January 7, 2010

Orthodox Keep Christ at Center of Christmas

Orthodox Churches Keep Christ at Center of Christmas

By Cecilia Baress
January 7, 2010

Thirteen days after Dec. 25, Orthodox churches that follow the Julian calendar celebrate Christmas today - minus the distractions of the secular holiday season.

"It's kind of a time when you can actually sit down and understand what's happening in the mystery of the feast," said the Rev. Don Valasek of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Scranton.

Celebrations of the Feast of the Nativity began Wednesday with vespers, he said, and will last several days past the actual feast day with services honoring the mother of God and the saints.

With no Santa and no sales, people can focus solely on the birth of Christ. It is a time when anticipation gives way to fulfillment, said the Rev. John Sorochka of St. John's Russian Orthodox Church in Mayfield.

"When it comes to the Nativity, we prepare differently than the Western world does," he said.

The preparation includes 40 days of strict fasting - no dairy, meat or eggs - which ends when members receive communion during Divine Liturgy today, he said.

"We are fasting and intensifying our spiritual life in anticipation of the birth of Christ," he said.

The liturgy also will culminate their physical preparations, including extra choir practices and church decorating. The whole atmosphere is one of change, as priests don white vestments instead of the red frocks they wore during Advent.

"Everything is completely turned upside down compared to last week," he said.

Families gathered for holy supper on Wednesday, the eve of the Feast of the Nativity, where 12 dishes were served in honor of the 12 apostles. Hay was placed underneath the tablecloth to represent the manger, and a candle at the center of the table represented Christ, the light of the world.

They will celebrate for eight days, enjoying the things they sacrificed during Advent, he said. Carolers will spread cheer door to door, visiting parishioners' homes.

Some Orthodox churches have abandoned the original Julian calendar for a revised version, which fixes Christmas on Dec. 25.

It is a more practical solution, said the Rev. John Kowalczyk of St. Michael's Orthdox Church in Jermyn, whose parish is made up of many converts. He also sees it as an opportunity.

"We have a responsibility to put Christ back into Christmas, to make Christmas less secular," he said.

St. Nicholas' has kept to the Julian calendar, honoring the traditions of the elderly parishioners, Valasek said.

"We're doing the same thing, just 13 days later," he said.