August 01, 1996

Three Feasts of the Savior

In August the Orthodox Church celebrates three feast days, directly or indirectly connected with events in the earthly life of Christ the Savior (spasitel in Russian, often shortened to spas). They are: the origins of the honored wood of the life-giving Savior’s Cross (14th); the great feast of the Transfiguration of the Savior (19th); and the bringing from Edessa to Constantinople of the image of the Lord not made by human hand (29th). These feasts are known popularly as Spas the First (or Honey Spas, Spas on the Water), Spas the Second (or Apple Spas) and Spas the Third (Spas on Canvas).

At the end of summer and beginning of autumn, pagan Russian farmers and their Christian descendants had the same agricultural concerns and protective rites. Both aimed to banish evil from or protect from evil the harvest, livestock and land, and appease the good forces of nature and the cosmos. The end of summer meant the end of work in the fields —peasants got recompense from their spring and summer labors, and now they had to think about next year’s harvest and sow the winter cereals.

There was a saying in old Rus’: “ Spas the First is the first sowing.” In order to guarantee a future good harvest, peasants brought seeds to the church that day. Before the start of the sowing, priests would sprinkle the fields with holy water and bless the wells. The other name, Honey Spas, derives from the cutting and breaking of the combs. The first cut honeycombs were taken to the church to be blessed and also to the funerals of parents. On the same day, all over Rus’, an ancient pre-Christian ritual of the cleansing of water took place — everyone old and young, and after them livestock, bathed in rivers, lakes and ponds blessed by the priests. It was believed that this would protect the people and animals from evil spirits, curses and other ills.

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