Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas--To A Traditional Eastern Orthodox Christian

By Fr. Edward A. Sadvary

“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, translated (God is with us).” Isaiah 7:14.
On Christmas Day, “a child is born to us, a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulders; and his name shall he called Wonderful Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace . . . He shall sit upon the “throne of David and upon his kingdom, to establish it and to strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and forever.” Isaiah 9: 6-7.
When Christ was born in that low and humble place — the world was ready for his coming, the pure womb that was to bear him was prepared. The great and awful event awaited by men since the moment of that first promise may be worthily recorded only in the inspired word of God: “Behold,” says the Angel Gabriel to Mary, “thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shall call his name, Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High
. . . The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most high shall overshadow thee; and therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Luke 10, 31:5.
Centuries before the first Christmas Day, a malignant angel had come to a woman (Eve) upon an errand of death, and Eve’s disobedience to God’s command which had ensued was the beginning of the sin of the world.
The Archangel Gabriel came to Mary with the message of eternal life, and the ready obedience of the second Eve gave us him who is the fountain of all grace.
Now, Mary, who had designed to know no man, had been troubled, at the announcement of the angel, that she should conceive and bear a son. But her fear was groundless: the Holy Ghost was to be her Spouse, and Mary, still clad in the white veil of virginity, was yet to wear the crown of motherhood: And Mary said: ‘‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.”
The obedient submission of Mary gave to the world the Divine Redeemer. Now, “The Word was made flesh.” The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, became man.
Christ, the Son, now Man, came to us in the deepest poverty — in greatest humility to be our Redeemer — Our King. Yes, Christ is King, not only as God, but also as Man. He is King, not only by reason of perfection of his humanity, not only because he has purchased us as His people by redeeming us; he is King because His is the Word incarnate.
“He, Christ, has dominion over all creatures,” says St. Cyril of Alexandria, who was the great Champion of Orthodoxy against Nestorius “a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but by His essence and by nature.” Psalms 23:7.
In this way with these thoughts do the Eastern Christians celebrate the Birth of Christ. The Eastern Christian places the greatest importance upon the religious aspects of this great Feast Day. It is to the Eastern mind — a day for rejoicing, because on this day, he has received his opportunity for Eternal Salvation with God in Heaven.
The feast commemorating the Nativity of Jesus Christ or (Christmas) was introduced in the middle of the 4th century. It is now almost certain that the celebration of Christmas on the 25th of December is of Western origin. The East celebrated Christ’s Nativity on January 6th, now on January 7th. This because the East follows the Julian Calendar, which is about two weeks behind the present calendar. In the liturgy of the Eastern Churches this feast was called Theophany or Epiphany. Three things were commemorated: the Nativity itself: the Adoration of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.
Later, several of the Eastern Churches began introducing the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. In the meantime, it seems that Western Christians adopted the feast of Epiphany, which soon became very popular — and is very popular today.
In the Eastern Churches, the Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds are celebrated on Christmas Eve — January 6th, the Adoration of the Magi on Christmas Day.
A period of fasting begins 40 days before Christmas for Eastern Christians. This period does not correspond to the Advent Season of the Roman Church; the Eastern Church does not know Advent.
There are two Sundays which prepare the faithful Eastern Christian for the great feast of Christmas, namely the 2nd Sunday before Christmas, called the Sunday of the Fore-Fathers, and the Sunday immediately preceding Christmas, called the Sunday of the Fathers.
On Christmas Eve the Church Services are rather long, but they are very beautiful and inspiring. The morning of Christmas Eve — the Church Services begin with the Solemn Singing of the Royal Hours — so called because the kings and emperors of old always attended these services.
Following the Royal Hours, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated together with the Vesper Service for the day.
On Christmas Eve the Eastern Christian observes a very strict fast Christmas Day begins with a Solemn and Joyful Divine Liturgy usually celebrated one minute after midnight.
Members of the Parishes then visit individual homes of the Parishioners singing Christmas Carols and greeting one another with the salutation “Christ Is Born.” and answering in response, “Praise You Him.”
Very little importance is given to the exchange of gifts or to any commercial thought. For the Eastern Christian — His Church and His Church Service share the Glory of this Day.
He rejoices this day because Christ is in his midst — a new born Child with outstretched arms begs for his Love and he returns this love in His God, His neighbor, his family and to his country.
To the Eastern Christian the birth of Jesus Christ is of tremendous importance to his own eternal salvation, because through the birth of Jesus, God has given the food of Life Eternal.
This food is the invisible Body and Blood of our Lord in visible forms, of bread and wine.
By the birth of Christ and by the food, the natural Son of God made us children of God by adoption. He gave us Himself as a symbol and example in all these things that we may follow his example and win the eternal gifts — life everlasting and endless bliss — which had been lost to us through Eve’s sin and which had been restored to us through the birth of Christ.
To the Eastern Christian this is the object of Christ’s Incarnation and birth. He has granted to us His Holy Body as food that He may make us, through His Birth, his companions, and through our nourishment by Him, inheritors of His Kingdom.
He commanded us, the living, to be steadfast in our performance of this remembrance of Him, and in remembrance of His benevolence to us until he comes again to judge the world.
This is accomplished through faith by inheritance, and by transmission from the living destined to die, to the dead, who shall live again by re-generation, that salvation may extend to all men.
For this reason, the Church has instituted and celebrates daily the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist — the Divine Liturgy — the Mass — or the Lord’s Supper, which serves as a constant reminder to the faithful of the life of Christ — from His birth of His Virgin Mother to His Ascension — reminding us that from our birth to our death — our food for Salvation must be the food brought to us through the Birth of Jesus — whose feast we commemorate at this time.

4 comments:

  1. "It is now almost certain that the celebration of Christmas on the 25th of December is of Western origin. The East celebrated Christ’s Nativity on January 6th, now on January 7th. This because the East follows the Julian Calendar, which is about two weeks behind the present calendar."

    Really? The Gregorian Calendar was not adopted in the West until 1582. I am not sure this statement is quite right, but I may be mistaken.

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  2. "A period of fasting begins 40 days before Christmas for Eastern Christians. This period does not correspond to the Advent Season of the Roman Church; the Eastern Church does not know Advent."

    Why does it not correspond to Western Advent? Both are penitentiary seasons of preparation and fasting before the Nativity of Christ. The Traditions are not identical, but surely they correspond in some way?

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  3. You are right to questions origin of the date. Here is what is on the OCA website for the Nativity regarding its historical origin.

    The present Feast, commemorating the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, was established by the Church. Its origin goes back to the time of the Apostles. In the Apostolic Constitutions (Section 3, 13) it says, "Brethren, observe the feastdays; and first of all the Birth of Christ, which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month." In another place it also says, "Celebrate the day of the Nativity of Christ, on which unseen grace is given man by the birth of the Word of God from the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world."

    In the second century St Clement of Alexandria also indicates that the day of the Nativity of Christ is December 25. In the third century St Hippolytus of Rome mentions the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and appoints the Gospel readings for this day from the opening chapters of St Matthew.

    In 302, during the persecution of Christians by Maximian, 20,000 Christians of Nicomedia (December 28) were burned in church on the very Feast of the Nativity of Christ. In that same century, after the persecution when the Church had received freedom of religion and had become the official religion in the Roman Empire, we find the Feast of the Nativity of Christ observed throughout the entire Church. There is evidence of this in the works of St Ephraim the Syrian, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ambrose of Milan, St John Chrysostom and other Fathers of the Church of the fourth century.

    St John Chrysostom, in a sermon which he gave in the year 385, points out that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is ancient, and indeed very ancient. In this same century, at the Cave of Bethlehem, made famous by the Birth of Jesus Christ, the empress St Helen built a church, which her mighty son Constantine adorned after her death. In the Codex of the emperor Theodosius from 438, and of the emperor Justinian in 535, the universal celebration of the day of the Nativity of Christ was decreed by law. Thus, Nicephorus Callistus, a writer of the fourteenth century, says in his History that in the sixth century, the emperor Justinian established the celebration of the Nativity of Christ throughout all the world.

    Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople in the fifth century, Sophronius and Andrew of Jerusalem in the seventh, Sts John of Damascus, Cosmas of Maium and Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople in the eighth, the Nun Cassiane in the ninth, and others whose names are unknown, wrote many sacred hymns for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, which are still sung by the Church on this radiant festival.

    During the first three centuries, in the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Cyprus, the Nativity of Christ was combined together with the Feast of His Baptism on January 6, and called "Theophany" ("Manifestation of God"). This was because of a belief that Christ was baptized on anniversary of His birth, which may be inferred from St John Chrysostom's sermon on the Nativity of Christ: "it is not the day on which Christ was born which is called Theophany, but rather that day on which He was baptized."

    In support of such a view, it is possible to cite the words of the Evangelist Luke who says that "Jesus began to be about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23) when He was baptized. The joint celebration of the Nativity of Christ and His Theophany continued to the end of the fourth century in certain Eastern Churches, and until the fifth or sixth century in others.

    The present order of services preserves the memory of the ancient joint celebration of the Feasts of the Nativity of Christ and Theophany. On the eve of both Feasts, there is a similar tradition that one should fast until the stars appear. The order of divine services on the eve of both feastdays and the feastdays themselves is the same.

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  4. (continued)

    The Nativity of Christ has long been counted as one of the Twelve Great Feasts. It is one of the greatest, most joyful and wondrous events in the history of the world. The angel said to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Then suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God and saying: Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Those who heard these things were astonished at what the shepherds told them concerning the Child. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen" (Luke 2:10-20).

    Thus the Nativity of Christ, a most profound and extraordinary event, was accompanied by the wondrous tidings proclaimed to the shepherds and to the Magi. This is a cause of universal rejoicing for all mankind, "for the Savior is Born!"

    Concurring with the witness of the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church, in their God-inspired writings, describe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ as most profound, and joyous, serving as the basis and foundation for all the other Feasts.

    Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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