Christmas in Orthodox Worship

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Alexander A. Bogolepov

1. The King Born in a Cave

The observance of a special period of preparation before the Holy Feast of the Nativity of Christ has long since become an established part of Christian practice. In the Churches of Western Europe (Latin or Roman Catholic) this period is the four weeks of Advent, while in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is the Christmas Fast and the special days of preparation before Christmas itself, also the week of the Holy Forefathers (which we just celebrated on Sunday, December 11th) and the week of the Holy Fathers.

Long had the world awaited Christ and the services for these days of preparation commemorate the Patriarchs, the Prophets and all who had lived by faith in the Savior who was to come and had preached about Him long before His coming. And the hymns for the Feast of the Nativity itself are full of the original joyful excitement at the thought of God's appearance on earth.

The Christmas canon begins with a joyous declaration, gradually swelling in volume, of the Savior's birth:

Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy. O ye people.
For He has been exalted!
(Christmas canon, Canticle I. Irmos)

In her Christmas hymns, as in the her other hymnody, the Orthodox Church does not limit her vision to earthly happenings alone. In these hymns she contemplates the events of Christ's life on earth from a dual perspective. Beyond the visible phenomenon of this world the things of a higher world stand revealed--a world unseen by the ordinary eye and discernible only through faith to the eye of the spirit. Beyond the birth of a child in the poverty of a squalid cave, beyond His laying in a simple manger instead of a child's crib and beyond His poor mother's anxiety and alarm over His fate, supramundane events emerge--events which are outside this world's natural order:

Today doth Bethlehem receive Him Who sitteth with the Father forever. (Christmas Matins service.(Sticheron after the Gospel.)

This was not the first birth of the One "Who lay in a manger." First He was born of His Father "before all ages" as God; moreover He was born of the Father alone, without His Mother. In Bethlehem He was born as men are born, but in contrast to all the sons of the earth He was born to His Mother alone, without an earthly father. Having proclaimed "Christ is born!" In Canticle I of the Christmas canon, the hymnodist next calls upon the faithful to praise

...the Son who was born of the Father Before all ages, and in this latter day Was made incarnate of the Virgin Without seed; Christ our God. (Christmas canon. Canticle III. Irmos.)

"The heavens have descended" and the Savior has come down from them to earth. The believer bows in spirit with the Wise Men before the sight that met their eyes:

Not scepters or thrones, but the utmost poverty. What is there worse than the cave, Or humbler than the swaddling-clothes? Although He has dominion over the most pure powers And tears asunder sin's strongly-woven bonds, Yet he lies in a manger for cattle And is wrapped in swaddling-clothes. (Hypakoe)

In the last canticle of the Christmas canon the feeling of the human mind's powerlessness to comprehend this union of Divine Majesty and human insignificance is expressed even more brilliantly and eloquently. In his mind's eye the hymnodist saw these things as a strange, incomprehensible and yet at the same time very glorious mystery...A dark cave had replaced the resplendent heavens; the earthly Virgin had taken the place of the Throne of the Cherubim as the "Throne" of the Lord of Glory; a little manger had become the receptacle of the Omnipresent God Who no one place can contain:

I behold a strange but very glorious mystery: Heaven -- the cave; the throne of the Cherubim -- the Virgin. The manger -- the receptacle in which Christ our God, Whom nothing can contain, is lying. (Christmas canon, Canticle IX. Irmos.)

But nowhere does the attitude of worshipful emotion toward this incomprehensible union of things heavenly and earthly find a more forceful expression than in the Kontakion Hymn for Christmas written by the greatest Greek hymn-writer, Saint Romanus Melodus. Every word in it is full of meaning and one brilliant image follows another:

Today the Virgin brings forth the Supersubstantial One and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.

Mary gave birth but remained a virgin; while She gave existence to the One Who is above all that exists in the world. And in the cave the earth provided a sanctuary for the One Whom, as a general rule, men may not even approach. Next, the second part of the Kontakion Hymn gives us two pictures of events which unfolded simultaneously and harmoniously on earth and in heaven...In heaven the Angels glorify God together with the shepherds on earth and the Wise Men move across the earth according to the direction taken by the heavenly Star:

The Angels and the shepherds Sing hymns of glorification. And the Wise Men journey on with the Star.

The meaning of all this is that the Child Whose life on earth was as yet only a few days old is at the same time God, Who has existed since before time itself and was born for our salvation:

for our sakes, God, Who is before all the ages, Is born a little Child. (Christmas canon. Kontakion hymn.)

2. The Sun of Righteousness

What does the coming to earth of the Son of God mean? Above all it means all are illumined, that spiritual Light is bestowed upon them. This idea is continually being put forward in the Christmas hymnody of the Orthodox Church. In the Troparion Hymn for the Christmas Feast which, as is customary, explains the basic meaning of the Feast, there is this direct statement:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom.

God enlightens each of us in the way that is most accessible and understandable to the particular person. And when He wished to enlighten the Wise Men, whose custom it was to observe the stars and their movements, He sent them an unusual star which guided them to the Christ Child and gave them the opportunity to pay homage to the Infant as the Most Glorious Luminary in the world, a Moral "Star" -- the Sun of Righteousness. In the events which accompanied the birth of Christ,

...They who worshipped the stars were, through a star, Taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, And to know Thee, the Day-Spring from on High.

The Star gave the Wise Men an opportunity to see the rise of the Sun of Righteousness. But the Light of Christ's Righteousness is not an earthly light. Its motion was not from out of the earth towards the firmament of heaven, nor from the horizon to the zenith, nor upwards from below, but from above downwards. Shining high above the earth, it descended thereon from the heights of heaven and illumined the world with Divine Light. It was the Day-Spring from on high. And all who have sat in spiritual darkness and waited for the true light have, like the wise men, come to know this extraordinary Day-Spring of the Sun of Righteousness.

At Christmas the Church sings:

Our Savior hath visited us from on high...And we who were plunged in darkness and shadows Have found the Truth, For the Lord hath been born of the Virgin. (Christmas Matins. The Photagogicon.)

All light fades, but Christ is the "Sun which does not set, that gives Light to the whole universe" (Pre-Christmas Sticheron). He is the "Light of Light," the "Light of the Father," by which "the whole creation was lighted" (Sticheron by Patr. Anatolius). His Light is the Light of True Knowledge of God and God's Laws. Through Christ "the worship of many gods was abolished" and it is through Him that paganism, of which there have been successive "new" revivals right up to our own times, has been stripped of the masks, no matter how seductive the various forms it has taken may have been:

Therefore, having been brought into the Light Of the Knowledge of God, We glorify Thee in song, Who art the Lover of man. (Christmas canon. Canticle V. Irmos.)

3. Regeneration

Christ is not only the Great Teacher, but the Savior too. In order to do good it is not enough merely to know good. And Christ gives men the power to accomplish good along with the ability to understand it.

Sin entered into the world and with sin, in the Apostle's words, came death (Romans 5:12). Sin violated the integrity of the human soul; it deflected the soul's activity from the orderly pattern for which the very structure of the soul had been designated. The soul's powers, instead of being perfected through work, have degenerated due to their having been used unsuitably. Man's organism began to disintegrate and the end result was evident s his final destruction, or death.

"A sound mind in a healthy body"--so the Romans believed. Without denying that this idea is true to some extent, Christianity has placed special emphasis upon another aspect of the interrelationship between soul and body. It has stressed spiritual health as the factor which preserves the life-energy of the whole human organism. From this point of view it was the healthy and cheerful spirit of the first created man, Adam, which had at first raised the vitality and strengthened the energy of the human body. But the disruption of man's spiritual balance by sin and the resulting depression have also disrupted the physical activity of the human organism. Consequently, the human body also started to grow weaker and fall into ruin. The posterity of "Adam, our common forefather," became through the process of heredity a sinful, diseased and hence a mortal one. Under the influence of the "poison of disobedience" by the first human being the ever increasing moral and physical self-disintegration of mankind kept on developing, as did the loss of man's power to withstand evil and strengthened himself in the good.

But now Christ has appeared in order to restore the life that was perishing, that is return it to its former state:

Man, who, being made in the image of God, Ha become corrupt through sin, and was full of vileness, And had fallen away from the better life Divine, Doth the wise Creator restore anew.

If mankind were perishing of a spiritual poison, then the antidote to it must also be spiritual. As a consequence of the appearance of God's Son on earth, the "powers of the Godhead" have penetrated into the human race (Pre-Christmas canon. Canticle IV. Troparion) "the world is united with immaterial beings," with the Divine Spirit (2nd Christmas canon. Canticle V. Troparion) Through this influx of new strength mankind is reborn into a new life:

...As God, Christ will bring to Adam's seed The gift of a wondrous rebirth. Rejoice, ye barren deserts; Be joyful, all human creatures; The Lord has come to make Thee fruitful for good (Pre-Christmas canon. Canticle I. Troparion)



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George