It is widely taught that the engine of the Church years in the Orthodox catholic East is so-called cycle of Twelve Great Feasts, beginning with the Nativity of the Theotokos, September 8. But — if truth be told — this is simply a modern fiction.
The real engine of the Church year is exactly what it should be — and what we should want, if we thought about it. It is the reading of the Gospel. As we read it in the Church. At the Sabbath and Lord’s Day Liturgies. Luke, Mark, John, Mathew. The scroll over the codex. It is ancient. And it is sheer genius.
We begin in September — after the Cross. We read from the Gospel according to Luke. These are Weeks of Luke, as they used to say.
The Lord Jesus comes in the power of the spirit, Lk.4.14. In Nazareth he announces a year of favor from Lord, Lk.4.19. Driven from Nazareth, he takes up in Capernaum and, to hear Luke tell it, slowly, deliberately makes his way from Galilee to Judea, Lk. 9.51+, 13.22, 17.11, to Jerusalem and the Upper Room, to Mt. Sion and the cross. — The Pasch of the Lord thus stands at the very center of the year. — We pause in Jericho, Lk. 19.1,11, fro the Forty Days and the Weeks of Mark, as they used to say. Then we ascend with the Master to Bethany and Jerusalem for the Holy and Great Week.
The Weeks of John, as they used to say, coincide with Pentecost (or Fifty days) which begins on the Sunday following the Pasch of the Cross, as they used to say. And after Pentecost Sunday, birthday of the Church, the weeks of Mathew lead us to the Elevation of the Cross and the end of the Church year. The Weeks of Mathew (the tables set forth 17) always vary. And so will the Weeks Luke, depending on the date of the coming Pasch.
Consider now the Weeks of Luke wind down (any additional Saturday/Sunday readings being intercalated before these weeks):
Zaccheus — he welcomes the Lord Jesus who seeks him out — turns from his sins to hold on to Christ and imposes upon himself a rather stiff penance in the form of restitution.
The Tax Collector, his heart contrite and humbled, finds God’s favor through his sacrificial prayer. [The Triodion begins; at Matins we sing: open the gates of repentance for me, O Giver of Life… Direct me back to the path of Salvation, O Theotokos…]
The Prodigal Son turns from the death of sin; through repentance ands confession he finds reconciliation and restoration while his older brother wallows in the alienation that oozes from his own sinful state. Then, borrowing from Mathew, the Judgment of the Nations urges all to escape the fate of those who show no compassion, while there is time and opportunity.
Through her selective reading of the Luke’s Gospel, the Church bears witness to immemorial custom, to custom lost sight of today — suppressed even — in some circles: she is leading us to repent and confess our sins at the outset of the Great Forty Days…
From the Book «Confession» by Father Paul Harrilchak. Holy Trinity Church, Reston, Virginia. 1996. Page 191.