The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware is a pretty useful little book for an introduction to the Eastern Church. There were a number of things I discovered from this book that I must follow up sometime. The origins of much of Russia's and Slavic Christianity, for example, was a ninth century mission of Cyril and Methodius, pattern missionaries in that they produced Slavic liturgical books and scriptural translation. This is something I would like to read up on: the early sixth and seventh century mission led by Saints Columbanus and Comgall in Gaul gave my hometown of Bangor, County Down, and its ancient monastery, its place in history. The other thing I would love to follow up is the legend of Kiev the holy, the golden, the ancient city of Russia sacked by the Mongols. From what I can gather, Kiev is a nation-making story for the Russians, the source of their patriotism and their sense that their nation is holy. I think if one really understood this story one would understand a great deal of Russian patriotism, which - when one thinks of their erstwhile claims to the Ukraine or Georgia - isn't a simple matter of imperialism. One can sense in their literature a national consciousness that is more completely Christian than any other, perhaps more so even than Ireland with the story of its apostle, St Patrick.
The liturgical history is of course fascinating: and one surprising thing was the make-up of the list of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. These are the most important besides Easter. Seven (or eight) are feasts of the Lord, five (or four) of the Theotokos, the bearer of God, as they call the Virgin. (The discrepancy of numbering is because one can reckon Candlemas either as a Marian feast or a Dominical one.) The list is:
The Nativity of the Mother of God (8th September)
The Exaltation of the Honoured and Life-Giving Cross (14th September)
The Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (21st November)
The Nativity of Christ (25th December)
The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Theophany or Epiphany) (6th January) - the Epiphany, a more ancient feast than Christmas, celebrates three events in which Christ appears revealed to us as God: the coming of the Wise Men, the Baptism and descent of the Spirit, and the Marriage of Cana.
The Meeting of our Lord (Candlemas, or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple) (2nd February)
The Annunciation of the Mother of God (25th March)
The Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ
Pentecost (known in the East as Trinity Sunday) - incidentally, the coming of the Holy Spirit is considered as the completion of the mystery of the Trinity, whilst the Sunday after, our Trinity Sunday, is their All Saints'.
The Transfiguration of Christ (6th August)
The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God (The Dormition) (15th August)
The list is interesting for a Western Christian because of what is in and what is not. I suspect we would have a few saints days thrown in if asked to draw up a list of twelve great feasts, such as Saints Peter and Paul, or All Saints'. But in this list the feasts are almost all concentrated around our Lord's life, and not mainly the deeds of Christ (miracles and what have you) but points of His history which reveal what His life was about. They are events that happened in the actual history of the Incarnate Son, but also invite contemplation as being moments that reveal Who He is. The Transfiguration, for instance, reveals Christ as the divine Son and the Prophet foretold by Moses, and hardly touches upon his narrative history at all. It is interesting as a comparison how significant the Orthodox understand the Transfiguration to be as compared to the West's comparative inattention. I suspect that these feasts have the kind of use that the more modern feasts in the West are meant to have, the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy and that class of feasts which consider something about what one could call for convenience the divine affect. I must admit that I prefer the rooting of the contemplation of such mysteries in the life of Christ, and the symbolism that accompanies them in the Orthodox Church. It seems less likely to lose itself in sentimentality and (for a man) rather off-putting effeminate imagery, as well as being on a more fully Christian dogmatic basis because tied in to the Incarnate body of our Lord and his revelation. I'm sure this makes a difference in the life of contemplation and the spirit, too.
The list is also surprising because of the inclusion of the feast of Mary's presentation in the Temple, 21st November. It is a feast of which I had scarcely heard before but which I have discovered is on the Roman calendar. The Marian feasts in the list are a mirror of a number of the Dominical feasts: both Mary and our Lord have a Nativity, a Presentation in the Temple, and then a central feast common to both (the Annunciation of the Theotokos is also our Lord's conception). The final two Marian feasts are the Presentation of Christ, which is also her ritual purification according to Jewish law, and in which she has the Passion foretold, the sword that will "pierce your own soul also"; and the Dormition, which in a manner mirrors the Ascension of Christ.
The feast of Mary's presentation celebrates a tradition in the ancient Protoevangelium of James (circa 200) that Mary was brought by her parents, the long-barren Anna and Joachim, to the Temple at the age of three - in a similar way to the giving of Samuel by his mother Hannah in the Old Testament. She remained there until the age of twelve when she was given to her guardian Joseph, her parents having died a few years earlier. Although this isn't a matter of faith or dogma with the Orthodox, it is an interesting tie-in to another ancient tradition that Mary was a consecrated virgin attached to the Temple, a devoted role mentioned in the Torah. Such girls could be married legally, but remained consecrated to the Temple service.
Although the Orthodox have no dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the story behind this feast carries the notion of the sanctification and giving over to God of the Theotokos from before the awakening of her own will and consciousness. Apparently the feast is an ancient one in the East, and made its way via the monasteries of southern Italy and eventually to Rome in the fourteenth century, and was surpressed for a time in the sixteenth. Thus in contrast to the Orthodox, it has never been more than peripheral in the Latin Church. I know there were many other currents in the development of the dogma, but perhaps the absence of this tradition had something to do with the concentration of the later medieval Western theologians on the conception of the Virgin specifically.