As I announced earlier, today marks the beginning of a new series within Time Eternal that focuses on the liturgical year. Welcome to “A Year in Time”!
And welcome to a New (ecclesiastical) Year!
On September 1st, we also enter into a new ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church–a fitting “time” to start thinking anew about time and all the ways it’s bound up with worship, liturgy and salvation.
So let’s talk about this New Year. Sometimes this is also called the Indiction (we’ll talk about why below). Whatever terminology you prefer, it’s the point in the calendar when the cycle of fixed feast days begins anew.
This is most clearly seen in the narrative arc created by the twelve major feast days of the Orthodox Church. Prior to September 1, the last of these feasts we celebrate is the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15). Immediately following the ecclesiastical New Year, we will commemorate the birth of the Theotokos (September 8).
In other words, bookending the Church year are the beginning and end of the Theotokos’ life on earth.
This parallels in temporal terms the Christological significance of the mother of God—just as she bore Christ in her womb, her lifespan “bears” Christ in liturgical time.
Spoiler alert: as you’ve probably noticed, within these “bookends” of the Church year, not everything flows chronologically through the year. Mostly, it does proceed logically through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (6 August) always occurs after Pascha.
Likewise, the feast of Annunciation (25 March) occurs after the birth of Christ, at least if we are looking at things strictly through a “September 1st to August 31st” kind of lens. Traditionally, though, Annunciation is seen as anticipating the next following Christmas; between March 25 placing Christ is exactly 9 months, the gestation period of a baby. (The Church calendar can be complicated, but at least it’s biologically accurate!)
It’s also worth mentioning that not all aspects of the Church year start over on September 1st—the sequence of Sunday Gospel readings, for example, recommences at Pascha. (Actually, Pascha is really at the heart of the entire Church calendar, much more than September 1st or any other feast day is. But that’s a post for another day.)
For now, let’s return to the Church New Year.
Why September 1st?
The short answer is that this was the civil New Year in the eastern Roman Empire and, eventually, the Byzantine empire. Among other things, tax payments were calculated from this date and it makes sense for the Church to conform itself to this norm.
But there’s a longer story, too. We could title it “More than You Ever Wanted to Know about the Ecclesiastical New Year.” Also, it may cause temporal vertigo.
We’ll start in the Roman Empire around the time of Christ. It was a land of many New Year’s dates.
In some provinces of the Western part of the empire, New Year’s was set to January 1st, which coincided with the end of the pagan Saturnalia games of late December. But in certain eastern provinces, the new year was set on September 23rd—the birthday of Caesar Augustus (d. AD 14), founder of the Roman Empire.
In those days, the new year served two basic purposes. I’ve already mentioned its role in yearly taxes. But every 15 years, the new year also signaled the start of a new Indiction, i.e. a new period of tax assessment. Every fifteen years, the tax rates would be reset based on new population levels and other factors.
Sounds kind of boring, but these Indictions were important for reasons other than taxes.
Here, we have to remember that there was yet no universal reference point for signalling your place within a given era. Today, we use the Anno Domini system (AD, or CE) to mark the number of years (this year is AD 2016, for example).
But this system wasn’t implemented until the sixth century, when St. Dionysius Exiguus (aka Dionysius the Humble)—a scythian monk—came up with a new computation for a possible year when Christ had been born.
Prior to the Anno Domini years, one of the ways people gauged their year in time was with indictions—the first year after an indiction was “first indiction,” the second year was “second indiction,” and so forth. Unfortunately, they didn’t number the indictions themselves, so each Indiction was its own new era. But hey, something was better than nothing, right?
So, when you wrote the date on official documents, you’d write the calendar date plus the numbered year within the current indiction cycle, a written formula that later became compulsory in the Byzantine Empire.
This is why the Church new year is sometimes referred to as the “Indiction.”
Where was I with all of this? (Vertigo is already kicking in.)
I mentioned that this New Year’s in the east was on September 23rd. In the fifth century, though, 462 to be precise, Justinian I issued a decree that shifted the date of Indiction to September 1st. (In other vestiges of the Roman Empire, it stayed on or near the 23rd for reasons I’m not sure of, except that this is sometimes called the Bedian Indiction.)
Whatever the case, 1 September became the “new” new year in the territories of the emerging Byzantine empire. It also became the New Year of the Church.
Why is any of this significant?
For most of us, September 1st doesn’t ring any huge spiritual bells—we’re busy getting ready for school to begin again or traveling for labor day. It falls off our radar, too, because many parishes don’t have a special service to commemorate this time in the Church. There’s no procession, there’s no great feast to mark the turning of one year into the next.
And yet, I think we can see September 1 as a time the Church signals us to begin anew.
Any kind of new year—whether civil or ecclesiastical—is an invitation to extricate ourselves from the loop of time temporarily. As we transition to a new year, we have the sense of stepping out of the old and into the new. Of stopping the normal, ongoing flow of time.
I think this is why people are inclined to make resolutions on January 1st. Stepping outside the endless loop of time makes us feel like we can exit the circuit of our own vices and bad habits.
Perhaps fittingly, the Church observes numerous other typological new “Beginnings” on this date. If you attend a matins service on September 1st, you will likely hear that today, we commemorate the entrance of Christ into the Synagogue to announce His mission to mankind (Luke 4:16-22). Likewise, in keeping with a Talmudic tradition, it is also believed that the Hebrews entered the Promised Land at the beginning of September. These events, like the start of a new year, invite us out of the staleness of old existence and into the promise of newness, the hope of salvation.
For me, September 1st provides a juncture at which to rekindle the discipline of gratitude.
A parish I used to attend started a beautiful custom of celebrating the Akathist of Thanksgiving (aka “Glory to God for All Things”) on the eve of September 1st each year. Written in the midst of the persecutions that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, it’s a humbling and moving cycle of hymns that praise God for all manner of events in our lives and in the life of the world.
Sadly, I moved away and am no longer able to attend this parish, and haven’t ever come across another church that does this. But I’ve started reading through this Akathist on my own or with family whenever September 1st rolls around.
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.
This is just the beginning of a beautiful–and dare I say timely–Akathist.
I invite you to join me in making its words our own as we begin this new year. May we move forward in gratitude and peace. Happy New Year!