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On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: Christmas and Epiphany

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

The feasts of the Nativity (simply called ‘Christmas’ in The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church) and Theophany (referred to as ‘Epiphany’ in that same book) fall within days of each other, regardless of the calendar being followed. Christmas falls on December 25 (or January 7), and Theophany follows on its heels, on January 6 (or 19). For many of us, local culture offers multiple traditions related to Christmas, but few (or even none) related to Theophany. The monk who wrote the book encourages his readers to think beyond our culture’s interpretations (or perhaps misinterpretations?) of these feasts, and embrace them in a truly Orthodox manner.

The monk notes that most of the western church, “officially assigns a place to Epiphany which is not inferior to that of Christmas; but the devotion of the faithful has definitely concentrated on this last feast; it would even seem that, for the majority… Christmas has become more important than Easter. However, being faithful to the early tradition, we consider Epiphany to be the highest and most complete celebration of the coming of our Lord amongst men.” (p. 66) He goes on to encourage his fellow Orthodox Christians to “consider the period which lasts from Christmas to Epiphany as an indivisible feast, of which Christmas is the starting point and Epiphany the culmination.” (p. 66-67)

His meditation on the Nativity reminds us that in our hymns, we sing of Christ as the Dayspring from on high, and we mention that those of us who were in shadow and darkness have found the truth. The monk continues by pointing out that the Eastern Church thinks of Christ in terms of light. “Byzantine Christians certainly do not forget that the Word became a small child who was laid in a manger; but, while Western Christians seem, since the middle ages, to cling with pleasure to this flesh and blood child, the East sees above all in the Incarnation the coming of light, its triumph over darkness, and our own conversion from the night of sin to the divine radiance.” (p. 67-68) He concludes that the spiritualization of Christmas found in the Eastern Church is a different mindset than the West. May we approach the Nativity of our Lord with the mindset of celebrating the coming of the Light into our world, and live in such a way that Our Lord can shine in our lives, driving out the darkness.

The monk’s meditation on Theophany reminds us that “Epiphany is the first public manifestation of Christ. At the time of His birth, our Lord was revealed to a few privileged people. Today, all those who surround John… witness a more solemn manifestation of Jesus Christ. What does this manifestation consist of? ...On the one hand, there is the aspect of humility represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son.” (p. 82) As we celebrate this important feast, may we honor Our Lord’s humility while also being awed by His glory.

So, let us take some time to learn more about what the Church teaches and practices with regard to both the feasts of the Nativity and of Theophany. Let us teach our students what we have learned. In this way, all of us together can better celebrate these blessed feasts!

Purchase your own copy of The Year of Grace of the Lord, by a monk of the Eastern Church. This book, quoted above, will be an excellent resource for you throughout the Church year.

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about the Nativity and Theophany:

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This link offers quotes from saints, excerpts from books, festal music upon which to meditate, and homilies from recent bishops all focused on the Nativity of our Lord.

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Read about Middle Eastern traditions for Theophany, such as “baptizing” dough in water and letting it hang outside to dry for a few days, then using the dough to make donuts at Theophany; and leaving a window in the home open so the Holy Spirit can enter; in the article “Holiday = Holy Day” by Natalie Ashanin, in “Feasts,” Issue #31 of Little Falcons magazine.

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The Treasured Traditions and Customs of the Orthodox Churches by Mary Paloumpis Hallick offers a variety of Christmas traditions from different Orthodox jurisdictions. It would be interesting to study the different customs as a class! From Serbians saving a piece of Christmas bread for the first visitor to their home; to the 12-dish Carpatho-Rusyn “Holy Supper” served over straw or hay on Christmas Eve; to the youngest Ukranian child watching through the window for the first evening star to appear before the Christmas Eve feast can begin; to the Russian babouschka offering gifts to children in attempt to make up for not offering food or shelter to the Magi; to the Greek sweet Christmas bread called “Christopsomo”; to the Romanian children caroling through their neighborhood while carrying a pole topped with a large wooden star bedecked with ribbons and bells… There are so many different traditions, and all of them are interesting. Consider sharing some of these traditions with your students over the course of a class or several class periods in a row, and be sure to invite them to share their family’s Christmas traditions, as well! Find the book here: 

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Check out the AODCE’s nativity board on Pinterest for inspiration if you need ideas for teaching your students about the Nativity of Our Lord! 

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Help your Sunday Church School students learn about the Nativity of our Lord! You may want to include some of the ideas we posted in this blog.

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There are many educational activity ideas for helping students of varying ages to learn about the Nativity in this blog post.

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Find some ideas of ways to teach your students about Theophany in our blog post about the feast: 

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Here are a few links that can help you learn more about Theophany so that you are better prepared to teach your students about this feast.

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In the fall 2002 Handmaiden magazine (sadly, now a no-longer-published magazine for Orthodox Christian women), Heather Zydek wrote an article called “Baptizing the Waters of America: the Theophany Traditions of the American Orthodox Church.” If you are able to locate a copy, read this article to find the variety of Theophany traditions that Orthodox churches across the United States employ in their celebrations of the feast! These traditions vary from region to region, as well as jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is very interesting to read how our brothers and sisters celebrate the feast! Perhaps studying these traditions will help our students better appreciate our own traditions by helping them see the reasoning behind each tradition.