Thy Nativity O Christ our God, hath shown forth the light of wisdom upon the world, for therein those who worship the stars have been taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee!
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in a manner directly opposed to the way in which it is kept by the world. While western countries are involved in weeks of partying and eating, from Thanksgiving on, Orthodox Christians are deep in a preparatory fast of 40 days. We do not participate in Christmas parties before the Feast itself because we are trying to understand what it must have been like for the righteous ones of the Old Testament , who waited so many generations for the coming of the Messiah. This fast period is of very early origin and was universally known at the time of the great Church Councils. We do not break this fast from meat and dairy products until after receiving Holy Communion on Christmas Day itself, although the Feast actually begins with Divine Services after the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, since the Orthodox Church still observes the Julian Calendar which is 13 days behind the civil calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 according to the latter; after the world has removed its tinsel, then Orthodox Christians are able to meet the Feast of the Nativity in peace and true spiritual joy much more akin to the first Christmas in Bethlehem.
Christmas is the church’s celebration of the Incarnation, the supreme mystery that the holy and almighty God took on human flesh and was born in this world of the Virgin Mary. God became one of us in order to die for us and save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. A mystery this profound can’t be contemplated in just one day. This is why the church pauses during Nativity Fast to prepare for the Lord’s coming. This is also why Christmas extends for a period of twelve days and leads directly into the breathtaking festival of the Epiphany, the day and season the church sets aside to ponder the many ways Christ revealed Himself to the world as God Incarnate.
“Christ is born, glorify Him!” With these words something changes in our life, in the very air we breathe, in the entire mood of the Church’s life. It is as if we perceive far, far away, the first light of the greatest possible joy — the coming of God into His world! Thus the Church announces the coming of Christ, the Incarnation of God, His entrance into the world for its salvation.
THE DIVINE LITURGY is considered the most significant ancient Christian service, not so much for its phrasing and words as for its meaning. In fact, the Divine Liturgy was in practice right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples of Christ on the 50th day after His Resurrection, as the sacred writer of the Acts of the Apostles records (Acts 2:46 ff). The Divine Liturgy in its swaddlings at the beginning of the Christian era consisted of free hymns and prayers for the officiating of a certain framework of faith. It was officiated long before the beginning of the writings of the New Testament. The Divine Liturgy as such was the center of the inspiration of the first Christians in their communion with God and with one another.
The Divine Liturgy is a recalling (anamnesis) of the whole mystery of the incarnation of Christ, from his divine birth to his ascension and his sitting at the right hand of the Father. All these things are represented in material and visible signs through the Divine Liturgy to the senses of the children of the Church, so that they may be led to the things which are immaterial and heavenly.
The Divine Liturgy is indeed the center of the Orthodox Christian life.
It is the sacrament of sacraments, or to use the more traditional Orthodox expression, the “mystery of mysteries.” The word for “sacrament” among the Orthodox is usually “mystery.” The central mystery of the Orthodox faith is the service of Holy Communion, called the Eucharist.
As words, liturgy means “common action” and eucharist means “thanksgiving.” The first action of the liturgy is the gathering in common. The baptized and confirmed gather in one place. The Liturgy is the central revelation of the Christian mystery, and in it the whole of Orthodoxy is somehow contained, remembered and given to our living experience. All the icons, the vestments, the candles, the singing.. everything taken together in harmony and unity serve to disclose just one thing: Man is made for God and finds his identity, fulfillment and perfection in Him. Thus the Orthodox Church is Christmas, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ!
In this life this means that I must put Christ first and take up His Cross and follow him. I must suffer for truth and love and goodness. And yet there is joy in this suffering, for obedience to the Word is fulfilled in the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb of God in the Kingdom of God. This is the Christian Mystery which the liturgy reveals and for which alone, the Orthodox Christian Church exists in the world.
Christmas trees, Santa Claus, decorations, exchanging gifts, and the many other seasonal traditions that most of us observe are wonderful ways for family and friends to mark this time of year. What we must all take care to remember is that these customs, enjoyable as they are, ultimately have nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas. The true meaning of Christmas — the “reason for the season” — is found only in the message of the gospel. Here it is, so beautifully summarized in John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.