September 1, 2018

The Month of September in the Orthodox Church

By John Sanidopoulos

September is derived from the Latin septem, which means "seven", because originally it was the seventh of ten months on the oldest known Roman calendar, with March being the first month of the year until perhaps as late as 153 BC. After the calendar reform that added January and February to the beginning of the year, September became the ninth month, but retained its name. It had 29 days until the Julian reform, which added a day. Thus today the month of September contains 30 days. The September equinox also takes place in this month, and certain observances are organized around it. It is the Autumn equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Vernal Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere; the dates can vary from 21 September to 24 September.

September marks the beginning of the ecclesiastical and liturgical year in the Orthodox Church. This is due to the Roman dating of the Indiction. An indiction is any of the years in a fifteen year cycle used to date documents in Roman times. Indictions originally referred to the periodic reassessment for an agricultural or land tax in late third century Roman Egypt. These were originally in five year cycles beginning in 287 AD, then in a non-cyclic series which reached number 26 by 318 AD. But by 314 AD, the fifteen year cycle had appeared. The Chronicon Paschale (c. 630 AD) assigned its first year to 312–313 AD, whereas a Coptic document of 933 AD assigned its first year to 297–298 AD, one cycle earlier. Both of these were years of the Alexandrian calendar whose first day was Thoth 1 on August 29 in years preceding common Julian years, and August 30 in years preceding leap years, hence each straddled two Julian years. The reason for beginning the year at that time was that the harvest would be in, and so it was an appropriate moment to calculate the taxes that should be paid.

The indiction was first used to date documents unrelated to tax collection in the mid-fourth century. By the late fourth century it was being used to date documents throughout the Mediterranean. In the Eastern Roman Empire outside of Egypt, the first day of its year was September 23, the birthday of Augustus. During the last half of the fifth century, probably 462 AD, this shifted to September 1, where it remained throughout the rest of the Roman Empire until its fall in 1453. In 537 AD, Justinian decreed that all dates must include the indiction via Novella 47, which eventually caused the Roman year to begin on September 1. But in the western Mediterranean, its first day was September 24 according to Bede, or the following December 25 or January 1, called the papal indiction.

With the close association between the Church and the State in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Church also adopted September 1 as the beginning of its ecclesiastical and liturgical year, having gathered the spiritual harvest of the previous ecclesiastical year. And in the month of September the beginning of the entire cycle of major fixed feast days begins, specifically on September 23rd with the Conception of John the Baptist. Since the Conception of John the Baptist took place during the Jewish Day of Atonement, as indicated in the Gospel of Luke, we know that Zechariah received the revelation from the angel Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and give birth to John the Baptist around the time of September 23. When you count nine months, we are brought to the Birth of John the Baptist on June 24th (with a day added to show that he was not the Lord Jesus Christ, whose perfection alone is indicated by having a perfect nine month period in the womb). Since the Gospel of Luke indicates that the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth after the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel, when Elizabeth was already six months pregnant, we know that the Annunciation took place some time around March 25th. And when you calculate exactly nine months of pregnancy for the Virgin Mary, we know that the Birth of Christ took place on December 25th. Thus the major fixed feast days of the Church are first indicated to us by the Conception of John the Baptist on September 23.

We begin the ecclesiastical year by setting up on a pedestal, literally, the ultimate model of dedication to Christ - Saint Symeon the Stylite. When we read the life of Saint Symeon on September 1st, we see a man who left everything to devote his entire life to being pleasing to the Lord, to the point that when great crowds came to visit him in the remote wilderness, his only option was to mount a tall column, in order to flee the praises of the people which he saw as a danger for himself falling into the sin of pride. He did not do this because he disdained people, but did everything to preserve virtue and purity for the Lord, in order to make himself a worthy temple of the Holy Spirit, to the point that he suffered much for it, but the suffering was greatly rewarded. His humble feat of mounting the column to flee every form of vice became known throughout the world, to the point that the Roman emperor even sought his counsel. It was a feat that proclaimed the gospel like no other, and showed by example that the love of God is shown by keeping His commandments, no matter what the cost.

We also begin the ecclesiastical year on September 1 by commemorating a scene from the Gospel of Luke in the fourth chapter, when Jesus entered a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, after having been tempted forty days in the wilderness by the devil, and He read before the Jews the prophecy of Isaiah, which described the mission of the Messiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” This event sparked the entire ministry of the Lord on earth, a ministry which we will follow over the course of the liturgical year. And in our prayers this day, we also pray that it will likewise be for us "an acceptable year of the Lord."

The next major event commemorated in the month of September is the Birth of the Mother of God on September 8th. The reason this feast is celebrated on September 8th is due to the fact that the liturgical year is also a cycle of feasts honoring the life of the Virgin Mary, who played a great and pivotal role in our salvation. For this reason, the first major feast to be celebrated in the new ecclesiastical year is the Birth of the Mother of God, which preceded the events of the New Testament, while the last major feast of the ecclesiastical year is her Dormition on August 15th, which came after the events of the New Testament. Thus we go through the entire liturgical year viewing our salvation through the eyes and experience of the Virgin Mary. The reason we do not celebrate the Conception of Saint Anna in September is because this feast was established by the Church a few centuries later, therefore when you calculate back nine months, you come to December 9th, which is the feast of the Conception of Saint Anna (also not a perfect nine month period, like John the Baptist, making it a liturgical indictment on the concept of an Immaculate Conception).

The first established liturgical fast of the year falls on September 14th for the Exaltation of the Honorable and Life-Giving Cross. In the month of September, we also lift up the Cross before the congregation while keeping a strict fast, to remind us that we also must bear our crosses in order to indeed make each year an "acceptable year of the Lord." Exalting the Cross before all in the first liturgical month of the year, we are reminded what our Lord did for our salvation, and we are to work towards this salvation throughout the year by being focused on the rich meaning of the Cross of our Lord.

With the Conception of John the Baptist on September 23rd, the Birth of the Mother of God on September 8th, the first proclamation of Christ that He was the Messiah to the Jews on September 1st, and the Exaltation of the Honorable Cross on September 14th, we observe that September is a month in which we commemorate events that indicate a beginning of our salvation. We also are therefore called in September to renew our efforts towards salvation, after evaluating our failures of the previous year. To inspire us and inflame our zeal for this new effort, the Church presents us with the lives of the saints each and every day, men and women like you and me who fought the good fight to the end. September is thus a month of our own personal spiritual renewal, in which all things begin new again.