ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: The author owes a debt of thanks to his dear nephew, who most graciously offered one of his catechetical lectures to be used as the basis of this essay.
The Syro-Maronite Church shares a common ecclesiastical calendar structure with the West Syriac Churches as a whole. This calendar structure comprises two major parts: the Temporal Cycle and the Sanctoral Cycle. Since the beginning of the Church Year is fast approaching, in this first installment, let us take a brief look at that beginning.
The first season, Consecration of the Church*, begins on the first Sunday of November and usually comprises two Sundays: the Consecration of the Church and the Dedication/Renewal of the Church. The theme of this season introduces God’s establishment and renewal of the Church out of His love, and His plan for restoring our fallen nature begins with Him announcing it to the world.
Seasons come and seasons go, so of course the end of the first season leads to the beginning of the next, which is the Season of Announcement, where God tells His people that hope shall come to the world and restore them even though they’ve done wrong; it is a promise of forgiveness to those who are repentant. The Season of Announcement is a happy one where God the Father sends the angel Gabriel to bring good news to the world. The season begins with two Sundays of Announcements; in the the first, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will have a son – John the Baptist – who will prepare the way for the coming of God. In the second, we find Gabriel telling Mary she has been set aside to be the Virgin Mother of God. The third is the Visitation, When Mary visits her kinswoman (cousin) Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, and John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother’s womb because he knows his master who he will give his life to serve (God) is nearby. The fourth Sunday commemorates John the Baptist’s birth, and loosening of Zachariah's tongue. The Fifth Sunday, the Revelation to Joseph, sometimes called that of Joseph's Dream, is about Gabriel telling Joseph not to fear that Mary will bear a child because it was by the will of God. All of these Sundays are important because they involve God announcing hope to the world and his faithful servants, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Joseph, receiving it, despite not knowing what the future will hold. The last of the Sundays of Announcement is the Sunday of Genealogy, taken from Matthew's Gospel account, which shows that Jesus is a fully human descendent of the Kings of Israel – a renewal of God’s promise to protect His people.
On December 25*, the season morphs into Christmas -- the Birth of Our Lord and Savior. It is a day to reflect on the King of Heaven becoming a lowly servant on Earth, not because He benefits, but because He is a loving Father who wants to teach us, His children, the Way of Truth and Salvation, through His only begotten Son. The Sunday after Christmas, the Finding of Christ in the Temple, is the first hint that Jesus is God. This Sunday remembers when Joseph and Mary lost Jesus in Jerusalem but found the little boy Jesus teaching the teachers of Israel. This is also a very important Sunday because when Jesus’ parents scold Him for running away He promises to obey them despite the fact He is God and His parents are only human – it is a lesson to obey authority, even if we think or know we are correct.
The Season of Epiphany* follows that of the Birth of Jesus. The Epiphany (or "Manifestation") focuses on Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, appeared over Him, while the Father's voice from heaven said "Behold my beloved Son." This is the first time it is revealed that Jesus is fully God. But again we see Jesus’ humility since He didn’t need to be baptized but did it to show us how to live a holy life. Jesus was bringing new hope to a frightened people that had lost contact with God because of their disobedience. In fact the name of Epiphany in Syriac means a "dawning" or "sunrise" or "manifestation" - the rising sun is Jesus who was bringing His light and hope to the world, which was manifested at the Jordan River. In fact, the Epiphany is such an important feat that it was traditionally celebrated as a greater feast than Christmas. It's interesting to note here that, to this day, the Armenian Church celebrates the two feasts together as one unit.
The Season of Epiphany lasts for several weeks, depending on the date of Easter in any given year. The next installment will look at the penitential seasons that follow.
* Christmas and Epiphany are part of both the Temporal and Sanctoral Cycles, since each is observed on a fixed date, but each is also part of a season in the Temporal Cycle. It should also be noted that the day of the week on which Christmas falls influences the beginning of the Church Year, and which, on the Maronite calendar, begins on the first Sunday of November, so it can happen that there is only one Sunday in that first season. This is due to a persistent latinization, where the last Sunday of October is designated as "Christ the King" Sunday. The Syriac Orthodox maintain two Sundays, even when the first falls on the 30th or 31st of October.