Learning Orthodox Christian liturgics can be like learning a new language—and in some cases it does involve learning a new language! There are a great number of terms that come from Greek or Slavonic. Some are synonyms, some have an additional equivalent in English, and some have different meanings depending on whether you’re talking about Byzantine or Slavic tradition. This can make it difficult to figure out what any particular term actually means.
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One of my go-to resources for liturgical terminology is the Orthodox Wiki. The definitions found there are quite complete, but that means they’re often quite technical, and you may find that unfamiliar terms are defined in terms of other unfamiliar terms. You end up caught in a hermeneutic circle.
Here, I present a list of terms used on this site, with the most basic definitions I can manage.
Many terms have English, Greek, and Slavonic equivalents. I have put the definition under the term that I have found to be the most common, with links to that definition from the other languages’ terms. When unsure, I have erred on the side of English.
Unless otherwise specified, dates are given as they appear in the liturgical books. For example, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord falls on 25 December, and that is what is written here. For parishes that follow the Julian Calendar, 25 December falls on 7 January on the civil calendar.
Pascha, most Great Feasts of the Lord and Great Feasts of the Theotokos last for multiple days. The afterfeast is the period beginning on the day after the feast day proper and ending on the apodosis (final day) of the feast. Specific rubrics are applied to the services of the Church during afterfeast periods that reflect the ongoing nature of the feast.
The afterfeast of Pascha lasts 38 days.
Great feasts of the Lord with afterfeasts
🕀 Elevation of the Holy Cross (14 September) — afterfeast: 7 days
🕀 Nativity of Christ (25 December) — afterfeast: 6 days
🕀 Theophany (6 January) — afterfeast: 8 days
🕀 Ascension (40th day after Pascha) — afterfeast: 8 days
🕀 Pentecost (50th day after Pascha) — afterfeast: 6 days
🕀 Transfiguration (6 August) — afterfeast: 7 days
Great Feasts of the Theotokos with afterfeasts
🕀 Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September) — afterfeast: 4 days
🕀 Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November) — afterfeast: 4 days
🕀 Dormition of the Theotokos (15 August) — afterfeast: 8 days
🕀 Presentation of Christ (2 February) — afterfeast: 7 days, or until the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, whichever is shorter.
[English (alt.): thurible]
A censer, in the Orthodox Church, is a metal bowl with a removable cover, suspended on chains, in which incense is heated by charcoal, producing aromatic smoke. The standard censer will have twelve bells attached to the chains, representing the twelve apostles. A censer without bells may be used on certain occasions, depending on local custom.
A small, circular rug with the image of an eagle above a town, upon which the bishop stands while presiding at a service.
Epistle (liturgical book)
The Epistle book contains the texts from the Biblical Epistles (Romans through Jude) and the Acts of the Apostles that are prescribed to be read during services of the church.
A feast, or feast day, refers to the commemoration of a saint, holy event, or holy object as part of the Church’s liturgical cycle (calendar). Every day of the year contains many feasts. Most feasts are fixed, meaning they occur on the same calendar date every year, and some are movable, meaning they occur on a different date each year because their commemoration is calculated based on a relationship to the date of Pascha.
Many feasts have related hymnography that is used in the appointed places in services of the Church, and major feasts may cause other changes in the way a particular service is celebrated. Each feast has a specific rank, which determines how it interacts with other feasts that may occur on the same day. This interaction is the primary source of variation in the liturgical expression of the Church (and the primary source of consternation in those who have to plan the services).
The hymns and rubrical directions about fixed feasts are found in the Menaion (the set of books that correspond to each month). The hymns and rubrical directions about movable feasts are found in either the Pentecostarion (the book that is used from Pascha to Pentecost) or the Lenten Triodion (the book that is used during Great Lent and Holy Week).
A forefeast is a preparatory time before a feast day proper. Most Great Feasts of the Lord and Great Feasts of the Theotokos have forefeast periods. Specific rubrics are applied to the services of the Church during afterfeast periods that anticipate the celebration of the feast.
Great feasts of the Lord having a forefeast
🕀 Elevation of the Holy Cross (14 September) — forefeast: 7 days
🕀 Nativity of Christ (25 December) — forefeast: 5 days
🕀 Theophany (6 January) — forefeast: 4 days
🕀 Transfiguration (6 August) — afterfeast: 1 day
Great Feasts of the Theotokos having a forefeast
🕀 Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September) — forefeast: 1 day
🕀 Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November) — forefeast: 1 day
🕀 Annunciation (25 March) — forefeast: 1 day
🕀 Dormition of the Theotokos (15 August) — forefeast: 1 day
🕀 Presentation of Christ (2 February) — forefeast: 1 day
The term, great feast, can have two different but overlapping meanings: Commonly, when the term “great feast” is used, it refers to one of the twelve major feasts of the Church year (excluding Pascha, which is the “Feast of feasts”).
The “twelve great feasts” fall into two categories, great feasts of the Lord, and great feasts of the Theotokos. These and the other great feasts are listed below.
great feast of the Lord
🕀 Elevation of the Holy Cross (14 September)
🕀 Nativity of Christ (25 December)
🕀 Theophany (6 January)
🕀 The Entry into Jerusalem / Palm Sunday (Sunday before Pascha)
🕀 Ascension (40th day after Pascha)
🕀 Pentecost (50th day after Pascha)
🕀 Transfiguration (6 August)
great feast of the Theotokos
🕀 Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September)
🕀 Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November)
🕀 Dormition of the Theotokos (15 August)
🕀 Presentation of Christ (2 February)
🕀 Annunciation (25 March)
other great feasts
🕀 Protection of the Theotokos [Slavic: Покрова/Pokrova] (1 October)
🕀 Circumcision of Christ (1 January)
🕀 Nativity of St. John the Forerunner (24 June)
🕀 Ss. Peter and Paul (29 June)
🕀 Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (29 August)
[English: Book of Hours, Book of the Hours]
[ Slavonic: Часослoвъ/Chasoslov]
A proper Horologion contains the fixed portions of the daily services of the Church (Vespers, Compline, Nocturn, Matins, 1st hour, 3rd hour, 6th hour, Divine Liturgy or Typica, 9th hour). In practice, these services may be printed in various different books. For example the 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours may appear in their own book; the Divine Liturgy may appear in a prayer book; etc.
Note that services such as All-night Vigil, and Panakhida/Trisagion are not part of the Horologion, as they are not part of the daily cycle of services. These are special services served as required.
[English: seasonal hymn]
[Slavonic: Конда́к /kondak]
A kontakion is the seasonal hymn of a feast. It is sung or read at various times during the forefeast and the afterfeast of a feast. Each kontakion, when sung, is sung to one of the eight troparion tones. The tone of each kontakion is fixed, and does not vary based on the tone of the week.
[English: leavetaking, conclusion]
Pascha, most Great Feasts of the Lord and Great Feasts of the Theotokos, as well as four vigil-rank and polyeleos-rank feasts last for multiple days. The leavetaking of a feast is the final day on which that feast is celebrated. On the day of the leavetaking, many of the elements of the feast are repeated.
The leavetaking of Pascha is the Wednesday before Ascension
Great feasts of the Lord having a leavetaking
🕀 Elevation of the Holy Cross (14 September) — leavetaking: 21 September
🕀 Nativity of Christ (25 December) — leavetaking: 31 December
🕀 Theophany (6 January) — leavetaking: 14 January
🕀 Ascension (40th day after Pascha) — leavetaking: Friday before Pentecost
🕀 Pentecost (50th day after Pascha) — leavetaking: Saturday following
🕀 Transfiguration (6 August) — leavetaking: 13 August
Great feasts of the Theotokos having a leavetaking
🕀 Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September) — leavetaking: 12 September
🕀 Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November) — leavetaking: 25 November
🕀 Dormition of the Theotokos (15 August) — leavetaking: 23 August
🕀 Presentation of Christ (2 February) — leavetaking: 9 February
🕀 Annunciation (25 March) — leavetaking: 26 March
Other feasts having a leavetaking
🕂 St. Demetrios (26 October) — leavetaking: 27 October
🕀 Nativity of St. John the Forerunner (24 June) — leavetaking: 25 June
🕀 Ss. Peter and Paul (29 June) — leavetaking: 30 June
🕀 Beheading of the Forerunner (29 August) — leavetaking: 30 August
The term, lectionary, refers to the particular readings prescribed for various days of the Church year.
The Menaion is one of the primary liturgical books of the Church. The Menaion contains the necessary liturgical texts (the variable portions) for the saint and feast day commemorations that are tied to the day of the year. For example, the Nativity of Christ is always on December 25th, so the liturgical texts for that feast are found in the Menaion.
The Menaion is usually divided into twelve volumes—one for each month. In fact, Menaion means, “of the month”. (An easy mnemonic to remember the function of the Menaion is that both Menaion and month begin with “M”.)
[English: festal hymn, dismissal hymn]
A troparion is the thematic hymn of a feast. Each troparion, when sung, is sung to one of the eight troparion tones. The tone of each troparion is fixed, and does not vary based on the tone of the week.
vigil (festal rank)