The Christmas season is upon us, well the Holiday Season to be politically correct. The first sign of the "season" is when we start seeing department stores display Christmas ornaments, decorations, etc as early as September.
Then comes the much-anticipated Black Friday where thousands perhaps millions of people camp out overnight in front of their favorite retailers, waiting for the doors to open so that they can get their most coveted item on sale and possibly some goodies for free.
Then is Cyber Monday where people are glued to their laptops on the internet searching for good deals. As the days get closer and closer to Christmas, we see more crowded stores and more advertisements on television, mostly for car deals like Lexus' December to Remember.
Finally, Christmas comes, but the next day the after Christmas sales begin for retailers to clear out their surplus and stores are filled with people returning their unwanted Christmas presents.
For us as Orthodox Christians, our preparation for Christmas starts just as early and we have signs for that "season" as well. Towards the end of September, the Sunday after the Apodosis of the Holy Cross, the Gospel readings transition from Matthew to Luke.
It begins with Jesus initiating His earthly ministry and choosing His first disciples. The readings from the Gospel of Luke prepare us for the Nativity since they speak of Christ's healing and miracles. We read of the raising of Jairus' daughter and the healing of the blind man in Jericho. Also, the parables where Jesus tells about the decisions each of us make in our spiritual life, like in the Parable of the Sower and the Rich man and Lazarus.
All these Gospel readings help us understand the true meaning of Christmas. The Word [Jesus Christ] took on flesh and lived among us, as it says in John's Gospel in order to heal us, to save us, leading us all into His Heavenly Kingdom.
It was necessary for Him to take on flesh and live among us as both fully divine and fully human in order to save us. St Athanasius accurately said: God became man so that we can become God. We do not become God by nature but by grace, this is called theosis. Our goal is to be joined to God in His Heavenly Kingdom.
In addition to the series of Lukan Gospel readings, the Church has prescribed for us the Advent fast which begins on November 15, lasting 40 days until Christmas Eve. This fast is not as stringent as Great Lent but certainly arduous.
Like Great Lent, it is a period of repentance, of prayer and reflection. Some might ask: if Christmas is a happy, joyous occasion, why are we fasting? Others say: Great Lent is different because we fast since Jesus was crucified. However, that is the misnomer.
The happiest, most joyous day of the year is the Resurrection, Easter Sunday. Christ, risen from the dead is our assurance that sin and death are conquered and eternal life is at hand. A period of fasting should not be seen only for preparation of a somber event. Advent prepares us to receive Jesus Christ Incarnate as He begins His earthly life as an infant and soon His earthly ministry as we hear about on the 1st Sunday of Luke.
As much as we see those advertisements on television and decorated storefronts on our way to work and school, we also hear those endless Christmas songs on the radio, like Jingle Bell Rock and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Sure they are fun and nice to hear but certainly not about the true meaning of Christmas. Of course, there are exceptions, like Silent Night or O Come All Ye Faithful. Perhaps the best “Christmas songs” are the festal hymns of the Church that prepare us for Nativity.
In the Katavasias of Matins for example, we chant: Christ is born, glorify him. Christ has come from Heaven, receive Him. Christ is on earth, be exalted. All the earth, sing to the Lord and all the people, praise Him in joy, for He has been glorified.
Just after the Great Entrance we chant the Festal Kontakion: Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.
On Christmas Eve we hear several Scripture readings from the Old Testament Prophets who spoke about the coming of Christ, centuries before his Nativity. Collectively, the hymnography, the Prophecies and of course the Epistle and Gospel readings reveal to us why the Incarnation of the Word of God is so important for our salvation. Indeed, the greatest Christmas present we could possibly receive is Christ Himself.
As Orthodox Christians, let us allow this time of fasting to prepare us to receive the Infant Christ, the King of Kings. May we boldly say with faith and with love: Christ is Born, Glorify Him!
A Blessed Advent to all!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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