” But may we, in these last days of the old year, remember above all the transfigurational power of “Orthodox time,” and especially the non-time or beyond-time of Our Lord’s Transfiguration and His Mother’s Dormition.

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Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English literature from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Early British Studies from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He teaches English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, where he is incoming Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor. His research includes work on nature in early literature, especially in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena, and in modern fantasy and nature writing, drawing in part on Estonian ecosemiotics. He is the author of Strange Beauty: Ecoritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, editor of Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, and co-editor of Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages, and he is a co-editor of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 1999. His wife Olesya is originally from Russia and they have two sons. They are members of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission (OCA) in central Pennsylvania, regularly visit Agia Skepi Monastery (GOARCH) nearby, and are also long-distance member-supporters of St. Herman of Alaska Church mission (ROCOR) in northern Virginia. He studies in the Pastoral School of the ROCOR Midwest Diocese and serves on the Steering Committee of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Formerly he worked as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Midwest correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He prays that his unworthy views here are Orthodox and do no harm, but they otherwise are his own.