Celebration – a sacred task?

CTE President for the Orthodox Churches, and Archbishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain), His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas shares our reflection of the month for January 2022.

What is a feast? What is the nature of celebration? What is the purpose of a holy day? Our calendar year is broken up into cycles of work and preparation, which in turn give way to feasting and celebration; this is integral to the human experience of time in all cultures. But, to what end?

After some consideration, we may answer: to provide rest from toil, to fulfil the obligations of honour and respect where they are due. However, a holiday conceived as a passive day of rest, or a necessary observance for propriety’s sake, somehow misses the very essence of the event itself. I feel that, at times, we are in danger of confining the joy of a festive season to more sensible, ulterior purposes.

Beyond the boundaries of organised religion, people still recognise something totally unique, something inexpressible, or, in colloquial terms, something “magical” about the holiday season. This is because the kernel at the centre of Christian celebration is none other than the loving unity of Communion, the unfettered exultation in co-existence, the cessation of obligation or self-interest, and the opportunity to recapture the elusive simplicity and joy of togetherness in Christ’s name. Thus, we commemorate the holy events from Christ’s life with the highest form of honour and respect that can be shown: by setting aside time and resources to prepare a space that for an instant will be free from necessity, where we can gather in one another’s presence and simply be joyful together.

The joy of this unity needs no explanation and defies calculation, although we do feel its effects as it renews and inspires us. The Gospel teaches this transcendent dimension of human experience in the form of sacrificial love, an ultimate state which surpasses the logic of this world and comes into contact with the Divine, as we see when love overrides even the biological instinct for survival. A feast is an event free from competition and a gift freely given, it simply needs to be received.

These moments of celebration distributed throughout the year are not merely the due reward for our prior labours, but are beacons of light that serve as models par excellence of ultimate existence, of fullness of life. Peace on earth and mercy mild are the true rhythm of life, and we receive a glimpse and a taste of them at every celebratory gathering. However, as we know, once these moments have passed, life returns to what it was. Our obligations and worries and sorrows inevitably rush back into focus. Does this mean that our celebrations are merely brief escapes into fantasy, mini utopias amidst the harshness and struggles of real life?

No, the true hope of Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Pascha, and every other joyful commemoration of our Saviour’s great mercy and love is that a time will come when this joy will transform the entire content of our lives, leaving no part untouched by the celebratory spirit of Christianity. Celebration is not an illusion, but a sacred task; it is a bridge connecting the sorrows and toil of life to the mystical experience of God’s love. In summary, the Cross is the perfect symbol of this mystery: it is the scandalous conviction that sorrow will be transformed into joy, the paradox that suffering and death are somehow the very seeds of eternal life.

Archbishop Nikitas of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain) became CTE President for the Orthodox Churches in 2021. He serves the Mother Church in Constantinople in numerous important areas including: Coordinator of the Patriarchal Task Force on Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery; Chairman of the Committee on Youth for the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and Co-Chair and Steering Committee member of the Elijah Inter-Faith Foundation.