Tag Archives: St. John the Baptist

What is January 6th? (Reposted from 2014)

9 Jan

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings

blessing-of-the-waters

In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

The Feast of St. John the Baptist, Tirgan, Bonfires and “things long dead…”

24 Jun

Malagac07_17161026People dance around a bonfire during Saint John’s night in northern Spanish town of Oviedo, late June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Eloy Alonso)

Today, June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It’s actually one of several.  June 24th is his birthday and August 29th is the day of his death (the whole Herod and Salome and head on a silver platter story).  But the Orthodox Church has a tradition of setting aside the day after a particular holiday as the synaxis of the main “player,” shall we say, in the previous day’s events.  Thus the Feast of the Holy Spirit comes on Monday after Pentecost, which marks its descent and illumination of the Apostles.  December 26th is the synaxis of the Virgin, but there are so many other holidays dedicated to the Virgin that her synaxis the day after Christmas mostly goes unobserved.  But January 7th, the synaxis, is the most important of the three St. John’s days of the Church — not his birthday, nor his death, but the day after Epiphany, January 6th, when he baptized Jesus Christ.  So as opposed the Catholic West, where June 24th, today, is the most important of his feast days, what most Greeks refer to as του Άη Γιαννιού is usually January 7th and most Greek Johns celebrate their namedays on this day as the closing date of the Christmas season.

And yet his birthday is not ignored.  If we remember (or ever knew) Christ and St. John were cousins, as were their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  On March 25th,  the of day the Annunciation, the first thing the Virgin Mary does after the visitation of Gabriel is run — flustered and shocked — to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what had happened to her. (This love between the two teenage Jewish cousins has always touched me.) Elizabeth at the time was already six months pregnant with the young John, and the “babe leapt in her womb” upon hearing that his beloved cousin had been conceived, for it was John’s purpose — the “Forerunner” — to lay the groundwork, baptize Him and set Him on His mission.  Three months later, at the Summer Solstice, John was born.

And so again we have the formidable astrological and astronomical symmetry that the Church most likely inherited through Zoroastrianism.  Exactly three months after the Annunciation on the Vernal Equinox (Nowruz), John is born on the Summer Solstice (Tirgan), and then six months later Jesus Himself is born on the Winter Solstice (Yalda).  According to Iranian friends, Tirgan is not celebrated nearly as widely as Yalda and especially not Nowruz, and even less than the Autumnal Equinox (Mehregan), but is still present as a holiday in the Iranian consciousness.  Apparently there’s a certain symbolic ritual table set-up for Tirgan, like there is for Nowruz and Yalda, and I had located an image of it before but now can’t find it.

Throughout the Christian world it has traditionally been a time for building bonfires, though why this should be so in the middle of the heat and lengthy days of late June and not at the Winter Solstice has always kind of baffled me.  In northern Europe (for our civilization’s perhaps greatest treatment of the season, see Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and starkly intense film version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie by Liv Ullman and starring Colin Farrell — as perhaps our civilization’s greatest treatment of the season), Scandinavia and Russia (oh, yeah, Dostoevsky’s White Nights too) this time of the year has also always been associated with a kind of — especially — erotic license and carnivalesque freedom, or even temporary bouts of lunacy or mental illness, which probably comes from not sleeping for several weeks when the sky only goes dark for about an hour every night.

The bonfire tradition still persists in parts of Greece as well, but as all such practices, is probably slowly being forgotten.  The disappearance of practices like this, and the subsequent impoverishment of humanity’s symbolic consciousness and imagination that these losses entail always saddens me.  As I’ve written before, a friend once said to me: “History is a personal emotion for you, N.”

There’s a song by the recently deceased Demetres Metropanos that I love which refers to St. John’s Eve and its bonfires.  Metropanos was a singer very popular in Greece from the 1970s to the early part of the previous decade.  I’ve never understood why so many people considered him to be slightly skylé as a singer — meaning, oh, I dunno, crudely if not underworldly, working-class.  I think much of his music is lovely.  This song, the lyrics of which I don’t totally understand, meaning not that I don’t understand the Greek; I don’t understand the imagery:  Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά — “The spring (which means wire coil? shock absorbers?  spring, as in both mattress and ‘jump,’ when its the name of a dance in Crete or the Dodecannese? Something else? I don’t know…) led the way forward” is one of them.  But it’s a testimony to the high quality of Greek popular music at the time, that composers and singers (I don’t know who Metropanos’ lyricist was) were unafraid to use the most abstract and associative poetic imagery in their music, even if it was destined for middle and even lower-middle class audiences. as opposed to the lyrics of rebetika, which often consist of mostly repetitive, “tough-guy,” metallic jangling.

The lyrics, in Greek:

Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά
κι ο μάγκας τοίχο τοίχο
δεν έτυχε στα χρόνια αυτά
τίποτα να πετύχω

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

Με βάλαν πάνω στην κορφή
στ’ αγριεμένο κύμα
στης Σμύρνης την καταστροφή
στ’ άδικο και στο κρίμα

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

(Again, very difficult, odd to translate)

The spring led the way
With the “tough guy” (manga, maganda) hugging the wall
I never managed, in all these years, to accomplish anything.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
They set me up on top,
with the furious waves,
At the destruction of Smyrna,
Amidst the injustice and the pity.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
“…things that are long dead…”
And the song:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: