The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Holiday Display
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 8:05 AM [+]
Every year, the pastoral staff here at the clinic where I work set up a holiday display in order to highlight some of the numerous seasonal religious traditions. Some of you will recall froma year ago that I lamented the absence of anything Orthodox and was even more vocal in lamenting the grouping of Orthodox Churches within a strange category in a religious listing provided at the display. Anyway, in bringing my complaint to the pastoral staff I started a dialogue in which I was asked to provide some info on Orthodoxy for this year's display. Included in that display will be a Nativity Icon and this little article I wrote...I pray God will use it to shed a little of His Christmas light - especially to suffering patients here who desperately need it.
Waiting for Light
The Advent Fast, the Nativity Feast, and Theophany in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is not well known here in America. Were it not for the comparatively small numbers of immigrants from places like Greece, the Middle East, Russia, and numerous other eastern European nations, we should know next to nothing about this venerable faith tradition. Presently however more and more western people are discovering and embracing Orthodoxy, thus attesting to this ancient faith’s modern viability. In doing so, many people are seeing a new “spin” on Holiday traditions here in the United States.
The holiday (“Holy day”) season for the Orthodox faithful begins not with shopping, feasting, and parties but contrastingly with a 40 day period of fasting, intensified prayer, self-examination, and giving to the poor. Many old world Orthodox nations still adhere to the older Julian calendar, which is presently 13 days behind our modern calendar (Gregorian), and thus Christmas in Russia (for example) is celebrated on January 7th. Most Orthodox Christians in North America have adopted the Gregorian calendar and so the Nativity Fast begins for them on November 15th with Christmas falling on December 25th. Advent, as these 40 days are commonly known, is infused with a profound sense of anticipation; the analogy of waiting in darkness for the coming of dawn is quite accurate and is reflective of the liturgical life of Orthodox Christians during this fast. All of life is seemingly hinged upon the appearance of the Incarnate God…and during Advent, Orthodox Christians are preparing to meet and glorify Him.
Along this 40-day journey are numerous landmarks or road signs that continually point the faithful toward the coming daylight. The most well known of which comes on December 6th: the feast day of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Saint Nicholas who we have morphed into the character of Santa Claus, was in reality an early 4th century bishop and one of the most beloved of Orthodox Saints. One of many stories, which surround St. Nicholas, is that of three daughters who were in such dire circumstances that slavery or worse seemed to be the only viable option for saving themselves and their families from starvation. In the secrecy of night, St. Nicholas filled each of the girls’ socks, which were hung out to dry, with gold coins. Thus the family was saved. Still today on St. Nicholas’ day, Orthodox children will often leave their socks and/or shoes outside their rooms at night to be filled with treats. No doubt our well know tradition of hanging stockings out for Santa Claus is derived from this story of Saint Nicholas.
Advent ends with the liturgical proclamation that “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!” at the Nativity Vigil. Light has come! Thus begins what has virtually been forgotten in the west: the Twelve days of Christmas, which is a period of great feasting from December 25 until the Feast of Theophany (sometimes called Epiphany in the West). Orthodox Children will sometimes, instead of opening all their gifts on December 25th, open one each day during the Twelve days of Christmas. Either way, for Orthodox Christians, Christmas is never “done with” on the 26th of December!
Theophany in the Orthodox Church is a celebration of Christ’s Baptism. Water is blessed, frequently large bodies of water nearby parishes are also blessed (and some very brave souls will frequently dive into the freezing water in order to retrieve a cross tossed into the water by a priest or bishop), and the homes of parishioners are also blessed. Theophany means literally the “manifestation of God” because it is at Christ’s Baptism that Orthodox Christians believe that God’s Triune nature (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is revealed to us. If Christmas is the light of dawn, Theophany is the blazing noonday sun!
A marvelous wonder has this day come to pass:
Nature is made new, and God becomes man.
That which he was, he has remained;
And that which he was not, he has taken on himself
While suffering neither confusion nor division.
How shall I tell you of this great mystery?
He who is without flesh becomes incarnate;
The Word puts on a body; the Invisible is seen;
He whom no hand can touch is handled
And he who has no beginning now begins to be.
The Son of God becomes the Son of man:
Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
-From Vespers on Christmas Day