Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Celebrating the Nativity

I grew up enjoying Christmas with family, special foods, and visits from Santa. It was always lovely and special, but it was a secular holiday. That might sound odd if you love nativity sets and midnight mass, but many Christians just don't celebrate religious holidays. Maybe they think Christmas trees are pagan, or that Christ wasn't born in winter, or wonder where the bible says you should celebrate Christmas? 

Now my family celebrates the birth of Christ without reservation. The beauty of the incarnation is that just as Mary held God in her arms, just as she pressed her cheek to His, we can know Christ dearly too. God is with us! What better reason to celebrate? If you're still a little unsure about it all, I've written a little about the origins of what we do and why.

1. "Christmas" or "The Nativity According to the Flesh..."
The word "Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's Mass" from the Latin, meaning the celebration of the Eucharist (or the Divine Liturgy) on the feast of Christ. We officially call it, "The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ" or just "Nativity" because we are celebrating the Incarnation: when Christ who was God before the ages became flesh for our sake.

So, the celebration of Christmas began as a church service. At our parish, the Christmas vigil begins late at night on Christmas Eve followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy. The timing means that we share 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.

2. Advent
We prepare for this service with a 40 day fast, which is called "The Nativity Fast" or "Philip's Fast" (because it begins after his feast day on November 14). More commonly in the West, it is called "Advent" meaning "coming" because the whole season is preparing us for the coming of Christ. (Western Christians have a shorter Advent beginning on December 1st.)

The 40 day fast began in imitation of Lent and Pascha (along with other liturgical parallels). In the early church, the big feasts like Pascha and Christmas were baptismal feasts. So the 40 day fasts were a time when the catechumens prepared for baptism, and the Church prepared to receive them, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

So, we see both the preparation for baptism and for the coming of Christ in this season. While Lent is penitent, Advent is a joyful fast with fish and wine allowed on the weekends. Its also full of fun activities that prepare us for the coming of Christ like gift-making, keeping a Jesse Tree, or preparing a manger or nativity scene for Christ, as well as celebrations of a few special days like St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day. We spend the whole season making ready, as one of my favorite hymns says,

"Make ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden hath been opened for all."

[A side note: American Thanksgiving falls within the fast, and obviously, that wasn't a consideration when they began the fast in ancient lands. But its a beautiful holiday, and so our bishops encourage Americans to relax the fast and celebrate by giving thanks.] 

3. Was Jesus really born on December 25th?
Even though the calendar is rooted in historical events, it is primarily liturgical. It doesn't depend upon his actual date of birth. One explanation for this date is that it is exactly 9 months from the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, or the conception of Christ. 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."

A second theory is that the date was chosen to replace the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun as an opportunity to introduce pagans to the true Son. 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.

Some Christians are scandalized that the early church may have replaced a pagan holiday with a Christian one. I must ask, then, how is it better for us to take a clearly Christian holiday and secularize it? Either way, the purpose of the celebration is theological, 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 the reasoning is the same.]

4. Why We Have Religious Holidays 
So why do we have any holidays? Is that in the bible? The Jews had a rich liturgical calendar and Jewish Christians initially continued to keep those feasts (see, for example, Acts 12:320:1627:9). 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. During the persecutions of the early church, local communities commemorated the martyrs with celebrations on the anniversary of their death. In the 4th century, with the legalization of Christianity, feasts celebrating occasions in the earthly life of Christ became popular especially on the supposed historical sites of the events, and this is when the feast of the Nativity arose. (Source) 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.

Its interesting that Christ himself celebrated Hannukah (John 10:22ff), a holiday which commemorated an important event in the community, but was not commanded with the other feasts in the Old Testament. If Christ only followed explicit biblical commands, he wouldn't have gone to the temple for that feast. But the life of faith is richer than mere law-keeping, its the sanctification of all things. In the same way, the church calendar is the celebration of God's saving work within time.

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 grow in understanding of all of Christ's saving work through his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection. More on the liturgical calendar here.

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 and humorous take on the length of Christmas here.)


6. St. Nicholas and Stockings
We can't leave out St. Nick! He is known for his generosity, especially in the story of St. Nicholas tossing gold coins through the window into stockings (or shoes) of three poor maidens. Because this great saint is remembered during Advent, he became associated with Christmas.

The Puritans who came to America opposed religious holidays, and so they celebrated a secular version of Christmas. Later, when other colonists brought over traditions of St. Nicholas celebrations, he was gradually secularized and mixed into the American Christmas celebration. Clement C. Moore's classic poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" solidified the new image of the secret, gift-giving elf, instead of a bishop. Source

Even though many Americans don't think of the ancient Bishop of Myra, they still put out stockings and he still fills them! Orthodox families incorporate St. Nicholas (or Santa) into their celebrations in many different ways, but the Church remembers him on his own feast day on December 6. Its worth learning about this historical saint and incorporating his feast day into your celebrations!

We leave our shoes out for St. Nicholas on the evening of
December 5 with carrots for his donkey!

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 because truly God is with us! Christ is born!

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