Excerpted from “God with Us: a journey of Expectation, Preparation and Fulfillment” published by the Byzantine Seminary Press. The book also includes chapters on fasting, theology of the incarnation and Old Testament prophecies. Meditations on the scripture and liturgical texts for all the major feasts in preparation for the Nativity and Theophany of our Lord.
Christ is coming from the heavens! Meet Him!
Christ is upon the earth; exult!
All the earth sing praises to the Lord!
Peoples sing with joy, for He is gloriously triumphant.
Nativity Matins Canon Ode 1
Fasting periods prior to major feasts in our calendar are meant to prepare us for the feast. Unlike the Great Fast before the Feast of the Resurrection, the Nativity Fast is seldom known or practiced by te Eastern Christians. Since the Nativity events hold less importance than Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, a detailed structure never evolved for the Nativity Fast. Yet the this fast is an ancient practice in preparation for the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This forty-day fast is important and should be preserved and practiced. The Nativity Fast can help us to better understand and appreciate God’s entire saving plan.
Without the structure and public events to guide us, the practice of the Nativity Fast has gradually fallen off over the years. But the practice is very old. The Feast of the Nativity was added to the calendar in Rome in the fourth century. By the end of this century, celebration of this feast had been accepted. Likewise, the fast before the Nativity began early in the West. The second council of Tours (France) in 567 advocates a fast from the Feast of St Martin (November 11) until the Nativity, for Monday, Wednesday & Friday. The practice is ascribed to St Perpetuus Bishop of Tours who died in 491. Pope Gregory established the current four-week Advent Season in the eleventh century for the West. In the East, the Coptic Church (Egypt) mentions the forty-day fast before the Nativity in the eighth century. The Council of Constantinople in 1166 officially set the fast for the Byzantine Church at forty days as well.
The forty-day fast imitates the period of preparation for Pascha. The feasts of the Nativity and the Resurrection are the alpha and omega of Christ’s life on earth. The mystery of the Incarnation opens the door for our salvation and the mystery of the Resurrection brings us forth to the New Life. The Russian Typicon (Liturgical Rule Book) designates the Nativity as a three-day Pascha. The two feasts provide the bookends for the same message. The two feasts form the poles for the year. Cold winter gloom is pierced by the hope of new birth. The “New Life” of the Resurrection enhances the fresh breath of spring. The feasts mirror each other. In the Nativity, we have the beginnings of human life; in Pascha we have the beginnings of eternal life. This is why the Nativity is called “Winter Pascha.” This designation plays out in the liturgical cycle. In addition to the forty-day fast for each feast, we see the shadow of the cross in the hymns of new birth.
When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Magi, coming from the East, adored God made man, and unfolding their treasures, they brought precious gifts: the purest of gold as to the eternal King; and incense as to the God of all; and myrrh as to the immortal dead of three days. Come all nations; let us adore Him who is born to save our souls.
Great Compline, Aposticha
This incarnation of God in flesh comes for a purpose. The saving death on the cross casts a shadow back to the birth. Even as the wise men arrive to the newborn child, they prepare him for burial after his death on the cross. We know from the moment of his birth that Christ comes to die for us on the cross. At the Matins sessional hymn we pray, “For our sake, O long-suffering Savior, You were placed in the animal’s manger.” The road of suffering, culminating in the cross begins at the moment of his birth.
Theophany and Nativity
Theologically, the birth and the public ministry of Christ are inextricably linked. The Nativity Fast was created to prepare us to receive Christ’s incarnation and begin his public ministry. They are two sides of a single coin. The Incarnation is meaningless without the ministry and the ministry is not possible without the Incarnation. The Nativity Fast prepares us to receive the public ministry of Christ announced at Theophany. On arriving at Bethlehem and the Nativity on December 25th, we begin to prepare for the Theophany. We do not stop at the Nativity. In our joy at God’s arrival, we press forward and see the Theophany. With Theophany we experience the beginning of Christ’s revelation to us of the mysteries of God. Most important of all, this event points out the Mystery of the Trinity, a mystery long hinted in the Old Testament.
Another liturgical parallel for the two feasts is the celebration of Great Compline. This popular service on the eve of the Nativity, where we sing, “God is with us!” reappears on the eve of Theophany. The public manifestation of Christ at the Theophany connects liturgically with his birth on December 25. In Egypt, the two feasts were once held on the same day.
The two feasts of Nativity and Theophany were originally together on January 6. St Gregory Nazianzus in his Oration 38 on Theophany makes the link clear:
For the present, the festival is the Theophany or Birthday; for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth … The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the manifestation, and that of birthday in respect to His birth.
They were separated into the two festivals of Nativity on December 25 and Theophany on January 6 later, but the connection between the Incarnation and the public manifestation of God is not lost. The December 25 date comes from the Roman Empire’s festival of Saturnalia, closing with the feast of the unconquered sun, while the January 6 date was used in Egypt because of the festival of Dionysius’ birthday. The Church took these then-current public celebrations and pointed them in a new direction. Our faith in Christ allows us to see the good elements of these festivals and adapt them to the teachings of Christ.
This is a powerful reminder today. We often hear Christians complain about losing Christmas to the secular world. But in reality, the reverse is true. Christians have “hijacked” a secular festival for our own purposes. We don’t put down the outside world; we redirect their thoughts. We take some core elements of the secular celebration and offer a deeper meaning to the affair. Our spiritual ancestors, in creating this dual feast of Nativity and Theophany, relished the challenge of turning the public to Christ in the time of festival. They did not ask for the abolishment of the non-Christian holiday; rather, they showed how the true meaning of these rituals could only be experienced in the life of Christ.
Unconquered Sun Festival
Sun worship festivals were common in pagan culture during the dawn of Christianity. Saturnalia was celebrated the last week of December throughout the Roman Empire. This was the festival to the sun god Saturn. This great public festival is largely the reason the Church at Rome chose to place the celebration of the Nativity of Christ in this same time of December.
The Church saw the good elements of the people’s worship of the sun and transferred these to the Sun of Righteousness. The acknowledgement of the power of nature in the dawn of the new day, the gift-giving to friends and neighbors and the celebration of life itself – all were part of this pagan festival week.
Just as St. Paul tells those worshiping the “unknown God” in Acts all about Jesus Christ, the Church asked Romans to reconsider their worship of the sun and transfer this to the Sun of Righteousness.
In the Roman Empire, December 25 was the feast of the unconquered sun. This was the winter solstice festival at the conclusion of the weeklong celebration of Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn the sun god. As winter comes on the days get shorter: the forces of darkness are defeating the sun. But with the winter solstice, the days cease getting shorter and start recovering. The sun remains unconquered and begins its slow recovery. These events are a natural fit for the Christian community looking to spread the message of Christ.
Saturnalia Festival Service
Saturn as the source of light was seen as the source of wisdom overcoming the darkness of ignorance as well. The lights that brightened Rome during the festival served to remind how Saturnus led the people from the murky night of ignorance, and freed them from the dismal darkness of starvation, to the light of wiser ways. The Romans acknowledged the powers greater than themselves and bow to this power of nature. They saw the evidence of this power of god in the very actions of the natural world. They humbled themselves before this power and thanked god for the benefits bestowed on them.
St. Paul recognized the core truth in these actions during his preaching of Christ. In his letter to the Romans he says:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
The festival of Saturnalia is an example of this. The Church takes the truth of this festival celebration and directs it to the fullness of truth. Christ is the true light that came into the world: the Light foretold by the prophets of old. We focus on this aspect of Saturnalia and transfer the good teachings of the secular world to Christ. So at Matins on the eve of the Nativity we sing:
A Light shall spring forth from the root of Jesse, as the prophet full of light has foretold. For we see a Virgin giving birth, in a way beyond nature, to a most precious rose in a cave. In the heavens He sits upon the same throne as the Father. O you people, let us say: Blessed are You, our God who has come. Glory to You.
Matins Praises, December 24
From the time of our Jewish forebears, the sun is connected with the new and good things of God. The root of Jesse is the Messiah. Christ is this Sun. This is a prophetic title from the Old Testament. Just as the sun appears to start the day, Messiah’s coming marks the dawn of a “new day” for the people of God. The bright light of the sun chases away the forbidding darkness of the land; light is symbolic of the good and darkness, the work of evil.
The neversetting Sun is coming from the virginal womb to enlighten everyone under the sun. Let us meet Him with pure hearts and with good works. Let us prepare ourselves now through the Holy Spirit to greet him who is being born in Bethlehem so that through his compassion He might bring back all those who were exiled from life in Paradise.
Vespers, Sunday of the Holy Ancestors
The unconquered sun of Saturnalia becomes the neversetting Sun of Christ in the virgin’s womb. The obvious parallel makes the transition to faith in Christ easier to comprehend. The Church connected with the people where they were, in understanding their world. Taking these points of contact between the secular tradition and our understanding of Christ, the Church offers a fuller truth to the people.
The prophet Malachi proclaimed the coming of the Messiah as the Sun of Righteousness in Chapter 4:1-3. He proclaims that the Sun of Righteousness will bring justice to the land that will burn like an oven over the evildoers. This image foreshadows the place of punishment that awaits those who are not just in this life, when they pass to the next.
Patristic writers describe the next life as Theoria, the concept that St Augustine called the “Beatific Vision”. This vision is a place of communion in the presence of the Face of God, from whom warmth and peace emanate. Some have said that there is no created place of damnation and that all will experience this vision, but the vision of goodness in light will feel like burning fire to those who hold evil in their soul.
Another feature of the Saturnalia festival is the ritual of gift giving. The Saturnalia ritual has the ritual giving of gifts from the adults to the children present:
[Pass Candles and Sigillaria to first worshipper on left, so they are passed around sunwise to all adults, including back to leader.] The leader explains: Let each adult pass on the gifts, around the sacred circle, moving like the Sun. Since ancient times these gifts have been exchanged: the waxen candles, calling forth the Sun; the little figures, symbols of our souls. Saturn has decreed these inexpensive gifts, so that no one will feel poor. Now give your little figure to a child, to any child you like, but please make sure that every child receives a little face; the waxen candle must be kept by you. [The adults give their Sigillaria to children.] Saturnalia Festival Ritual]
This giving of gifts to the children also connects nicely to life of Christ. In the Eastern calendar, the Magi are commemorated on Christmas day giving their gifts to the Christ child. The tradition of giving presents to children on Christmas fits nicely with the secular tradition from Saturnalia as well. The Church does not put down the practice, but redirects the intentions. These sigillaria of Saturnalia have additional significance. They are clay disks in the shape of the sun that are hung on a pine tree. The decorating of the pine tree with the sigillaria is done on January 6 for the festival of Dionysius.
Birthday of Dionysius
There is no accident that the followers of Dionysius were attracted to Christ. There are numerous aspects in the life and worship of Dionysius that are similar to Christ’s life and worship. Dionysius is the son of Zeus through a human mother. The main feature of his worship was called sparagmos: the tearing apart of a live animal, the eating of its flesh, and the drinking of its blood. Believers considered they were partaking of the god’s body and blood. The followers of Dionysius believed that his very substance was within the wine and the raw flesh that they consumed.
“He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood will not be made one with me or I with him, the same shall not know salvation.”
Persian Mithraic text
Dionysius descended to the underworld to rescue his mother and take her to mount Olympus. He rises from dead each year at Delphi and reigns in winter while Apollo is away. These features of his life and worship made the followers of Dionysius easy converts for Christian preachers. They could show the events in Christ’s life that made these similar incidents pale by comparison, yet the context was familiar and welcome to those followers.
Christian preaching did not reject the faith of the past, but used this as a foundation on which to build. Thus this important feast, the birthday of Dionysius, became the Nativity and Theophany of Christ in Egypt.
This birthday festival of Dionysius is the annual appearance of the god in power. He rises from the dead and takes control during the absence of the more powerful Apollo. This is really his rebirth after being destroyed in myth. For the feast of the public appearance of Christ, the Christian community chose to model the feast of the public appearance in power of Dionysius. The Theophany is the feast of God’s revelation of Christ to the world.
In separating the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany, the Church was able to accommodate both the Roman and the Egyptian need for “competitive” feasts. Christians did not have the authority to abolish these other festivals, but consciously competed with them by offering Christian alternatives. These alternatives were selected with an eye to transferring the healthy religious fervor of the original celebration to a similar Christian one.
Advent is anticipation of the coming of Christ. Over time in the West this came to be a dual anticipation: the Christ Child in Bethlehem and the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. The focus is on the appearance of Christ in the world, in both the past and future forms. the Nativity Fast is not advent. The focus is on the incarnation of Christ and the role of Mary as the representative of the human race and means of the Incarnation.
Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Is 30: 19-21
But in the East, the focus is on Incarnation in the flesh:
“When the Creator saw the one whom He had created with his own hands perishing, He lowered the heavens and came down; He took upon himself human nature from the most holy and pure Virgin, truly becoming flesh; for this reason, we glorify Him.”
Nativity Matins Canon Ode 1
The great mystery of the Nativity is that the God who created all things becomes a creature. The giver of life and all things stands in need of gifts so that he may live. The one beyond time and existence appears at a certain time and place. Creation responds to God’s appearance in human flesh:
O Christ, what shall we offer You for your coming on earth in our humanity for our sake? Every creature that has its being from You gives thanks to You: the angels offer hymns of praise, the heavens give a star; the Magi present their gifts and the shepherds, their wonder. The earth, provides a cave. The desert, a manger. As for us, we offer a Virgin Mother. O God who are from all eternity, have mercy on us!
Vespers Sticheron, Eve of the Nativity
Angels, the highest order of creation, bow down and worship a lowly creature. Tradition tells us that the thought of this worship drove some angels out of the presence of God. Just as some people cannot accept God’s appearance in the world, and into their lives, some angels could not bear the plan of God. But those that remained faithful offer their gift of praise.
The heavens created by God were a sign of royal majesty throughout the ancient world. People looked to the stars for signs and wonders of what was to come. God’s creation in the heavens offered the gift of a star, a special sign to show forth the royal power of God. The Magi accepted this sign of the star and followed its lead to God in the flesh. Knowing the meaning of the star, they brought gifts fit for royalty.
The shepherds represented the everyday people. They were the lowly and the outcast. Shepherds had the reputation that gypsies have today. They lived on the fringes of society and were seen as liars and cheats. Yet these were the first to behold the Christ child. All they could offer was their awe and wonder.
The earth gave safe haven from the elements, a cave. The cave is symbolic of the womb. Mother earth holds and protects the Holy Family from the harm of the world. The dangerous and desolate desert gave the gift of a manger, providing not only food for the animals but also a safe resting place for the Christ Child. From the desert, the people of Israel came closer to God than ever before. In the cave at Bethlehem this closeness to God is finally achieved. God has become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
The elements of the feast in the East center on the Incarnation – not on advent or the future coming of Christ. This concentration on flesh makes the preparation period of fasting even more appropriate. We generally fast in preparation for major liturgical events, from the small fast before communion to the Great Fast of forty days plus Holy Week before Pascha. But the fast prior to the nativity of our Lord in the Flesh is perhaps the most appropriate.
Preparation by Party or Fasting?
In our own day, as in the Roman Empire, festival preparation is a series of parties. This world revels in the pleasures of the flesh, especially food and drink. Christians also affirm the basic goodness of these, but our eye is always on the future life as well. Our need for food and drink is a mark of our human condition. The Nativity commemorates the connection of God to this human condition. Fasting enhances our understanding of this relationship. Abstinence can make our enjoyment of these foods richer on the arrival of the feast. But more important, fasting is a spiritual discipline, a gateway to prayer.
Fasting is a physical metaphor for the spiritual life. When we fast from food, we subject our body to physical hunger. This should remind us of the spiritual hunger our soul experiences for God. For the brief time of our fast our physical reality matches the spiritual one. Both our body and soul hunger for the Lord. For the fast to be fruitful we must use the physical hunger as a call to prayer. During the moments of the day when we feel the strong hunger pangs we should direct our thoughts to God.
“By fasting as by swords, all the demons are driven away since they do not endure nor are they any match for its great charm. They love the voluptuary and the drunkard, but if they look on the face of fasting they are not able to stand, but they run far away, as Christ, our God, taught us, saying, ‘This kind of devil goes out by prayer and fasting.’ Hence, we have been taught that fasting gives us eternal life.”
Kontakia of Romanos on Fasting
Our Challenge Today
We no longer face competition from the cult following of Saturn and Dionysius. But even today there are non-Christian celebrations that occur throughout this season. We don’t face direct competition from other gods, but there is competition with the popular culture for the hearts and minds of believers. Some have suggested that Christians should push for more restrictions on activities to insure that the popular culture follows our practices in the preparation for and celebration of these feasts. They bemoan the fact that most people in our villages of the old country kept these fasts from food and parties, but now we cannot compete with the constant bombardment of advertising and entertainment.
I submit that there is no honor in keeping a fast from food and entertainment if one has no choice. When the option does not exist, you can’t break the fast, but does this mean you are still keeping the fast in your heart? Are we really so weak-willed that we couldn’t refrain in a spirit of fasting without the activity being banned?
Even more important, God has given all of us free will whether or not to follow his way. We must allow those who choose not to follow, to live in peace. In the context of this free will the ancient Church relished the challenge of using these secular festivals to bring people to Christ. The Church knew that the majority of people would celebrate Saturn & Dionysius, not Christ when these feasts were placed onto the calendar. The Church was well aware that Christians would be tempted to celebrate a different kind of feast instead of the Nativity and Theophany. But the Church rises to the challenge. We set forth our vision of these feasts. We prepare with fasting and not parties. And we share our faith with all who care to listen to the Word of God.
Originally Posted May 31, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010