The Preparations and Celebrations of The Great-Feast of the Nativity according to the Flesh of Our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, have much in common with surrounding Pascha. For this reason, the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase The Winter Pascha for this period from the beginning of the Christmas Fast until the beginning of the Pre-Lenten Sundays. We will look at some of the highlights of the Preparatory period for the Nativity.
Throughout the Preparations, the themes of God’s preference for the poor and the role of the Church in carrying out this care are emphasized. Orthodoxy (in Faith) and orthopraxis (in action) are shown to be inextricably linked. Nothing could be more appropriate as we prepare to celebrate the Birth of the Incarnate Word in a shepherd’s stable.
I. The Fast of the Nativity
The 40 days before Christmas are marked by fasting, abstinence and prayer, much as the Great Lent precedes Pascha. Our fasting is not so much penitential (although that aspect is present) as holistic: by fasting, we are “getting ourselves into shape” for the realization of the Incarnation. In so doing, we affirm the goodness of matter, and our composite nature of Body, Soul and Spirit.
What we do to one part of our nature affects all of our being, so fasting is a medicine for the spirit, as well as for the body! If the physical world were not good — indeed capable of divinization! — we would not bother with it at all! Seeing that God has become one of us in all aspects but sin, we can affirm that, if the human –physical, living and spiritual– was good enough to be united to the Divine in Christ, it is good enough for us!
II. The Feasts of the Menaion
Nov 16: Holy Apostole and Evangelist Matthew It seems appropriate that the second day of the Fast commemorates the Evangelist Matthew, whose account of Christ’s birth, together with Luke’s gives us all the information we have about this Great-Feast.
Nov 21: The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple
This Great-Feast is taken from the Protevangelium of James, a highly revered Christian writing from the 2nd Century AD. It demonstrates Our Lady’s complete dedication of her entire life to the service of The Lord, and invites us to imitate her single-mindedness. Thus, as she uniquely said “Yes” to God and became the God-bearer, so too we might show forth Christ to the world by our lives! It is at the Matins of this Great-Feast that we begin to sing the Christmas Canon in preparation for the Nativity.
On the Fourth Thursday of November, the people of the United States gather in their families to thank the Lord for all that He has done for us, and for our world. It is most fitting to praise the Lord at the Divine Liturgy, our celebration of the Eucharist, which in Greek means, Thanksgiving! This day is the Eucharistic Feast of the United States in its most basic meaning.
Nov 23: Repose of St. Alexander Nevsky
St. Alexander was a Prince of Novgorod in the 13th Century. He was a wise leader, and knew when to fight, and when to plead for peace, in the defense of his people and the Orthodox Faith. He was not afraid to put his own life in jeopardy to save others.
Nov 30: Holy and All-Praised Apostle Andrew the First-Called
St. Andrew, the first of the Disciples to hear the Call of Christ, is the patron of all the Missionaries to the Slavic Lands. In the Gospel, we hear how he immediately went out and began to bring others –his brother Peter, and their friends James and John — to the Lord. This is true Discipleship, which we are called to follow.
Dec 1,2,3: The Prophets nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah
These three Prophets open the month of December, and recall the promises of the Old Testament which are fulfilled in Christ. Nahum called the city of Ninevah to repentance; Habakkuk miraculously fed the Prophet Daniel (a type of Christ: see below); Zephaniah preached about the joy that would finally come to Sion with the Messiah.
Dec 4: Great Martyr Barbara; Ven. John of Damascus
In 306, St. Barbara was martyred by her pagan father because of her faith, and for her many acts of healing and charity which had infuriated him. St. John was a great scholar of the Church in occupied Syria during the 8th Century. Notable for his extensive ecclesiastical poetry and theological writing, his work in defense of the Incarnational theology of Icons was instrumental in the 7th Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II – AD 787). In so doing, he defended the truth about the dignity of human nature as shown through Christ’s Incarnation.
Dec 6: St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia
One of the most popular Saints of the Church, St. Nicholas was a faithful pastor of his people, rescuing the poor, feeding the hungry, and miraculously interceding before the Emperor for those unjustly condemned. He attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, and staunchly defended the Orthodox Faith against the heretic Arius. He is the patron of Sailors, of the Poor, and of Russia and the Slavic lands. The secular world uses the Dutch version of his name: Santa Claus, but the reality of his life teaches us much more about God’s effective love for His people than the current folklore. On this day, we exchange gold-wrapped coin shaped candies in memory of his ransom of three young ladies who had been sold into prostitution by their father.
Nov 16: Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew
It seems appropriate that the second day of the Fast commemorates the Evangelist Matthew, whose account of Christ’s birth, together with Luke’s gives us all the information we have about this great feast.
Dec 7: St. Ambrose of Milan
St. Ambrose, one of the first great writers of the Latin Church, was acclaimed as Bishop of Milan before he was even ordained a Deacon. He carried out his duties with great fervor, calling his people to living out their faith in action. He did not hesitate to condemn the Emperor for a massacre he spitefully caused, and forced his repentance. St. Ambrose is the author of the “Te Deum,” a hymn used in our Moleben of Thanksgiving.
Dec 9: The Maternity of St. Anne
Nine months (minus one day) before the Birth of the All-Immaculate Theotokos (September 8), we celebrate her Conception. Sts. Joachim and Anne, faithful to God, found that their love had miraculously become fruitful in their old age! Our All-Immaculate Lady and Ever-Virgin Mary was Conceived in Anne’s womb, and from the very first moment of her being was in perfect cooperation with God. Thus we see how the natural processes of family life and love, part of our communal history, are not at all opposed to the will of God, but fit perfectly into His work of Salvation, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Dec 12: St. Spyridion the Wonderworker; The Appearance of the Theotokos at Tepeyac
St. Spyridon was a humble farmer and shepherd, who after his wife’s death, served the Church as a Bishop on Cyprus. He continued his farming, giving most of his produce to the poor. He healed the sick, including the Emperor Constans, and attended the First Council of Nic’a in 325, where he argued persuasively for the Faith. His simple, direct appeal brought many back to Orthodoxy.
On 9 December 1531, at Tepeyac near Mexico City, the Theotokos appeared to Juan Diego, a poor man, on her Feast Day (see above). She asked for a Temple to be built on that spot for the worship of the Holy Trinity. A few days later, she appeared again, on 12 December, and gave Juan an “icon made without hands” (acheiropoietos) of herself, inexplicably imprinted on his cloak. The Icon hangs today in the great Church built on the spot.
Dec 13: Repose of Venerable Herman of Alaska
In 1837, Father Herman, a Monk of the Russian Church, fell asleep in the Lord on this date. He had lived the simple monastic life among the native peoples of Alaska, praying with them, teaching them, and defending them against the exploitation of the Russian Trading Company. A tireless wonderworker, he is the “Joyful Northstar of the Church of Christ, planted in America.”
Dec 17: Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Youths
In our preparations for both Christmas and Pascha, Daniel and the Three Youths play an important role. Their steadfastness of faith is admired –and rewarded– by miraculous salvation. The ordeal of the three young men (Shadrach, Mishak and Abednego — or in Greek: Ananias, Azarias and Misael) in the fiery furnace is an image of the Burning Bush from Exodus, which is filled with God and yet not consumed, just as the Theotokos bore God whom all the world cannot contain, but was not harmed. At Pascha, this symbol becomes the sign of the Resurrection as well.
Dec 20: Hieromartyr Ignatios, Bishop of Antioch
The third Bishop of Antioch (“where the Disciples where called Christians for the first time” [Acts 11:26]), St. Ignatius was the second successor to St. Peter in that Apostolic See. He understood his role as a “God-Bearer” (Theophoros), bringing Christ to all through his life, preaching and work. He was taken to Martyrdom for his faith in 107, being torn apart by wild beasts, but rejoiced that he could share in the sufferings of Christ, knowing that his body, torn apart like wheat, would, through the work of the Holy Spirit, bring forth an abundant harvest.
III. The Sundays of the Fast
Because of the interaction of the fixed calendar and the movable feasts, the Gospels of the Sundays are not always constant. In the practice, however, of the English-speaking Russian usage Churches in America, the following are usually celebrated. The themes of the Gospel of Luke: Care for the Poor, the difficulty of Riches, and the Healing of sickness, are most evident. Christ is the Physician of the world, and heals us by His Incarnation of the sickness which is “Original Sin.”
The Ninth Sunday of Luke (6th before Christmas)
Luke 12:16-21 tells of the Rich Man who sought to store up all his wealth in barns, and to be secure. The Lord teaches us about true riches, which consist in loving the Lord and our Neighbor.
The Tenth Sunday of Luke (5th before Christmas)
Luke 13:10-17 recounts the healing of the woman who had been bent over by illness for 18 years. When the Lord cures her, He is rebuked by the Temple officials for “working” on the Sabbath. Again He scolds them by forcing them to look at Divine values and goals, which involve care for the suffering, rather than human regulations.
The Eleventh Sunday of Luke (4th before Christmas)
Luke 18:18-27 is a Gospel transferred from the 30th Sunday after Pentecost. We see the loving confrontation between a Rich Man and Christ. The Lord calls him to “sell all that you have and give to the poor,” if he wishes to be perfect. When the Lord remarks over the difficulty of the rich being saved, his disciples are amazed. “Nothing,” however, “is impossible for God!”
The Twelfth Sunday of Luke (3rd before Christmas)
Luke 17:12-19 reminds us of the spirit of thankfulness which must come with the healing we receive, as a people and as individuals, at the Incarnation. Only one Leper returns to thank The Lord for his healing, and he is a Samaritan!
Sunday of the Forefathers (2nd before Christmas)
Luke 14:16-24 is the Great Banquet to which many well-to-do neighbors are invited, but they decline, being just too busy! The Master, furious at this indignity, brings in all the wayfarers, vagabonds, street people, disabled and downtrodden of the area, making them the inheritors of the great feast, in place of the vain and foolish rich. On this Sunday we celebrate all those who are the Forefathers of Christ in Faith.
Sunday of the Ancestors (Sunday before Christmas)
This is the celebration of the Genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-25). In this listing of the Ancestors of Christ according to the Flesh, we see that God really has entered into human history, with all its ups and downs. Not all of Christ’s ancestors were heroes! But the Lord takes all of this upon Himself, becoming Man so that we might become God (Theosis).
Dec 24: Paramony of the Nativity
On Christmas eve we fast and pray in anticipation of this joyful event of our Salvation. The Royal Hours begin the day, a service of Readings and Troparia about the Nativity. We then serve the Vespers and Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, and conclude the day with Great Compline and Matins, the Vigil of the Nativity.
Dec 25: The Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ
The Lord has chosen to save us in a way which restores our priestly role in creation, preserving our dignity and making us co-workers in the divinization of the cosmos. The Lord does not disdain the world that He has created, but raises it to wonders unhoped-for. Let us praise Him in the words of the Tropar: “Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom, for by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, Glory to Thee!”