When people ask me what my family Christmas traditions are, and how we are supposed to feel during this season, I take pause. Are we supposed to have some special family traditions? If I don't, am I somehow deficient or wanting? What are we supposed to feel, and what if I don't feel that way? Our family kept the fast; my wife read the children the Gospel nativity accounts; she made a calendar with daily messages for the forty days before the feast; we went with the parish teens to carol for the shut-ins and nursing homes; she made or bought each child a special Christmas tree ornament; and we always went to Church for the festal liturgy (pretty important for the priest). Those asking, however, must be looking for a more special family tradition. The most memorable tradition for me was setting up the video-camera to catch the excitement of the children as they opened their gifts. Waiting for the camera was painful for the children who had been anticipating their gifts for months.
Christmastime is supposed to be a time of joy, yet, because it reminds us of days gone by, it can also be accompanied by some unfinished grieving for loved ones. We all remember past Christmases, when loved ones now asleep in the Lord were still with us. We remember what they did to add to the holidays. Remembering such times leaves us with mixed emotions. We can hardly expect to feel joyous all the time, yet we can take consolation in what this season brings to us. It brings the Resurrected Lord in the infant Jesus. We celebrate Christ's Nativity, knowing that Christ is risen from the dead. By His death is death destroyed, and we are restored to life. Symeon, the righteous old priest, saw the salvation of mankind in the infant Jesus. We can too, even if the representation of Jesus is a plastic figure in a crowded department store.
There is a well known phrase in the Christian Gospels, the saying of Christ that "…it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Lk 18: 25). A superficial understanding of this teaching would have it that to be rich, in and of itself, bars one from God's kingdom. But a deeper spiritual perception would indicate the fallacy in this apprehension.
We might first consider what various religious traditions say about wealth or bounty. In Hebrew tradition, it is the misuse of wealth - a failure to help others that is sinful. The Prophet Amos points out: "Hear this word, ye fat kine [bovine] that are in the mountains of Samaria: you that oppress the needy, and crush the poor: that say to your masters: Bring, and we will drink." In Islamic tradition, Allah blesses the rich who "…feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive" (Koran 79:8). Buddhist writer Ven. Jotika of Parng Loung states, "From [the] Buddhist point of view, good and praiseworthy is one who accumulates holdings in rightful ways and utilizes it for the good and happiness of both oneself and others."i Swami Narasimhananda describes the Hindu teachings on wealth, telling us: "…wealthy people need to share their wealth with the less fortunate."
by Eleutherious Vorontsov, Late Metropolitan of Leningrad
from The Word, December 1960
Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
I salute you, dear brothers and sisters, with the great feast of the Birth of Christ—with this radiant, joyous, and solemn day! This day is truly a day of especial joy: it was called this, as you have heard, by the Heavenly Angel who appeared to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. And it is such in actual fact. How can not that day in which the Lord Himself descended from Heaven to earth but be radiant and joyful?
Who of the Orthodox Christians can greet this day with a feeling of coldness? Who will not rejoice in his soul, hearing that “a Saviour is born today, who is Christ the Lord?” It is for this reason that one of the Church hymns sung so joyously today, says: “Let Heaven and earth rejoice today in prophecy: let Angels and men exult . . . the whole of creation danceth because of the Saviour and Lord being born in Bethlehem.
by His Eminence Metropolitan Philip
from The Word, December 1968
It is easy to lose sight of the miracle of Bethlehem in our modern world of pressure politics and commercial Christmas. This annual reminder of the continuous presence of the Divine in our wayward world is a necessary thing for us all; nothing is more usual, nothing is more miraculous than the birth of a child: every child’s birthday is a reminder of the presence of God in the world.
The atheist forces of the world try to tell us that God does not exist, that there is no connection between man and the eternal cosmos, the eternal mystery; they tell us that we are slaves of the world and of the material forces of existence. And yet, our experience tells us that GOD IS: too many aspects of our life clearly reflect the presence of the divine, the presence of God, among us. The birth of a child tells us this truth; the birth of the Divine Child sums up the common experience of all mankind.
The present troubles of our world seem overwhelming; the sorrow, the injustice, the poverty, the wickedness of war, the inhumanity of man to man, the distortion of the divine image which we cause, is everywhere; we have lost sight of God, and we suffer; the renewal that comes with the birth of our Lord can restore us, if we perceive it with the eyes of faith, and the simplicity of a child.
The blessing of our incarnate Lord be with you all, this Feast of his Nativity, and throughout the coming year!
by Fr. James C. Meena
from The Word, December 1978
Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jefta, David, Samuel, Isaac, Jacob, Zerah, Tamar, Amminadab, Boaz, Obed, Jessica —Who are all these people? I am sure that when we read the 1st chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, which begins with the genealogy of Christ, most of us skip over it and don’t bother to read it. That is so sad. That’s like a person who looks at the leaves on a tree but doesn’t appreciate its roots and trunk. And so it is with us. Our lives in Christ are not just now, today, but have been in the past and shall be for all eternity and unless we understand that we are rooted in the past, our present and our future cannot have the fullness of meaning that God intends for them to have. Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?
Each of us has an identity that extends itself to all those around us, our father, our mother, brothers, sisters, wife, husband, sons, daughters, our past, our present and our future. And those who have no such extension of themselves suffer from such a depth of loneliness that their lives are difficult for them. I am who I am, because I can identify with people who love me and who shared with me the highest values of life that they understood, my father and mother, our parents, our grandparents. All of those with whom we had the good fortune to come into contact from our past tried to contribute to us those good things of life which they knew were essential to our understanding of how to live and get along with God and with our neighbors. Those people of our present, our brothers and our sisters, strive to relate to us lovingly and with compassion in order that our lives might be enriched as well, and we strive to relate to them in the same way. Our children symbolize for us our future and we strive to pass on to them those ennobling characteristics which were preserved also for us as members of the Body of Christ, that we understand that our present and our future are somehow dependent upon our past.
by Fr. James C. Meena
from The Word, December 1976
When I was a little boy, as with all children, I used to anticipate the coming of Christmas weeks in advance. I’d get excited and start thinking about the good food that was going to be shared and the gifts that would be forthcoming, decorating the Christmas tree, putting lights in the window, presents under the tree, waiting for Santa. I used to wonder for weeks what I was going to get for Christmas and I would go scrounging around the house in all of the cupboards and the closets looking for anything that looked like a Christmas present and surreptitiously I would find these gifts and I would play with the toys that had been purchased explicitly for gift-giving at Christmas time. Then when Christmas day actually came and the gifts were given to me and I had to open them, I had to pretend to be so excited and surprised because I didn’t want anybody to know that I had been celebrating Christmas before Christmas came.
by Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky
from The Word, December 1968
“As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.” (ST. LUKE 2:19)
The very birth of Jesus was a gift to the world. Not only the Christ-child Himself, but the way that the birth took place; on a trip, in a stable in the most calm, joyful and peaceful night the world has known.
The mystery of the night was God’s way of protecting the blessed happening for those who see with eyes of faith.
Can you imagine the birth of the Christ-child in our times? All the indignity, the vulgar exposure and lack of publicity the Holy family would be forced to suffer?
Picture yourself watching the late news on television. The announcer would say: “Finally, a news item from the Near East. A young woman from Nazareth, on her way to register as a citizen in the capitol, just gave birth to a baby some are claiming as the promised savior of the world. Take it away, Matthew Luke, in Bethlehem.”
by Metropolitan Philip
from The Word, December 1966
With great joy and gratitude for God’s unfathomable love, we greet you at this Christmas season, praying and hoping that Christ will be born in your hearts. If we look upon the birth of Christ as a mere historical event, we celebrate this holy event in vain, for Christ’s birth must serve to renew our lives and make us comprehend God’s eternal love for man whom He created in His own image and likeness.
Man was created out of God’s love to be a partaker of the divine, and when he—deceived by the malice of the devil—rent that fellowship with God, God never ceased seeking him and stretching forth His hand to lead him back to the meadows of salvation. For God loves us despite our sins. He searched for man in Paradise when he had fallen victim to the deceitful one and established a dialogue with man to prepare him for the most decisive event in the history of man. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Christ’s birth, therefore, is more than an historical event for He was born to reconcile the human with the divine, to uplift man from the swamps of his lowly existence to the vastness of truth, beauty, and goodness. Christ was born to restore the purity of the image which was stained by sin.
by Archimandrite Michael Shaheen
from The Word, December 1957
At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, our church bells will peel out their cheerful tidings that recall the most unique event in history; for on that night almost 2000 years ago in the East, Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.
Christmas (Christ-Mass), the Birthday of Jesus, ranks supreme among all the fixed feasts of our Eastern Orthodox Church. Without Christmas, as was stated by St. John Chrysostom, we could not have Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Therefore, our Church acts wisely in ushering in this Holy Day with elaborate religious services befitting the One whose birthday it is.
December 25 is only the traditional date of Christ’s birth: the exact time is not really known. In the early Church the Birth of Christ was remembered along with His Baptism (Epiphany) on the 6th of January. However, in the 4th century, when Christianity took over many heathen festivals in order to facilitate their conversion, December 25 was selected for commemorating the Birth of Christ. This was originally a festival of gaiety that honored the unconquered sun. It was first celebrated in Rome around 380 A.D. and is known to have been celebrated in Antioch around 380 A.D. This explains many of the customs that prevail today, which are not in harmony with the true spirit of Christmas. Since then, December 25 became accepted everywhere as the customary time to recall the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
by V. Rev. James C. Meena
from The Word, December 1992
“The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart. You shall repeat them to your children and say them over to them whether at rest in your house or, walking abroad, at your lying down or at your rising; you shall fasten them on your hands as a sign and on your forehead as a circlet; you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.” (Deut. 6:6-9)
This commandment from among the many Mosaic commandments is what Jesus called the greatest of all Commandments, “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” Nothing shall take priority over your love for God. This Commandment is necessarily repeated in your ears today because we are about to celebrate that festal day in which God manifested His love for us in such a way that it shattered history. For God came into the world as a human child, took on humanity without divesting Himself of His Divinity. God became man so that you and I, man, might become God. It is essential for us to understand as we have been inundated with the commercialism of this great feast, of the secularization of this great holy day that it is necessary for us to repeat in the ears of our children, the truth about the significance of this Great Feast.
from The Word, December 1970
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase” (Isaiah 9:1)
"I understand the significance of the pre-Easter lent, but why do we keep a Lenten season for Christmas, since it’s such a joyous occasion?” The woman who made the comment spoke sincerely and her reasoning was correct. What she misunderstood was the purpose of Lenten fasting and spiritual preparation.
To so many of our people, fasting and prayers are expressions of sorrow for a rupture in Divine-human relationships, such as was the murder of Jesus Christ.
Primarily, Lent is a time for our concentrated preparing for the Kingdom of God’s manifestation within us. By freeing ourselves from the things of this world we can better live and experience the Spirit of God dwelling in our souls. It is a time of pilgrimage—a spiritual journey to our true native land which the Lord has prepared for us.
Now it is advent, the time of His coming. Christ is on the way to my world, my city, my house and to me. How will He find it: what will He think of us; will He be pleased?
by Fr. Steven C. Salaris
St. Paul states in the opening chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, “ … we preach Christ crucified …” Two thousand years later, we Orthodox Christians, who are the direct descendants of the Church of the Apostles, must likewise continue to do the same. But it’s Christmas — the Nativity of Jesus Christ where we remember His birth from the Virgin Mary. Isn’t this a time of heavy incarnational theology or, at least, a time of bright lights, tinsel, and Santa Claus? Yes, it is all that, but it is also a great time to preach Christ crucified. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Cross of Christ, His shed blood and broken body, and His glorious Resurrection on the third day, are the very axis upon which our life of faith rotates. At every time and season throughout the Church year, these concepts are found at the heart of all that we do in our worship and in our hymns and spiritual songs, whereby we make melody in our hearts unto the Lord. Anyone who wishes to see Christ crucified at Christmas, from the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, can do so quite easily. All you need is your Bible and the icon of the Nativity to do so. When you contemplate the icon, in the light of Scripture, the true meaning of Christmas shines forth.
When you first look at the icon, besides Jesus, one of the central figures in the icon is Mary, His mother. In some icons, Mary is seen holding her Son, the Incarnate Word of God, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She holds her Son in birth even as she will hold her Son in death. Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s Pieta, where Mary is carved in stone holding the lifeless corpse of her crucified Son, will immediately recognize the parallel and the link that this aspect of the icon has to the death of Christ.