Christmas - The Feast of the Nativity

Introduction - Arrangement of Services - Vespers - Great Compline - Matins - Divine Liturgy

The feast of Christmas, which the liturgical books of the Byzantine Rite call The nativity (birth) in the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, begins the cycle of winter feasts that are sometimes called the "Feasts of Light". These feasts -- the Nativity, Theophany, and Meeting - have a common focus: the coming of the Messiah into the world, and the beginning of His work of redemption.

This feast is celebrated on December 25. and is counted one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the church. In the Byzantine Catholic Church, it is a holyday of obligation.

Meaning of the Feast

At the feast of the Annunciation on March 25, we recalled the moment of the Incarnation, when the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Nine months later, on December 25, we celebrate His birth into our world as an infant child, though retaining both divine and human natures:

Because the Lord Jesus was born of the holy Virgin, all creation is enlightened. Behold! The shepherds keep watch and the Magi are adoring; the angels are singing hymns of praise, and Herod is trembling; for the Savior of our souls has revealed himself in the flesh. (Lamplighting stichera of Vespers)

This hymn from Vespers contains virtually all the many themes of this feast:

On this feast, we speak of our redemption almost as if it were already accomplished by Christ's coming - but we do not pretend to ignorance of the Cross, the tomb, and the Resurrection. Instead, we celebrate the Lord's birth knowing that He comes into the world not only to teach, but also to redeem:

Rejoice, Jerusalem; exalt, all those who love Zion. Today the temporary bond of Adam's condemnation is dissolved; Paradise is opened to us, and the serpent is crushed; for woman whom he first deceived, he now perceives as mother of the Creator... May the whole universe exult and leap with joy, for Christ has come to regenerate it and save our souls. (Aposticha of Vespers)

The Magi – Gentiles, "wise men" from the east and outside God's covenant with Abraham – represent the peoples of the world who will come to knowledge of God because of the Incarnation of the Lord, and the preaching of the Gospel. In the Byzantine Rite, all the events of the Savior's birth are brought into the celebration of this feast.

The Icon of the Feast

See The Icon of the Nativity from A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons.

Preparation for the Feast

The feast of the Nativity is preceded by a preparatory fast of 40 days, which begins on the evening of November 14, the feast of Saint Phillip. Several feast days falling during this fast include hymns which look forward to the Nativity.

On the two Sundays before the Nativity, we recall the forefathers of the Old Testament who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah; on the Sunday before the feast, the geneology of the Lord is read from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. On these days, and on the five pre-festal days from December 20-24. the hymns of the services sing of the Virgin as she approaches Bethlehem, and the cave where she will give birth.

December 24 is celebrated as a solemn vigil (related to similar vigils on the day before Theophany and Pascha). A strict fast is held, accompanied by the singing of the Royal Hours recounting the prophecies of the Messiah and the Gospel accounts of the events surrounding His birth. (This fast day, and the Royal Hours, are anticipated on the preceding Friday if December 24 falls on a Saturday or Sunday.)

See the article on the Christmas Fast for more about these services.

Liturgical Services of the Feast

The service of Vespers on the afternoon or evening of December 24 marks the transition from the Christmas Fast to the Christmas feast. When this day falls on a weekday, Vespers is combined with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, which thus forms a fitting ending to the fasting of the day of Vigil. (The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is not only the older liturgy of the city of Constantinople, home of the Byzantine Rite; its prayers recount the whole history of salvation, making it particularly appropriate on the eves of the great feasts of our redemption, Christmas, Theophany and Pascha.)

During the evening of December 24, the service of Great Compline is held. This service of Psalms and hymns, with its great liturgical hymn God is with us, is accompanied by litija - a procession to the narthex or "porch" of the church, where prayers are said for the well-being of the whole world.

Traditionally, the service of Matins is celebrated immediately after Compline, with its great canon which begins, "Christ is born! Glorify Him!" The hymns of Great Compline and Matins are particularly rich in imagery and theology. (Unfortunately, Matins is seldom celebrated in our churches - partly because of the lack of service books in English with music for the service, and partly because it has been replaced by a Divine Liturgy as "Midnight Mass.")

On the morning of December 25, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated - of Saint John Chrysostom if the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil was used the previous evening, and of Saint Basil otherwise. The Communion Hymn at this service summarizes the meaning of the feast very simply: "The Lord has sent deliverance to his people. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!"

It should be noted that, among Ruthenians in Europe, this feast-day (like most Sundays and great feast-days) was concluded with Vespers of the following day (in this case, December 26, the Synaxis of the Theotokos). The celebration of this service in the late afternoon or evening was also kept by the Russian Orthodox "Old Believers."

Popular Customs

On the evening of December 24, after Vespers and before Compline, it is traditional to hold a Holy Supper (Svjatyj Večer) which is meatless but festive. In many places, Christmas carols or kolady are sung, sometimes from door to door.

On the feast of the Nativity, and for some time afterward which may range as late as the feast of the Meeting (February 2), the customary greeting, "Glory to Jesus Christ!" and the response "Glory forever!" are replaced with the opening words of the Matins canon: "Christ is born!"; "Glorify Him!" (In Slavonic: "Christos raždajetsja!" - "Slavite jeho!")

During the week following Christmas, there is no fasting or abstinence from meat.

The Post-festal Period

From December 26 through December 31, the Church celebrates post-festive days of the Nativity. Several of these have specific commemorations associated with them:

The Sunday after the Nativity is dedicated to the "relatives of the Lord", particularly Saint Joseph, the foster-father of the Lord; James, the brother of the Lord, first bishop of Jerusalem; and King David, our Lord's direct ancestor. The Gospel for the Day (the same as on December 26) recounts both the murder of the Innocents, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

(If Christmas falls on a Sunday, then the following Sunday is January 1, the feast of the Circumcision and of Saint Basil the Great, and the Sunday after the Nativity is not celebrated.)

December 31 is the leave-taking, or last post-festive day, of the Nativity; the Divine Liturgy for this day repeats most of the hymns of the feast.

See the article on the Days from Christmas to Theophany for more about these services.

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