By Fr. Anthony Christos
The Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, or Christmas, is one of the biggest days of Christendom. It is among the Despotic Feasts, which relate to the events in the life of Christ the Despot. Along with Pascha it is the biggest celebration in the Orthodox Church.
On this day we celebrate the Incarnation of God the Word, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity descended into the world. God became man that man may become a god by grace. Christ comes down from heaven to earth, to raise man from earth to heaven. Christ came among us to save the human race, to rebuild once again the ruined bridge of our communication with God, to restore man to his true glory, to reveal to us the will of God. Christ deeply humbled Himself to elevate us, He was born in time so we could overcome time, and He took human nature in order to deify it. This is why we feast, rejoice and celebrate.
The Holy Twelve Days
In the early centuries of the Church the Nativity and Baptism of Christ were celebrated together on the same day, January 6th, and they went by the common name of Epiphany. In the middle of the fourth century the separate celebration of Christmas was established for December 25th, while January 6th remained by itself the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Alongside this was the establishment of the Holy Twelve Days, which is the twelve day period between December 25th and January 6th, from Christmas to the day of Theophany, and this includes the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord together with that of Saint Basil the Great on January 1st.
The great importance of the Christmas feast and the reverence of Christians for it, under the influence in those days of the Great Lent of Pascha, led to the establishment of a preparatory period, during which the faithful would spiritually prepare to "journey" to the cave of Bethlehem. This preparatory period lasts forty days, called the Nativity Forty-day Fast, and it begins every year on November 15th. The hymns in our worship services remind us that we have entered this Sacred Season, how in a spiritual manner we have embarked on the path that leads to the noetic Bethlehem, namely the Church, in which Christ is born in order to regenerate each person who sincerely believes in Him. From November 21st (the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple) we chant the Katavasies of the Nativity, in which the First Ode is said as follows: "Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, respond to Him. Christ on earth, magnify Him. Praise the Lord all the earth and in gladness sing a hymn all ye people, for you are glorified." From November 26th (which is the day of the Apodosis of the above mentioned feast of the Mother of God) we begin to chant the pre-festal Kontakion: "Today the Virgin gives birth to the Pre-eternal One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels with shepherds glorify Him. The wise men journey with a star. Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child, the Pre-eternal God."
Christians fast during the forty day period, which lasts from November 15th through Christmas Eve on December 24th. On these days we do not eat any meat, dairy products and eggs. We can eat fish, except of course on Wednesdays and Fridays. The eating of fish is allowed until December 17th. We can eat fish on November 21st for the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, even if this feast falls on a Wednesday or a Friday.
Caution: Christmas Eve is also a day of strict fasting as Christians prepare for the day of the Nativity of the Lord and especially for the Divine Liturgy, which is festively celebrated. Hence, the evening of Christmas Eve is an uplifting and spiritual time of preparation, in view of the Great Event the next day.
Fasting From Foods and Passions
We must always keep in mind that in our Church true fasting is not only about abstaining from certain foods, but also abstaining from the passions and sins. Saint Photios the Great says: "Fasting that is acceptable to God is that which combines the abstention of food with the aversion of chatter, envy, hatred and other sins. The one who fasts from food, but does not temper the passions, is like one who puts a splendid foundation to a house he has built, but allows snakes, scorpions and every poisonous reptile to live within." We thus aim for a spiritual fast during this period, to avoid sin and keep the will of God, being an embodiment of love and forgiveness and mercy, as well as striving to attain even greater virtue. In this way we will better understand and realize the words of Saint Basil the Great: "True fasting is to alienate ourselves from all evil, all sin, all impassioned thoughts, all unclean desires."
Together with our fasting and our preparation for Christmas we also include repentance. An honest examination of ourselves, admitting our wrongs and participating in the sacred Mystery of Confession are prerequisites for a truly worthy participation in the Christmas Divine Liturgy. Indeed, it is good to take care and approach Divine Communion in a timely manner and not at the last minute.
The preparatory period before Christmas gives us a great opportunity to understand well the misery that we hide deep within our being, in order to acquire a humble spirit and self-control, that we may be mentally transformed, to sincerely repent, and to dare undertake the great meeting with the Newborn Lord of Bethlehem.
During a time of spiritual preparation and anticipation, such as the forty days prior to Christmas, the prayers of the faithful and our participation in the worship of the Church play an essential role. On these days we have many feasts and commemorations of saints, which aim to bring us closer to the grace of God, along with the Vespers and Divine Liturgies we perform. At the same time, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily during these days, giving us another opportunity for our resolve to stay alert in order to be in communion and union with God. We therefore perform the so-called Forty Liturgies, truly a unique opportunity in the year to bring the faithful to spiritual renewal, watchfulness and holiness. The Forty Liturgies will once again be celebrated in our church, and it is beneficial to participate in it and prepare to receive Divine Communion.
Here, therefore, before us is the path towards Bethlehem. "Come, believers, let us see where Christ is born," we chant in church. Let us follow the advice of our Mother the Church, and prepare ourselves properly throughout these days, that we may be found worthy to worship "the Ancient of Days Who becomes an Infant for us, for He Who sits on a Heavenly Throne on high is placed in a manger, He Who broke the shackles of sin is now wrapped in swaddling clothes, because this was His will" (St. John Chrysostom).
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.