Friday, September 26, 2003

Where feast days come from
Turning points in history
Tomorrow's Julian-calendar church feast, old news to readers who use the modern (Gregorian) calendar to reckon church holidays, is that of the cross of Christ. The history of the troparion for it seems to point to some political or military event centuries ago, as the original version asks God to protect the emperor, presumably the Roman (what we now call Byzantine) one. As he's been gone a long time, as has the tsar, this prayer has been through different rewrites by different people. The Orthodox now pray: 'Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant unto orthodox Christians victory over their enemies, and by the power of Thy cross preserve Thy commonwealth*.' Some Byzantine Catholics, allergic to the o-word, pray instead: '... Grant Thou unto Thy church... Thy people.' I'm sure God understands either way.

Similarly, the kontakion for the Annunciation, sung at the end of the office of Prime in the Russian recension of the Byzantine Rite (Взбранной воеводе, Победительная...), isn't sung anymore at Prime by the Greeks (since the end of the empire) - it was written to celebrate the saving of the Byzantine imperial capital, Constantinople, from an attack... ironically, a siege by pre-Christian Slavs.

Anyway, this business of feast days commemorating political and military victories is not peculiar to Eastern Christendom. The recent feast of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Sept. 15, commemorates in part Jan Sobieski of Poland saving Christian Western Europe from Muslim Turkish invaders, defeating them outside Vienna Sept. 12, 1683. (Croissants also were invented to celebrate, mocking the Turkish/Islamic crescent.) The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, Oct. 7, celebrates the Christian (Austrian) naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto, I think in 1570. Fun facts: this was the only time in history there was a papal navy, and the Turkish fleet's admiral was in fact Italian and a convert to Islam. See this article from John Dalrymple - the link can be found here - for more. (Including how much the Muslims took from Eastern Christianity.)

*Which the Greek Byzantines saw as their empire, and its sphere of influence (Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia) - their conception of the respublica Christiana.

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