March 1, 2019

The Month of March in the Orthodox Church

By John Sanidopoulos

The name of March comes from Martius, the first month of the earliest Roman calendar. It was named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and an ancestor of the Roman people through his sons Romulus and Remus. His month Martius was the beginning of the season for warfare, and the festivals held in his honor during the month were mirrored by others in October, when the season for these activities came to a close. Martius remained the first month of the Roman calendar year perhaps as late as 153 BC, and several religious observances in the first half of the month were originally new year's celebrations. Even in late antiquity, Roman mosaics picturing the months sometimes still placed March first.

March 1 began the numbered year in Russia until the end of the 15th century. Great Britain and its colonies continued to use March 25 until 1752, when they finally adopted the Gregorian calendar (the fiscal year in the UK continues to begin on the 6th of April, initially identical to 25 March in the former Julian calendar). Many other cultures and religions still celebrate the beginning of the New Year in March.

March is the third month of the year in both the Julian and Gregorian calendars. It is the second of seven months to have a length of 31 days. The Spring equinox on the 20th or 21st marks the astronomical beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, where September is the seasonal equivalent of the Northern Hemisphere's March.

Jewish and Christian traditions maintain that the world was created by God in the month of March, and it was in this month that the first man, Adam, was created. This probably stems from the fact that in the month of March the light becomes more and more visible after the long winter months of darkness. "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3).

According to Exodus 12:2, the month of Nisan was the beginning of the year for the Jews instituted by the Lord, and this falls in March. In the same chapter we also read that the Passover festival was to be celebrated in the month of March on the 14th of Nisan, which was around March 25th. On this day was concluded the last of the ten plagues of Egypt, and the Jews were soon after liberated from bondage.

Ancient Christian tradition states that in this month, specifically on March 25th, the Son of God, in His love for mankind, was conceived in the womb voluntarily by Mary the Mother of God in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. This festival is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church and very much celebrated, for it marks the beginning of the salvation of the human race. This day is marked by a festal Divine Liturgy and the allowance of fish with oil and wine to be consumed even if it falls during the strict fasting period of Great Lent and Holy Week. The Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel, who is the primary messenger of salvation at the Annunciation, is celebrated the next day on March 26th. It should be noted also that our salvation through the Theotokos is further remembered and hailed every Friday during Great Lent in the Salutations and Akathist in her honor.

In this month also, our Lord Jesus Christ, through His voluntary passion in the flesh, annulled the curse by becoming cursed for us on the tree of the Cross, and by His death he trampled down death, for by His resurrection from the dead Adam and the entire human race was raised up from Hades. Thus St. Augustine writes: "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since."

Because the month of March is usually dominated by the solemn period of the Triodion and Great Lent, and sometimes even Holy Week, and the liturgical services focus on these days, not many popular saints are celebrated in March, and those that once were have been moved to other months or to the Sundays of Great Lent. However, we still do encounter some popular saints and feasts which are modestly celebrated, such as St. Gerasimos of Jordan (Mar. 4), Holy 42 Martyrs of Amoria (Mar. 6), the Feast of the Finding of the Cross and Nails by St. Helen (Mar. 6; some believe this is the origin of the commemoration of the Cross on the Third Sunday of Great Lent), Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Mar. 9; their ultimate sacrifice and bitter martyrdom serves as a model for our struggle in the arena of Great Lent, for it is no coincidence that the Forty Martyrs Feast falls during the Forty Day Fast), St. Sophronios of Jerusalem (Mar. 11; whose biography of St. Mary of Egypt is read on the Fifth Thursday of Great Lent), St. Theodora of Arta (Mar. 11), St. Gregory the Dialogist (Mar. 12; who according to tradition composed the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is only performed during Great Lent and Holy Week), St. Benedict of Nursia (Mar. 14), St. Christodoulos of Patmos (Mar. 16), St. Alexios the Man of God (Mar. 17), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Mar. 18; he is known for his catechisms of the catechumens during Great Lent preparing them for Baptism either on the Saturday of Lazarus or Holy Saturday), Sts. Chrysanthos and Daria (Mar. 19; married Martyrs who serve as inspirations and models for married couples abstaining from relations during Great Lent), St. Matrona of Thessaloniki (Mar. 27), and St. John Climacus (Mar. 30; his feast is the focus also of the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, and his celebrated work The Ladder is considered primary reading during Great Lent in monastic communities).

With this, despite March being dominated by the solemn commemorations and services of Great Lent, there are other rich festivals the Church cannot ignore celebrating, albeit modestly for the most part. As a Roman month of war, in the Orthodox Church it is a month of ascetic struggles, along with compunction, repentance, strict fasting and devout prayer, with a focus towards the joy of salvation brought about through the Theotokos at the Annunciation. Thus this month is a month of joyful sorrow, eloquently encouraged for the faithful by St. John Climacus, who writes: "Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow of holy compunction and do not cease laboring for it until it lifts you high above the things of the world to present you, a cleansed offering, to Christ."