Christ

How to Keep a Good Christmas

1. The Development of the Celebration of Christmas

The celebration of the Nativity has always been a precious jewel in the crown of the Church year. It used to be celebrated as a part of Theophany since it was one of the theophanies, or manifestations, of God (the Incarnation, the Baptism of the Lord, the appearance of God to Moses on Mt. Sinai and many other theophanies in the Old Testament). The feast of Nativity was given its own special and separate day in the 4th Century: "By moving the feast to December 25, the Church had a view to counteract the insidious error of Arius concerning the Nature of Christ, and also to counteract the pagan cult on that day and preserve the faithful from participating in it."[1]

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th according to the new calendar and the old calendar. The only difference is that the old calendar December 25th happens thirteen days after the new calendar December 25th. So from the standpoint of the new calendar/civil/Gregorian calendar, December 25th of the Old/Julian calendar happens January 7th.

2. The Kontakion of the Nativity

The texts for the Nativity services are rich with beauty and meaning, being a great source of inspiring thoughts. One of the most precious hymns is the one composed through the inspiration of the Mother of God to St. Romanus the Melodist:

"Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!"

3. How the Text was composed

"... St. Romanus born in Emesa in the latter part of the fifth century. Whether or not his Jewish parents converted to Christianity is uncertain; Roman himself was baptized as a young boy and developed a great love for the house of God. When he came of age he served as a verger, lighting the lamps and preparing the censer. After moving to Beirut, he was ordained to the diaconate and assigned to the Church of the Resurrection. He had a rather mediocre voice, but his pure and simple heart was filled with love for God, and to assist at the church services gave him the greatest joy.

During the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), the young deacon moved to Constantinople. He led an ascetic life of prayer and fasting, but in his humility he thought of himself as being rather worldly. He had a special love for the Mother of God, and would go at night to pray in the Blachernae Church, which housed the precious omophorion of the Holy Virgin. The saintly Patriarch Euthemius loved Roman for his many virtues, and paid him the same wage as those singers and readers who were more educated and more talented. The latter resented this and derided Roman for his evident lack of musical and theological training. Romanus himself was painfully aware of these defects; he longed for a melodious voice worthy of leading the faithful in praising God.

It was the day before the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity, and Saint Romanus was assigned to lead the singing that evening at the All-Night Vigil. He was responsible not only for the singing but also for the text of the hymns. After everyone had left, he remained in the Blachernae Church and tearfully entreated the Mother of God to help him. Exhausted, he fell asleep with his sorrow. In answer to his prayer, the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream. She handed him a scroll and said to him gently, "Here, eat this." Romanus did so and awoke, overcome with joy and the lingering presence of the heavenly visitor.

When it came time that night for him to sing, Saint Romanus received the patriarch's blessing and, vested in a special garment reserved for the principal singer, he stepped onto the ambo. He began to sing: "Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being . . ." The emperor, the patriarch, the clergy-the entire congregation listened in wonder at the profound theology and the clear, sonorous voice which issued forth. They all joined in the refrain, "A new-born Babe, the pre-eternal God." Later, Saint Romanus told the patriarch about his vision, and the singers who had made fun of him prostrated themselves in repentance and humbly asked the Saint's forgiveness." [2]

4. Christmas is about Presents and Presence

Some are disheartened that the celebration of Christmas has degenerated into a stressful fixation over presents. We run here and there buying presents, giving presents and receiving presents but often forget about the Present that God gave all humanity.

Christmas is about the Lord, and more to the point, the most amazing and world-changing event of all time-the Incarnation into the flesh of God, God becoming man. This idea will pass away from our minds and hearts unless our living it makes it central. Even though we know that Christmas is a mystery of the incarnation of the Lord-God becoming man and working for our salvation-we are helpless against the tide of necessities and demands, unless we could see and walk another way:

If Christmas is about presents, then it is about,

  • The presents that the wise men gave Christ

  • The present that we should give Him

A homonym of the word presents is presence,

  • The Presence of God with us

  • Our presence with the poor, the sick, the outcast

Let us dare to approach the Incarnation this way, and live it, even simply as a new beginning ...

5. Christmas: A Celebration of our Friendship with God.

Friendship with the world was Herod's sin. As soon as the child was born all the forces of darkness gathered against Him, rulers, principalities, the insidious greed of men and fallen spirits. [3]

Appreciating the goodness of God's creation is one thing and being attached to the things of this world is quite another. We should appreciate the good things that we have been given in this life, but also perceive in them what Solomon called vanities of vanities. They are passing away and perishable.  Like toys given to children to entertain them for a time, or better yet to teach a lesson, they will vanish. If we cherish them too much we will be left, not with the joy we once had, but with a sickness in our hearts: vanity and a deep disappointment for what we have lost.  The "satiety of the senses will become a source of eternal hunger."[4] The care for the world or friendship with the world throws us into worries over many things. This is what happened to Herod: "The vague rumor of the birth of an unknown infant, brought into the capital by strangers, shakes the king on his throne, on the stability of which he relied the less, the more he prized its splendour: ‘When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled'(St. John 11:47)". [5]   We also worry and are disturbed with inner turbulence and oppression when we embrace the vanities of the world with desire. This can happen even to spiritually-minded people:  Martha, Martha you are worried and troubled about many things...but Mary has chosen the better part (Luke 10:41ff).

Just as the Lord presented the image of the wheat and the tares growing together, so He allows the vanities and perishable things to co-exist and co-mingle with the "newly-designed" things of the world-to-come, made by His hidden hand.[6]

By His birth and incarnation we were invited to be friends of God once again as was Adam and Eve before the Fall. This is why the Heavenly Host rejoiced and declared Peace on Earth.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.[7]

All will be gained if we hold to this as the center of our purpose for Christmas.

6. Even the Wise Men and the Shepherds Fasted

As pilgrims of such distant lands, the wise men approached the miracle of the Birth of the New Born King without all the luxuries of home. The shepherds watching in the field also had only what they needed to complete their labor. All were ready! All were sensitive to the miraculous appearance and theophany of God. As we complete the journey to Bethlehem through our fast, attention to the beautiful poetry of the Liturgy, to the sermons, songs, and stories that highlight the meaning of Christmas, we will surely be blessed with new inspiration and life.

Blessed are those who keep their eye on the purpose of Christmas, and who truly celebrate and participate in the birth of God in the flesh with profound thanksgiving.

With love in Christ,

Fr. Patrick Tishel, for the clergy, and Popadias and all the Faithful of Holy Resurrection


[1] www.othodox.net/nativity/nativity-bulgakov.html

[2] www.orthowiki.org/Roman_the_Melodist

[3] Against Worldly Sin, A Sermon by Metropolitan Philaret

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Eccl. 12:13