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Christmas, the Festival of the Nativity, was not always commemorated with the enthusiasm shown by various churches in our time. That goes for the East as well as for the West. It has always been secondary, a sort of stepchild festival in relation to the major festival around which the entire year revolves; namely, Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection, also known as Easter. That also holds true for both East and West. Easter is ground zero for the Christian year, not Christmas.
I am writing this column for Jan. 7th, Christmas Day for many Orthodox Christians in America and across the world. Most of the Orthodox Christian world is on the “old” calendar which dates from the time of Julius Caesar. Before you snicker, the “new” calendar was not exactly born yesterday. It dates from 1582 under the aegis of Pope Gregory XIII and is thus called the Gregorian calendar. The two calendars are 13 days apart in calculation, so Dec. 25th on the old calendar is Jan. 7 on our civil calendar.
In the Eastern Church, the Church of Israel and Greece and Arabic lands which spread west to Rome and Celtic regions then into Slavic areas like Ukraine and Russia, the main festival at year’s turning is Theophany, called Epiphany in the West. It commemorates the Baptism of Christ at the hand of John the Forerunner. This is not the Three Kings Festival popular in the West with cake and coin and the “We Three Kings” hymn and all that. The Three Kings commemoration is folded into the Christmas celebration on Dec. 25 in the East. Not until the 1960s did the Roman Catholic Church revise its calendar to commemorate the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday after Epiphany, which Anglicans and Lutherans also observe.
These different names are significant. Theophany refers to the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the baptism of Christ (the biblical reference at Matthew 3:13-17 shows why this is so), while Epiphany focuses on the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus, called the Messiah.
The point of these festivals should be clear. The word “God” can mean whatever you want it to mean. People use it at random for blessing or cursing. It can be a mere cipher. Somebody once called “God” the great aspirin tablet in the sky. Definition is necessary if the word is to have substance and meaning. Without definition we’re just talking smoke.
That’s what all these festivals of both East and West do: they give content to the word “God.” They give shape to it. They identify God with humanity in the person of the Nazarene. This is not something we can invent. It comes by revelation and must come into your heart before it can capture your mind, although the two must function together in the fullness of faith.
Each Christmas Eve, the Orthodox Church serves Royal Hours, four short services (not an hour long) of psalms and readings from Old and New Testament. One hymn is repeated each hour to express our faith:
“Today the Virgin proceeds to the cave
Where she will give birth past understanding to the Word from all eternity. ...
The one who chose to be manifest as a newborn Child
While remaining the eternal God!”
This is the mystery that we commemorate at this time of the year. God, who is beyond all limits, condescends to come among us in a fragile and easily-missed human presence. Rejoice!