In a pastoral letter issued at the close of the Second Vatican Council (1965), our Bishops, together with Cardinal Joseph Slipyj, defined the Liturgical Year as: “A liturgical cycle of the universal or some particular Church, that consists of Sundays, weekdays, the feasts of our Lord, the Mother of God, the saints and the periods of fasting and forbidden times.”
We call the Liturgical Year the Ecclesiastical or Church Year, because it contains the Church Calendar, which in some respects is similar to and in others differs from the civil calendar. In the Eastern Church the Church Year differs from the civil calendar in that it does not begin the New Year with the first of January as does the civil year, but begins it with the first day of September, which is called the Beginning of the Indiction. This means that the whole cycle of our Church Year begins with the first of September and ends with the thirty first of the following August.
What is Meant by Indiction?
The word “indiction” comes from the Latin word “indictio,” which literally means “institution, proclamation, appeal, announcement.” The “indiction” was an edict of the Roman Emperors used to determine the land tax throughout the Roman Empire. Such edicts began to appear during the reign of Diocletian (284-305) in the year 297 A.D. At first, they were issued every five years, then later every fifteen years. Gradually the word “indiction” came to denote not only an imperial proclamation, but also a fifteen year cycle as well as the first day of this cycle. Originally, the indiction was used exclusively for fiscal and tax purposes. But slowly it began to be used in determining the various dates of civil life. This fiscal year did not coincide with the astronomical year which, since the reform of Julius Caesar in the year 46 to the coming of Christ, began with the first day of January. The first day of the indiction was originally the twenty-third of September because that was the day on which Caesar Augustus was born, but under Constantine the Great (306-337) it was the first day of September.
The Beginning of the Indiction – The New Liturgical Year
The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 325 adopted the first of September as the opening of the New Church Year and this day has been observed in the Eastern Church to the present time. The Latin Church opens its Liturgical Year on the first day of Advent, i.e., the beginning of the preparation for Christmas.
The indiction of which we are speaking – for there were other indictions – is called the Byzantine (or Constantinopolitan or also the Constantinian) indiction which, except for Egypt, became mandatory throughout the Roman Empire. Justinian I (527-565) made dating by indiction compulsory for all legal documents. The Roman Church during the reign of Pope Pelagius II (579-590) adopted the indiction for establishing the dates of documents, and this practice was not abandoned until the year 1097.
The Beginning of the Indiction – A Church Feast
Later, when the first day of September was designated as the beginning of the Church Year, or as it was called in the Church Calendar, the beginning of the “New Year”, it assumed a religious character and became a feast of the Church, i.e., a day which had its own special liturgical service. On this day our Church commemorates the day on which Christ entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the scrolls the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given me, for He anointed me…to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.” (Luke 4, 18-19) No reliable evidence exists to indicate when the beginning of the Indiction became a feast of the Church; we do know, however that it already existed in the eight century.
The Character and Content of the Liturgical Year
The Liturgical Year is so arranged that its central place is occupied by our Divine Saviour; around him are gathered all the angels and saints. In the decree of the Second Vatican Council on the “Constitution on the Liturgy” we read: “Holy Mother Church is conscious that she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the year. Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s day, she keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection, which she also celebrates once a year, together with His Blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter. Within a cycle of a year, moreover, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of Blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.”
The Most Pure Virgin Mary, who has been accorded the most prominent place after Christ in the work of redemption, also stands nearest to Christ in the Liturgical Year. This is evident in the various feasts in honor of the Mother of God. The decree on the “Constitution on the Liturgy” declares that: “In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ’s mysteries, holy Church honors with special love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is jointed by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her, the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be.”
Around the persons of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Mother we see the grand choir of the Church Triumphant in heaven, that is, all the saints of the Old and New Testaments: “The Church,” says the same Council, “has also included in the annual cycle days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints. Raised up to perfection by the manifold graces of God and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God’s perfect praise in heaven and offer prayers for us.”
Holy Church, like a good Mother, also commemorates during the Liturgical Year her children who have departed into eternity, and who are in purgatory. For this reason, she has designated certain special days, called “Souls Days”, on which she offers prayers and special memorial services for the faithful departed. Finally, the Church Militant also dedicates special times in the Church Year in which the living are asked to engage in spiritual works, prayer, fasting and penance in order to develop their spiritual life more fully. “Finally,” we read in the decree on the “Constitution on the Liturgy”, in the various seasons of the year and according to her traditional discipline, the Church completes the formation of the faithful by means of pious practices for soul and body, by instruction, prayer, and works of penance and of mercy.”
In summary, our Liturgical Year is a mighty hymn of honour and glory to God, in which the threefold Church takes part – the Church Triumphant in heaven, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Militant on earth. In the Church Year, the entire content of our holy faith finds its most beautiful expression. Like a colorful rainbow our Liturgical Year joins earth to heaven, and enlightens, purifies, sanctifies and lifts us up to God.
Taken from: Katrij, OSBM, Julian, A Byzantine Rite Liturgical Year (Basilian Press: Toronto, 1992), pp 11-16.