Sand Nativity, Jesolo, Italy - Flickr photo by Christopher_Brown

An Eastern Orthodox Christian Understanding of Christmas

By Nicholas Damascus

The Nativity, also called Christmas, is one of the 12 Great Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Holy Tradition.  In the fullness of time, the Incarnate, Son of God, has come to redeem and restore His relationship with all of humanity, offering us the gift of salvation, to be once again, united with Him eternally. The Kingdom of God enters this world, and we celebrate “God is with us.”

This feast is known as the Nativity feast but more commonly referred to as Advent a Latin word meaning “the coming.”  Advent begins on Nov.15, 40 days before Christmas.  Similar to the Lenten 40 day fasting period of Pascha (Easter), it is also a period of preparation in anticipation of God’s entry into His creation as Jesus Christ. 

The cycle of abstinence begins on Nov. 15 and ends on the day of the Nativity on Dec.25.  The next 12 days until the Feast Day of Theophany Jan. 6, is a continued feasting and celebration of Christmas. During this period of celebration, it is the custom of Orthodox Christians to greet each other with the words: “Christ is born!” and the response of the recipient of that greeting is: “Glorify Him!” or one can respond with the more commonly  greeting of “Merry Christmas!” 

Saint Gregory the Theologian tells us,

“This is what we are celebrating today: the Coming of God to man, that we might go forth, or rather that we might go back to God, that putting off the old man we might put on the new; and that we have died in Adam, so we might live in Christ.”

The event of the coming of the Lord where God becomes man so that man can become like God, through His grace and mercy by man partaking of the divine nature demonstrates God’s infinite and unconditional love for us.  Therefore let us be vigilant and focused in the preparation of the temple within us, that we should cleanse and condition our heart, for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. 

Let us be vigilant that the spirit of secularism does not divert us or distract us from our journey of theosis (similar, but not the same as sanctification).  Let us partake of the divine nature which is offered to us through the sacramental life of the Holy Spirit of God within the Church.  Although Saint Nicholas is highly revered in church history, let us not be distracted that Christmas is only about Santa Clause and purchasing gifts or that Pascha (Easter) is about eggs and bunnies, rather than the sacrifice, death, resurrection, and promise of eternal life with the Father. 

Nativity fast

Fasting is a means to an end and not an end in itself. So in the Eastern Orthodox Church, we abstain from certain foods for x number of days and in this case for 40 days. Those foods may include meat, dairy, olive oil, wine, and sometimes fish. 

In Matthew 4:1-11, Christ fasted 40 days and often to demonstrate that by fasting, we strengthen our spirit to avoid temptations of the devil.  Prayer and fasting from food give us the strength to refrain from the passions of vanity, pride, lust, anger, and much more.  Fasting, coupled with repentance, can enhance our transformation in the renewal of our hearts and mind, becoming some more than we are.

Saint John Chrysostom says:

Enter the Church and wash away our sins. 

For here is a hospital and not a court of law.

Do not be ashamed to enter the Church:

be ashamed when you sin, but not when you repent.

Do you fast, give proof by your works.

If you see a poor man, take pity on him. 

If you see a friend honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast,

but also the eye and the ear and the feet

and the hands and all the members of our bodies.

Let your hands fast by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast by ceasing to run after sin.

Let your eyes fast by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.

Let the ear fast from not listening to evil talk and gossip. 

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it to abstain (fast) from birds and fishes,

but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men!”

 I wish to all of you a Blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with the Joy and Grace of our Newborn Savior. Let us go down to Bethlehem, to the city of David, and meet Christ our God.

“Christ is born, glorify Him!”

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