This is a revision and update from my original article written November 15, 2015.
Christmas is an exciting time and it is so easy to lose focus on why we’re celebrating.
Things are changing, the hot days of summer are gone and people have started pulling out the sweaters and coats, more so this year than most thanks to the polar vortex that brought some lovely snow to us here in Tulsa this weekend. This weather was perfectly timed with the start of the Fast of the Nativity to get me to thinking about Christmastime and how we as Orthodox Christians engage during this time year.
Growing up, Christmas was my favorite time of the year. The holiday was a really BIG event in our evangelical/charismatic church. We would do a candle light service every year where we would sing hymns. This felt Christmassy to me. Then when I was in high school, I attended a candle light mass at a Catholic church with a friend and that was pretty cool too. The churches were all decorated with greenery, big nativity scenes and we had the carols. I associated all of these things and songs with Christmas. When I became Orthodox, I really missed the way I had celebrated Christmas growing up a lot of that and really thought out how to reconcile that celebration with my new-found Orthodox celebration.Thirteen Christmases later, I have a few thoughts on this for others who have joined the Church or are looking into it. While this was originally meant to be a single blog post, like so many other times in my life, I found myself adding more and more and more, so this week I’m going to focus on Advent and Christmas music with more to come next week.this will be continued into next week.
Our fast in the East begins on November 15th. I personally need the fast to help me stay focused on exactly what we are preparing to celebrate. The world around us is in a frenzied state of hyped up consumerism and unchecked revelry. Even many Christians in the West forget the purpose of the season leading up to Christmas. As everyone else is spinning out of control, the fast reminds us that we need to slow down and focus on Christ. The Incarnation, God becoming man, is a universe-altering event, that we need to really stop and reflect upon. As Orthodox Christians, we fast to bring us closer to God, not because we have to, for show, or to create unfair hardship. Saint Cosmas of Aitolia instructs, “Fast according to your ability, pray according to your ability, give alms according to your ability.”
An important part of any fast is participation in the liturgical life of the Church. We have rich hymnography and services throughout Advent. To keep everything in focus, the church gives us hymn lyrics like this: “Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show it’s welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away; born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making god-like the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve, and they call out: ‘Thy good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind.’” It is during this time that we remember Israel awaiting the arrival of the Christ child that we know is coming in a few weeks, so that when we arrive at the great Feast, we can sing as St. Symeon the God-receiver, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Why does this matter? St. Maximos the Greek (4th century, not to be confused with St. Maximos the Confessor) wrote, “Unless the Lord comes to us, we are completely helpless.” Without the Incarnation, without the birth of Christ, we would not have the door to salvation that has been opened to us through His glorious Resurrection.
I love Christmas music. I really do. Like, really really love Christmas music. It was always something that was a big deal to listen to in my home growing up and the songs were always a part of church life as well, one of the few vestiges of a liturgical life left in the religious tradition in which I grew up. Over the years, I’ve listened to Western Christmas hymns and studied them to ensure what I was hearing and singing was aligned with Orthodoxy. For the most part, I was really glad to learn that they were. I’m not talking the Jingle Bells or Rudolph or Christmas Shoes songs, I’m talking the O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Angels We Have Heard on High, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen songs. These are amazing. O Come, O Come Emmanuel recalls the need Israel had for a savior, the need all of humanity had for Christ. O Come All Ye Faithful calls the faithful to celebrate the birth of Christ together. Away in a Manager recalls Christ’s birth (though I’d like the cave to be mentioned somewhere in there). The Little Drummer Boy gives us images of finding the Christ child in the manager. We Three Kings recalls the journey of the Magi, Kings from the East, coming to worship the Heavenly King humbled as a young babe. Others like The First Noel, Good King Wenceslas, I Saw Three Ships, Joy to the World, and O Little Town of Bethlehem are great songs to listen to and sing during the Nativity Fast as they continue to point us to Christ and the real reason for the season.
Others I learned to be leary of. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written by a Unitarian with the intent of removing the Incarnational reality from Christ’s birth and Christmas. Unitarians are quick to point out that “the Christ-child is never mentioned” because it is “ethical song, extolling the worth and splendor of peace among men.”
That being said, it’s so important to incorporate the beauty of the Orthodox hymnography into Christmas celebrations. I’d venture to say, it’s not possible for one to keep Christ in Christmas more than the Orthodox Church has. If you want to hear some good Orthodox Christmas music, check out the CD Make Ready, O Bethlehem by Anaphora. I can’t really let you hear it here, so I’ll just share some of the beautiful poetry in our Christmas tradition:
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!\
What shall we present unto Thee, O Christ,
For Thy coming to earth for us men?
Each of Thy creatures brings Thee a thank-offering:
The angels — singing; the heavens — a star;
The Wise Men — treasures; the shepherds devotion;
The earth — a cave; the desert — a manger;
But we offer Thee the Virgin-Mother. O Eternal God, have mercy upon us.\
Today doth Bethlehem receive Him
Who sitteth with the Father for ever”\
“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\
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom\
… 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