Saturday, December 24, 2016

Celebrating Christ on Christmas

I grew up enjoying Christmas with family, special foods, and visits from Santa, and now my family also enjoys celebrating the birth of Christ on this day. For me, the beauty of the incarnation is that, as Mary held God in her arms, we can know God dearly, too. This is the beginning of our salvation. Earlier this year, I wrote about the Christian origins of Easter, and I thought I'd do the same for Christmas. I've put together a brief list of Christmas facts and some of their origins. I'm not a historian, but I offer my sources.

1. "Christmas" or "The Nativity According to the Flesh..."
Most people know that the word "Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's Mass" from the Latin. The name of this feast in the Eastern Orthodox Church is officially "The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ." Admittedly, this is quite a mouthful, and it is casually called "Nativity" or "Christmas" by most American Orthodox Christians I know. Still, the name points to the theological importance of the feast: Christ, who was God before the ages, was born as a child for our sake, as proclaimed in the kontakion of the feast.

I love Christmas carols, byzantine hymns included! You can hear the 
rich theology in the English (1:10) which is so beautifully chanted.

2. Why We Have Religious Holidays 
Jewish Christians initially kept the Jewish calendar of feasts (see, for example, Acts 12:3, 20:16, 27:9). The Jewish Passover was clearly imbued with new meaning in Christ's resurrection (I Cor. 5:7), and became a distinctly Christian feast by the 2nd century. At the same time, during the persecutions of the early church, local communities commemorated the martyrs with celebrations on the anniversary of their death. The remembrance of these holy days were the beginning of the liturgical calendar, which developed somewhat organically as the church deemed what was instructive and beneficial to the ongoing life of the church. During the 4th century, with the legalization of Christianity, feasts celebrating occasions in the earthly life of Christ became popular especially on the actual or supposed historical sites of the events, and this is when the feast of the Nativity arose. Source

The liturgical calendar is like the most beautiful church school curriculum, worship plan, and memorial service combined. In the course of a year, the average liturgical Christian will learn theology by singing the hymns of the feasts; she will hear how the Old Testament is fulfilled by Christ through the scripture readings; see the many ways that the light of Christ can be shown in our lives by hearing the lives of the saints; and she will grow in understanding of all of Christ's saving work through his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection. More on the Orthodox liturgical calendar, and a cool infographic.

The Gospel Reading during the Liturgy for the  Nativity 

3. December 25th
Remember the calendar is primarily liturgical, even though it is rooted in historical events, so it doesn't mean that Christ was actually born on December 25th. The early church initially celebrated the feast of Theophany, or God's revelation of himself to us on January 6th. Later, the various aspects of God's self-revelation were separated into two feasts. Theophany, celebrating the public manifestation of the Trinity at Christ's baptism, remained on January 6th, and Christ's humble and hidden birth was celebrated on December 25th.

That date may have been chosen to replace the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun as an opportunity to introduce pagans to the true Son, or else to use the winter solstice as a reference to Christ. The hymns illustrate this beautifully, "For by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!" (Source) Christmas lights are similarly reminders of Christ, the true light.

Another possible reason for this date is that it is exactly 9 months from the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. This feast was celebrated very early, and its date was chosen in relation to the date of Christ's death because of the ancient concept of "integral age." Both reasons are theological in nature, not necessarily historical, and show the church finding ways to redeem the time. (Source)

Many Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar which differs by 13 days. So, they celebrate the Nativity on January 7th, but, as I understand it, the reasoning is the same.

4. Christmas Services
Since Christmas began as the celebration of Christ's birth, it began as a church service. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas services are modeled after the services of Pascha, because we understand Christ's death and resurrection to be the cause of all things. (Orthodoxwiki) Like Pascha, we begin the season with a 40 day fast (often called Advent), and end it with an evening vigil and feast. (Western Christians have a shorter Advent beginning on December 1st.) Advent is also full of fun activities that prepare us for the coming of Christ like gift-making, almsgiving, keeping a Jesse Tree, or preparing a manger or nativity scene for Christ.

At our parish, the Christmas vigil is late at night on Christmas Eve followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy. The timing means that we are sharing in the Eucharist around midnight, welcoming Christ's birth. This makes a long, but joyful, service as we sing the canon, "Christ is born, glorify him!" and children fall asleep on the floor.  We break the fast together at church with sausage balls, spanakopita, chocolate, and other foods we've been missing, then hurry on to bed. When everyone wakes up the next morning, we enjoy the usual presents and time with family, and we rejoice to find the baby Christ in the manger.

baby not-sleeping during the Nativity vigil

5. The 12 Days of Christmas
While most Americans start celebrating Christmas sometime in November (or before), Orthodox Christians fast to prepare for this feast. But, not to worry, when the feast arrives, we celebrate for 12 days! Since Christmas and Theophany were linked from the beginning, the 12 days between them became the festal period, full of caroling, food, and decorations. So you don't have to take your tree down until January 6! (Fr. Andrew has a more detailed take on the length of Christmas here.)


6. St. Nicholas and Stockings
I've written about St. Nicholas many times before, so I'll be brief now. Because this great saint is remembered during Advent, he became associated with Christmas. He is known for his generosity, especially in the story of St. Nicholas tossing gold coins through the window into stockings of three poor maidens. Orthodox families incorporate St. Nicholas (or Santa) into their celebrations in many different ways, but the Church remembers him liturgically on December 6.

So, don't worry about the historical accuracy of the December 25th; you can keep celebrating into January; and yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas. May your Christmas be filled with with anticipation, joy, and thanksgiving! Christ is born!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Happy St. Nicholas Day! This year we got to introduce the littlest one to our St. Nicholas traditions, and we finally remembered to leave carrots for St. Nicholas's donkey. We usually get stickers and spend the morning making pictures with them while we eat our chocolate. One of our littles didn't feel so well today, so we're sleeping it off hoping we can get out to church tonight. Enjoy the day, friends. Holy St. Nicholas, pray to God for us!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Advent Calendar Printable

I'm printing my Advent Calendars, and thought I'd share. We're doing something a little different with our printable this year. (You can see my two other 25/40 day Nativity Fast printables, but I like this one best!) We usually keep one on the fridge for the whole family, but this year, I'll print a page for each person in our family. Each day we'll write something we're grateful for or someone to pray for on the calendar. As we get closer to the manger, we'll have a long prayer list.

40 Day Advent Calendar Printable

There is a line on the edge of the manger that you can cut, and insert the baby Jesus into. A page with babies is below - it may be nice to print on cardstock. We'll probably wait and do that on Christmas Eve. Otherwise, you could paste the baby on permanently.
Baby Jesus for 40 Day Advent Calendar Printable

I love this season, but we've got a lot going on this year, so I think keeping our activities simple and focused on joy and prayer and kindness will be important. I think the prayer list-calendar will go nicely with our kindness-manger activity. We make an effort to notice one another doing kind or selfless acts, and when we notice they get to add a straw to the manger. When we are kind to others, we are softening our hearts to make room for Christ, too. Even a dark cave filled with livestock can be a welcoming place when we are kind. On Christmas morning, when the manger is brimming with soft, kind yarn, I will lay the baby in the manger. I'm looking forward to it all ready!

Kindness Manger Activity

Friday, October 7, 2016

Goodnight Jesus (an Orthodox board book!)

pom pom balls in a can

I've returned to the how-do-I-manage-my-crazy-toddler-in-church?! stage of life. I haven't been here for awhile, and, although I think I'm more patient this time around, I had forgotten how hard 18 months old can be. I hold her while we sing and carry her around to see the icons, and when she gets restless I keep her quiet with this little can of pom poms. She's really into books lately, so recently I tucked some of her favorites in my bag, ...but later, when she wouldn't stop moooooing, I regretted bringing Mr. Brown Can Moo to liturgy.

So, I was super-excited to see the new Orthodox board book from AFP, Goodnight Jesus, and really grateful to receive a copy to review. Of course, AFP has tons of great kids books, and we usually bring a couple to church for the big kids - but there aren't a lot of options for this little age.* Like Mr. Brown, the best books for kids at this age are repetitive with a nice cadence, and give the little ones a way to respond. While Mr. Brown's sound effects weren't so appropriate for liturgy, the kissing encouraged by Goodnight Jesus will fit right in.

She snuggled in to read the book with me right away, immediately pointing and saying, "Zeezus!"in her sweet baby way. The pages are nice and sturdy, and I think that makes turning them more fun for littles. The little poem leads you through a list of people to kiss goodnight, starting with Christ and Mary, then saints from the Bible like John the Baptist and the myrrh-bearing women. We also kiss a gospel book and cross, then all the members of our family and a picture of those far away.

This is my first Orthodox-baby, and I've enjoyed seeing how quickly she learned to kiss the icons. She still kisses them more consistently than she kisses me! This book nicely ties together our love for Christ, with our love for the saints, the scriptures, our family, pets and dolls. The act of kissing is such a simple way to teach our children about love and tenderness and reverence, and the participatory nature of our faith. 

My big kids enjoyed the book, too! The oldest especially loved the picture of Christ just about to break open the gates of Hades; and the other laughed and laughed at the fish blowing a kiss. We all love the illustrations - which are bright and beautifully done. So it seems there is something in it for everyone, and I think we'll all enjoy taking turns to read it to baby.

The book is uniquely Orthodox because, of course, we like to kiss both people and things (like icons and the Gospel book). Still, its also simple enough that I think Christians of other traditions who can appreciate kissing will enjoy it, too. I'm thrilled to have such nice books for our kids! Be sure to check it out at Ancient Faith Publishing.

*We also love What Do You See at Liturgy, the only other Orthodox board book I've seen, and perfect for toddlers, too!

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Shoebox Ark of the Covenant:
paint gold and glue on skewers, draw cherubim wings with sharpie

Inside paint a wooden square for the law of Moses,
glue a stick and flower to a wooden disc for the rod of Aaron,
and paint a wooden spool as the jar of manna

I used the Children's Garden of the Theotokos curriculum to plan this lesson for our church school kids for the Nativity of the Theotokos. I love an excuse to make a craft for the kids, so I made this ark and its contents and hid them away. I meant to print icons and paste them on, but my printer was out of ink, but I like how the drawings turned out. I found several nice comparisons of the scriptures about the Ark of the Covenant and the Theotokos, and simplified those points into a lesson plan (embedded below). I'll first teach about the Ark and its contents, and then show how those are types of Mary and Christ. If you don't want to make an ark, the coloring handout below communicates the same points. My lesson plan includes a scripted lesson, followed by a simple outline. I usually just use an outline when teaching, but reading through a script first helps me think it through.

I taught this lesson to my kids before, without the fancy ark, but the comparison of the OT scriptures with the visitation was new to me. I love how David's dancing foreshadows the Forerunner leaping for joy! And I had never thought about how the presence of the Ark blessing the people is similar to the way we understand the grace of God to work through his saints.

This lesson could be used for several of Mary's feasts (or during Lent for teaching about the Akathist Hymn). But I think the point about David welcoming the ark with joy fits nicely with the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos as we welcome her birth with joy.

On the back:of the law of Moses,
an icon of the Transfiguration (Christ the Word, fulfills the law and prophets);
On the back of the rod of Aaron, an icon of the Annunciation (the Virgin birth);
On the back of the jar of Manna, an icon of Christ, the Bread of Life

On one side of the ark, an icon of Panagia Platytera, (or More Spacious than the Heavens)
showing Christ in Mary's womb.
Grab and color this handout that explains the ways that the ark is a type of the Theotokos!

[Quick update to add this page of matchbox covers! My smart husband thought that matchboxes would make a sweet and inexpensive craft box for the kids to cover. We'll color them then modpodge them on in class. I think this would be sweet for matches in the prayer corner, too!]

Print page of matchbox covers - don't scale to fit!

Lesson plan as a Word doc:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Good fast! We've printed out our coloring calendar to help the kids count ahead to the feast with flowers. They're also promised big, fancy dishes of ice cream on the feast since we are skipping it now. We're hoping to get one last bunch of flowers from around the yard for the feast.

I'm re-listening to Fr. Hopko's podcast on the feast of Dormition:
"Now, when people say we are saved by faith through grace, there’s no greater example of that than Mary. Mary is nothing but faith and nothing but grace. When the angel comes to her, he calls her Kecharitomene, highly graced or as they say in Latin Gratia Plena, full of grace. She’s nothing but grace. 
But she’s also faith, and nothing but faith. Elizabeth says about Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of that which was spoken to her by the Lord.” And then Mary says to the angel, “Let it be to me, according to your word.” So she’s a perfect disciple and absolutely obedient and absolutely faithful and totally full of grace. She’s nothing but obedience, grace, faith and love."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Let the words of my mouth

Learning about Orthodoxy through books, and having an Orthodox worldview are very different things. The books are a beginning, but developing "the mind of Christ" is a slow process.

I have noticed that there are many phrases that you frequently hear the Orthodox use that reflect the rich theology deeply woven into the life of the faithful. God is present here and now, and every act and person is commended to him. I have collected some of these here:

"Lord have mercy."
"May God receive."
"By your prayers."
"Esm il salib."  
"Thank God."

"Lord have mercy."
We pray this frequently in all of our services (For the sick, the suffering... Lord have mercy. For travelers... Lord have mercy), but also privately, when we hear of someone in need of prayer. For every need, in every situation, we ask God for his mercy:
"The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for 'Lord, have mercy,' are 'Kyrie, eleison'  that is to say, 'Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.' Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal  a very Western interpretation but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray 'Lord, have mercy,' with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy." - GOARCH
See also this from the Antiochian Archdiocese. 

"May God receive."
Or "May God receive your efforts."
I first heard this in the book A Scent of Holiness, and have found it very helpful to me. When someone offers some act of kindness or other almsgiving, the recipient responds not with "Thank you," but with "May God receive." In this way the recipient acknowledges the kindness of the other is a service to God, and also offers a prayer as their thanks. Similarly, if someone does respond with, "thank you" the giver may reply with "May God receive," which points back toward God, rather than just deflecting with something like, "it was nothing." See also here and here

"By your prayers."
Or "Through the prayers."
I also first read this in the The Scent of Holiness, but also from Fr. Stephen at Glory to God. It is used both in the services, but also in daily life, by which we attribute our accomplishments (or even our salvation) to the prayers of others:

"It is a recognition that we cannot make this journey alone. I have days when I think I’m doing ok, and then there are much longer periods when I realize that only by the prayers of others and the mercies of God will I make this journey in any shape or form." - Fr. Stephen

"Esm il salib."  اسم الصليب

Forgive me if my transliteration here is poor - I relied on Google translate. I hear this frequently from a dear friend at my parish who says it three times (in Arabic) every time she picks up my infant daughter. She told me it means, "in God's name," but I also see it translated as "by the name of cross," which is a shorted form of "may you be saved by the name of the Holy cross." She is commending to God something beautiful and precious.

"Thank God."

I still forget so much to say this, but hearing it from others, especially frequently from our khouria, has made a deep impression on me. Whenever someone compliments another, instead of replying, "you're welcome" or deflecting, we reply "thank God." So, "that was a big help to me!" is answered with "thank God!" Similarly, we may say, "what beautiful weather, thank God!" All good things are from God. This is different from a prosperity gospel, because we thank God in all things, not only in prosperity. In our morning prayers, we thank God for raising us up in each day.