After having read countless wonderful and thought-provoking articles and blogs during this time of year, I felt compelled to write my own. However, it is not because I found anything wrong with the many articles and blogs with which I have already read. Each encouraged people to engage the season in a better way, for whatever reason the author saw fit. To be honest, what inspired me to engage in a such a work like this came from a conversation I recently had on the phone with someone.
The conversation began, “Father, will there be Liturgy next Sunday?” As many of you may already be aware, Christmas Day 2016 falls on a Sunday this year. The person continued by surmising this, “Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year…” The implication from this caller, which only came to me after a few seconds of dead silence, was that I should be reminded that having Sunday Divine Services on Christmas Day, of all days, might actually be a detriment to attendance, and the individual on the other line thought it important to share this with me. I also gathered that they were basically telling me that they themselves would be one of those people not in attendance, being that it was going to be “Christmas morning” and they will have presents to open and other things to do (things more important than worship and Holy Communion, apparently).
I shouldn’t have been, but I was a bit dumbfounded. Not that they would miss church (that happens all the time), but that they (as someone who likely considers themselves a churchgoer) had just said to a clergy person (like myself), essentially with their own voice, that Christmas Day and the worship of Jesus Christ shouldn’t be co-mingled. Worse, this seems like a prevailing idea among many modern Christians and even with Orthodox Christians, who should know better. The problem is, it is completely revisionist and/or delusional.
Today, we are continuing in the historical practice of associating the Feast Day of the Nativity of Jesus Christ with activities which initially had nothing to do with the celebration of the Feast itself. Of course, the drum is beaten time and time again that we have commercialized Christmas too much, and of course, that is true. We have been told that we have made Christmas about things which it should not be about, and on that point we are correct. But I think, most importantly, we have forgotten that all of those other activities which we have engaged in outside of worship, even the ones which are inherently good (time with family, serving the poor), are not historically what Christmas “is all about.”
The English word Christmas comes to us from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse which, of course, translates to “Christ’s Mass.” In the Roman Catholic Tradition, this was a day when the Roman Church would celebrate, with the celebration of MASS, the celebration of the feast. In Orthodox Christianity in the East, the great Feast was and is commemorated as the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ since the last of the 2nd and early part of the 3rd centuries.
Orthodox Christians have historically prepared for this feast with what we call the Nativity Fast. Orthodox Christians Fast not only as a spiritual discipline but typically in preparation for Great Feasts (or in honor of them, on the day). That is, we fast up until we celebrate said feast, after which the fast is immediately broken upon the reception of the Holy Eucharist and the service in which it was offered. The point is, that the only reason early Christians fasted during this particular time of year, was in anticipation of the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ on the Feast Day of His birth at Divine Liturgy.
Therefore, the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ during the worship services is the actual “reason for the season.” Though I think I know what people mean when they say Jesus is the reason for the season, I think that saying God is the reason (or cause) of the season is quite obvious (He’s the reason for all seasons). What seems to have become less obvious is that many of us have taken part in the slow erosion of the most important tradition linked to the Christian day, that is, that Christians are specifically called upon to celebrate the Feast of His Nativity with communal worship!
It is wonderful to commemorate the day with Christmas lights, Christmas trees, presents under said tree, helping out in a soup kitchen, singing Christmas Carols and spending time with family. But none of those things are the reason we celebrate Christmas in any Christian sense. All of those things come out of our worship and are themselves not the source of our worship. The American Christmas Tree itself came to us from Eastern European “Paradise Plays” on December 24th, in anticipation of the Great Feast. Christmas Carols are derived from Christian worship hymns sung in anticipation of the feast. Gift giving is in imitation of the Three Wise Men who came offering gifts, that they might “worship him.” That is, all of our Christmas Traditions worth mentioning, stem from sources all related to the Worship of Jesus Christ and the worship services which took place on the day commemorating His Nativity.
Christians have been celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th since the earliest times of our Christian worship. The holiday of Christmas was for early Christians the HOLY DAY of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Not going to church and not worshipping God with your fellow Christians on such an important day was unthinkable. Today, even among Christians of Ancient Faiths, modern expressions of Christian faith have become so personal that many of us have willfully forgotten about the power of unity among believers and the glorious worship that might come from their shared and corporate expressions. St. Paul says:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25
The “Day” which Paul is speaking of is Sunday, the day of Worship. He is expressly telling his people that we are to “stir up one another to love and good works” and to “encourage one another.” He is also making it clear that in order to do that best, we must NOT “neglect to meet.” This would have been true not only for Sunday, but for all major feasts and holy days. The fact that this year’s Christmas day falls on a Sunday should only make attendance at worship services easier for most of us, not more difficult.
This year, we have been given the opportunity to Worship the Birth of Jesus Christ on the day typically set aside as the Day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we repeat each and every week. In my humble opinion, as Ancient Christians, we have little excuse not to be there (unless sickness or emergency prevents us). Otherwise, we have openly and honestly decided in our own minds that the best way to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ has little or nothing to do with worshipping Him. In that case, we may either wish to reevaluate what it actually means to be a worshipping Christian, or decide whether or not we wish to actually call ourselves Christian and to follow Him at all.
My intent is not to insult or hurt anyone’s sensibilities. But to pretend that being a Christian and celebrating His feasts has actually nothing to do with being a Christian and celebrating His feasts is too much for me to bear without, at the very least, saying something.
I pray, truly, that anyone who might have taken the time to read this will have a most blessed Christmas Day. But I also hope that you find time to worship Him, to worship the One whose birth and incarnation witnessed to the world that God has entered the world so that we might be freed from the very delusion which we so often find ourselves influenced by. I am trying to seek Truth. Come with me, and worship the Lord on the day of His birth and perhaps we can find Truth together, by His will. There will be plenty of time afterward to open presents, feast on Christmas pies, and then fall asleep on a recliner…