By John Sanidopoulos
After a great feast, the Orthodox Church traditionally honors the memory of those persons who played a chief role in the events commemorated by the feast. The Most Holy Mother of God occupies first place after Christ, in the events connected with the Nativity of our Lord. For this reason, in the first centuries, the faithful assembled on the day following the Nativity to express their gratitude to the Ever-Virgin Mary for having given us the Savior and to honor her as the Mother of God. From this gathering of the faithful, the feast itself received the name Synaxis, which the Greek word for "gathering".
It is difficult to determine in which century the feast of the Synaxis of the Theotokos became a universal practice of the Church. Some of the Fathers of the fourth century, such as Ambrose, Augustine, Epiphanius of Cyprus and John Chrysostom, on the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, praise in their sermons the Most Holy Mother of God. In two places in his writings, Athanasius the Great refers to the necessity of keeping a "memory" or "commemoration" of Mary (Letter to Epictetus 4 and Letter to Maximus the Philosopher 3). For these reasons Jaroslav Pelikan,(1) in line with the much earlier works of of Martin Jugie(2) and Hilda Graef(3) - who both underscored the pre-Ephesine existence of a Marian "feast" on either the Sunday before or after Christmas in the East - has suggested "that evidence and his language seem to make it plausible that such a commemoration of Mary was being kept already during his time and that his argument was based upon it." Perhaps at one time, the feast of the Synaxis and the commemoration of St. Stephen the Protomartyr were also celebrated on the same day, for it was not until the seventh century that the commemoration of St. Stephen was transferred to the third day following the feast of the Nativity.
In the year 430 St. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople, delivered a sermon in the Great Church of Constantinople, where he makes reference to "the Virgin's festival" being celebrated that day. Current scholarship argues that this festival of the Virgin and the date of the delivery of this sermon was the day after Christmas, on December 26th, one year before the Third Ecumenical Synod in Ephesus.
There is an allusion made to the celebration of the Synaxis of the Theotokos on the day after the Nativity of our Lord in the 79th canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod, which met at Constantinople in 681. During that time, in certain localities, a custom was introduced where on the second day after Christmas the faithful exchanged baked goods as though in honor of the travail that the Theotokos underwent in giving birth to Jesus Christ. The Synod condemned and forbade this practice. "The divine birth by the Virgin," says the Synod, "which was without seed, we profess to have been painless, and this we preach to all the faithful. Hence, we wish to correct those who through ignorance are doing something improper. For there are some who, the day after the feast of the Nativity of Christ our God, prepare baked goods and exchange them among themselves and present them as gifts to one another in honor of the labor during the childbirth of the All-Pure Virgin Mary. We decree that the faithful not do anything similar. This does not bring honor to the Virgin when they designate and represent her marvelous childbirth as an ordinary birth such as the kind we know; because in fact, she gave birth to the uncontainable Word in a manner that is beyond all understanding and expression. If, therefore, from this moment on anyone should do this, let the cleric be deprived of his dignity, and the lay person be excommunicated."
Even in Eastern Ukraine a similar custom prevailed. In the villages, on the day of the Synaxis, the women brought to church "pyhrohy" (potato dumplings), thinking that in this manner they would honor the Theotokos, as was generally the custom when someone gave birth to a child. The Kievan Metropolitan Michael Rahoza prohibited such a practice in 1590. S. V. Bulgakov, in his Handbook for Church Servers (1900), further writes: "To the south of Rus on this day village women, though it was forbidden by the Metropolitan of Kiev Michael in 1590, carried pies into church, thinking to honor the Theotokos by it, as this in general is accepted practice in relation to women giving birth."
The Nativity of Our Lord and The Dignity of the Divine Motherhood
The Incarnation of our Lord bestowed upon the Theotokos the dignity of dignities — that of being the Mother of God. By giving birth to Jesus Christ, she became the real Mother of God without ceasing to be a Virgin. This dignity is the source of all privileges and graces bestowed upon her.
St. Ephraim the Syrian, the great eulogist and venerator of the Theotokos, in his Nativity hymns, very beautifully sings the praises of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Virginity, and Divine Motherhood of Mary: "No one knows," he says, "what to call your Mother O Lord! She is called a Virgin, though she has a child; she is called a Bride, though she knew no man! If one cannot comprehend Your mother, how then can they understand You!" (Hymn, XI, 1) "Your Mother, She is a wonder! The Lord, entering her becomes a servant. The Almighty through a word enters her, and becomes mute. The Ruler of thunder entered and His voice became silent. The Supreme Shepherd enters and in her becomes a lamb which saw the light of day amid crying." (Hymn XI, 6)
St. John Chrysostom in a sermon on "The Holy Virgin and Mother of God, Mary," meditating on her being chosen the Mother of God, said: "Nothing can be found among men like the Mother of God, Mary. Consider, O man, all creatures and see — is there anything equal or greater than the holy God-bearer Mary? Go around the earth, plumb the sea, scour thoroughly the air, examine in spirit heaven, consider all the visible and invisible forces and tell me — is there a wonder similar among all the creatures?... She alone miraculously conceived in her womb Him Whom all creatures praise in fear and trembling. Blessed are women, for they no longer labor under the curse. She gave birth to a child through whom she surpasses all the angels in glory... Therefore, let us say to her: 'Blessed are you among women! You alone removed the grief of Eve; you alone wiped away her tears; you alone brought redemption to mankind; to you alone was the most precious Pearl entrusted; you alone were conceived without concupiscence and gave birth without travail, you alone gave birth to Emmanuel according to His pleasure.'"
Our Church on the day of the Synaxis of the Theotokos calls upon the faithful to praise the Mother of God: "Come, let us extol the Mother of the Savior," we sing at the Stichera of the Praises in Matins, "who, even after giving birth, remained a Virgin. Rejoice, O living garden of the King and God, in which Christ dwelt, and accomplished our salvation. With Gabriel let us offer praise and with the shepherds let us give glory, saying: 'O Mother of God, pray to Him who became incarnate of you for our salvation.'"
The feast of the Synaxis does not have much of its own service. Its service is the service of the Nativity of our Lord. The Menology of Emperor Basil mentions on this day the flight of the Most Holy Theotokos with the Child Jesus into Egypt. The Gospel of this day also speaks of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.
The Orthodox Church does not commemorate St. Joseph in the Synaxis, but honors him on the Sunday after Christmas together with the holy ancestors, King David and the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord.
1. Mary, 61.
2. "La premeiere fete mariale en Orient et en Occident, l' Avent primitif." Echoes d' Orient 26, 130 (1923) 129-52.
3. Mary, 133.