Christmas, the feast of our Lord’s birth, is a source of singular joy to the Church. The prayers and hymns of this holy season most admirably blend the Church’s deep reverence for God with her glad joy at His birth. The mystery of Emmanuel –God with us-is always accompanied by a feeling of joy and gratitude to Him who was not deterred by our unworthiness but deigned to be born of one of his own creatures, humbly in a stable, almost unnoticed by men. By his own example, He encourages us to return to the path of humility and to avoid the dangers of pride.
It is with gratitude that we welcome the Divine Child. “The only begotten Son and Word of God took flesh for our salvation from the Holy Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary”) from the hymn: “O, only begotten…”). How shall we repay this great debt? Only by love. This is why the Church, after she has offered to God her adoration and hymns of gratitude, gives Him also her tenderest love. She says to Him, “Today all the angels exchange glad tidings and rejoice and the entire creation exults at the birth of the Lord our Savior in Bethlehem.” (stichera on Christmas Eve, composed by Germanus). Let us imitate our Mother the Church and give our hearts to our Emmanuel. Let us all exchange glad tidings and rejoice. The shepherds offer Him their simple gifts. The Magi bring him their rich presents. Let us give Him our hearts. In this spirit of gratitude and love, let us learn about Christmas.
The feast of Christmas as we know it probably began in the middle of the fourth century. Though the first traces of it are found in Tertullian’s writings, it is first listed among the feasts by Origin in his works, Contra Celsum (8:22). St. Augustine in one of his letters mentions the feast as of such a dignity that its vigil is observed by fasting. In Jerusalem, we encounter it first in the year 385, in Spain in 380 and in Gaul in 361.
According to the latest investigations, some such feast was kept in Egypt among the Gnostics in the second century. In analogy with the birthday of Dionysiius, January 6, these semi-pagans celebrated the earthly manifestation of their own God. From there, the feast came to Jerusalem and was observed on the same day, as early as the second half of the fourth century. It was only natural, however, that in Jerusalem the feast was celebrated in a Christian manner as the birth of Christ. Under the influence of Jerusalem, it soon spread to Rome and found fruitful soil where the cult of the Persian god Mithra had flourished. One of the basic ideas of this pagan cult was the triumph of light over darkness, its chief feast being the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun which in the Roman Calendar fell on December 25. This day used to be celebrated with great pageantry and provided no small temptation for Christians. Roman Christians were therefore more than willing to adopt a feast honoring the birth of the true Sun-God from the Church of Jerusalem. For obvious reasons, however, they did not use the original date of January 6. Rather, in order to keep their weaker brethren away from pagan entertainments, the date of the new feast was set on December 25. All this took place in the first half of the fourth century. St. John Chrysostom in one of his sermons delivered in 386 A.D. declares that this feast had already been celebrated in Antioch for ten years, and that it was borrowed from Rome where its observance was of still older date. In this same sermon, Chrysostom also explains why the December date is more suitable than the January one. According to St. Luke, the priest Zachary received his vision in the Temple in the seventh month. (Lk. 1:5-25). This seventh month, Tishri, corresponds to the end of our September and is the beginning of our October. It was after this vision that Zachary’s wife, Elizabeth, conceived John the Baptist. From the Gospel of St. Luke we learn that Mary received Gabriel’s annunciation in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that is in March. Consequently, the birth of Jesus must have taken place in December, nine months later.
During the same period, Arianisn, which denied the equal divinity of Christ with the Father, was spreading rapidly. In opposition to this, the feast of Christmas, a clear rebuttal of this heresy, grew in importance and its rank soon revealed that of the tow long established feasts of Easter and Pentecost. And, like Easter, it soon acquired its own preparatory period. Beginning in the Eastern Church on the feast of St. Philip the Apostle, November 14, a date retained to this date.
The Liturgy of Christmas is contained in the meneia and is thus excluded from the cycle of movable feasts. Although two preceding Sundays are set aside as the days of preparations, the chief motifs of Christmas can be found only in the offices of those saints whose feast days immediately precede it. The liturgy of these feasts is filled with the expectation of Christ. Thus, for instance, on the feast of St. Andrew on November 30, we sing: “Rejoice O Isaias! Receive the word of God and prophesy to us of the Virgin Mary… Bethlehem, rise up! Eden, open your gates! Magi, take the road to see your salvation, resting in the manger, who is proclaimed by the star of St. Nicholas the same ideas is heard again: “Make ready, O Sion! The lamb is coming, bearing the Infant Christ under her heart.” “Be glad, O Sion! Rejoice. O Jerusalem! Open your gates to me that I may enter an see the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes…”
There are two Sundays serving as introduction to Christmas. The second Sunday before Christmas is called the “Sunday of the Fore-Fathers” on which we commemorate the Patriarchs of the Old Testament who were expecting the coming of the Messiah. The following Sunday is that of the Holy Fathers when the members of Christ’s genealogy according to flesh are commemorated.
The day preceding Christmas is, of course, Christmas Eve. All the services are rather long and quite elaborate, yet at the same time beautiful and inspiring. In all these services, the basic doctrines connected with the feast are expounded with utmost clarity; all the participants I the original events are individually enumerated; all the hymns and readings are in solemn and poetic style; and all the melodies have special tone of joyful yet serious solemnity. On Christmas Eve, the Royal Hours are solemnly chanted, so called because emperors and kings once made a point of attending them. The Royal hours are, in fact, observed only three times a year: on the eves of Christmas, the Epiphany, and Good Friday. However, should Christmas Eve fall o Saturday or a Sunday, then the Royal Hours are sung on the proceeding Friday. After the Royal hours, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated with the vespers. Strict fast is observed on this day.
On the same day, in the evening, there is another service called Povetcheriye Velikoje or the Great Compline with litia. It is indeed a beautiful service, composed of three parts. In the first, our gratitude to God is expressed and the well-known hymn of the Prophet Isaias is sung, beginning with the verse: “God is with us! Take heed, O nations and submit, for God is with us!” As the priest sings the following verses of the hymn, the people, after each verse enthusiastically answer: “God is with us! Take heed O nations, and submit for God is with us!” then the whole congregation joyfully sings the troparion: “Your birth, O Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge; for our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge; for through it, those who worshipped the stars have learned from a star to worship You, O Sun of Justice, and to recognize You, as the Orient from on high: Glory be to you, O Lord.
The second part, which is the penitential one, begins with the recitation of either Psalm 50 or Psalm 101 after which the prayer of Manasses, King of Israel, is recited and the Kontakionis sung: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the one who surpasses all created things and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible One. The angels with shepherds glorify Him and the wise men follow the star; for our sake a little child, eternal God, is born.” Then, in order to express our humble dependence by a prayer in which we ask for mercy and forgiveness.
In the third part, w e again praise God. Psalm 69 or Psalm 142 is read and the whole congregation sings the ell known hymn of praise: “Glory to God in the highest.” After this the litia begins with special Christmas sticheras.
In the Byzantine rite, the events of the nativity and the adoration of the shepherds are celebrated on Christmas Eve, the adoration of the Magi on Christmas Day. The Liturgical celebration itself lasts for seven days, but only the first three are pubic holy days. During these days, the Church contemplates the child Jesus. Each day some saint or mystery is commemorated which bears a close relation to Him. Thus on the first day His adoration is extolled. On the next follows the Synaxis of the Mother of God. The third day is the feast of St. Stephen, the first ”witness” to the newly born Messiah. The Christmas theme, in fact, ends only on the following “Sunday after Christmas” with the commemoration fo the flight into Egypt.
During the Christmas Season, the faithful greet one another with the salutation, “Christ is born!” and answer, “Praise Him!”
Next Feast Days
|December 9||Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God|
|December 25||Nativity of our Lord (Christmas)|
|December 26||Synaxis of the Mother of God|
|December 27||Feast of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr|