Aquick perusal of the major feast days on Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendar will show that many of those great feasts are not mentioned in the Scriptures. The Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept. 8), the Entrance of the Theotokos (Nov. 21) and the Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15) are all not based on events found in Scripture. Neither is the Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14), though one could of course note that it references the crucifixion. But that’s not what the feast actually commemorates. (Rather, it commemorates later historical events associated with relics of the cross.) And almost all of the lesser feasts of the Orthodox Church are extra-Scriptural in origin.
Someone who encounters Orthodox worship for the first time and comes from either a non-Christian or non-liturgical Christian background (especially Protestants) may wonder why it is there are so many celebrations that are not found in our “holy book.” This may be a stumbling-block particularly for Protestants, who are used to finding a basis for Christian practices in the Scripture. “You’re celebrating the Virgin Mary’s birthday? You say she did what in the Temple at three years of age?” Such feasts may seem extraneous or even worrying. Do you really have to believe all those things to be an Orthodox Christian?
Of course, the other great feasts—Christmas, Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), the Meeting of Christ in the Temple (His being brought to the Temple at forty days old), the Annunciation, Palm Sunday, Pascha (Easter), the Ascension, Pentecost and the Transfiguration—all are celebrations of events depicted in the Bible. But the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that Christians should celebrate any of those events.
And most Protestants don’t actually celebrate most of those events. With only a handful of exceptions, though, they do celebrate Christmas and Easter. (Indeed, there are some impoverished Christians who celebrate only Christmas and Easter and otherwise dedicate their time to other pursuits.) Yet neither Christmas nor Easter is commanded to be celebrated in the pages of the New Testament. Indeed, while there are many feasts commanded for the Jews in the pages of the Old Testament, no feast day at all is commanded for Christians in the New Testament. The closest we get is Christ’s “Do this in remembrance of Me,” which doesn’t necessarily suggest a holiday in commemoration.
There are certain groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who take that lack of commandment to be a prohibition—so, no Christmas. That’s kind of a bummer, but you have to admire their consistency in not celebrating Jesus’ birthday. In fact, they don’t celebrate any birthdays.
It’s also observable that most traditional Christian feast days (including Christmas) have no historical markers as church celebrations until at least a few centuries into Christian history. So on top of their not being commanded in the New Testament, there’s no indication that they were celebrated by the Apostles and their disciples, even for a couple of generations following. (The feast of Christ’s Resurrection is the notable exception. All historical indications are that it was celebrated from almost the very beginning.)
So what are we to make of all this? Should we all just imitate the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who find no holidays in the Bible (setting aside the fact for the moment that their Bible is a bit different from most other people’s)?
That’s a tempting position, but taken to its logical conclusions, we would have to cut out a lot else that’s not in the Bible, not just feast days, and not even the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be able to stay as they are. There’s nothing in there about calling your gathering places “Kingdom Halls,” for instance. And most Christians would have to gut most of their worship, their education, their outreach, their social events, their structure, etc. Yes, you should feed and clothe the hungry, but where in the Bible does it say anything about ringing bells next to donation buckets at Christmastime? Yes, you should break bread together, but where does it say to have fried chicken potlucks? Yes, you should continue in the Apostles’ doctrine, but where does it say to have a Bible study? Yes, you should gather together, but where does it say to have a 25th anniversary celebration for your congregation?
One may object that these are all reasonable inferences from what is in Scripture or at least don’t contradict anything in Scripture. What’s wrong with celebrating Jesus’ birth, even though Dec. 25 isn’t mentioned in the Bible? And what’s wrong with having birthday parties for your kids? Or Bible studies? Or ice cream socials? Or potlucks?
But on the basis of such objections, how does one object to other feast days?
So why do most Christians celebrate feasts (and do a whole lot of other things) that aren’t in the Bible? It’s because they function within traditions.
Tradition—and I am using the broadest sense of the term here, incorporating both Holy Tradition (“big-T tradition”) and also customs (“little-T tradition”)—is really just the life of the Church as it’s lived out over the centuries. Over time, as the Church reflected on the major events of Jesus’ ministry, it established feast days to help to cement those events in the hearts of the faithful. And just as one would celebrate the notable members of one’s local community, notable Christians and their lives came to be celebrated, and feasts were established to keep their memories alive through history and to ask those who surround us as a “great cloud of witnesses” for their prayers. And most of all, these feasts were established because of the love traditional Christians have for what is in Scripture, what happened in between what’s mentioned there, and also for what came before and after its depicted events.
And while many feasts celebrate events found in the Scripture, none of them contradict what’s in Scripture. After all, some of these feasts are actually older than the New Testament canon itself. The Church certainly wouldn’t have canonized books that contradicted its existing practices.
The Orthodox Christian liturgical calendar is so full because life is so full. We have to live life. We can either choose to make most of life secular, having no particular Christian meaning at all (perhaps just trying to be moral), or we can sanctify every day with the wonderful works of God’s ministry among us, as the Spirit has led the Church established and built by Christ Himself.
That’s why we have so many beautiful feasts. We celebrate a great and sumptuous banquet of the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.