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Nativity of Christ

The cel­e­bra­tion of the feast of the Nativ­i­ty of Christ in the Ortho­dox Church is pat­terned after the cel­e­bra­tion of the feast of the Lord’s Res­ur­rec­tion. A fast of forty days pre­cedes the feast, with spe­cial prepara­to­ry days announc­ing the approach­ing birth of the Sav­iour. Thus, on St Andrew’s Day (Novem­ber 30) and St Nicholas Day (Decem­ber 6) songs are sung to announce the com­ing birth­day of the Lord:

Adorn your­self, O Cav­ern. Make ready, O Manger. O Shep­herds and wise­men, bring your gifts and bear wit­ness. For the Vir­gin is com­ing bear­ing Christ in her womb (Ves­per­al Hymn of St Nicholas Day)

On the eve of Christ­mas, the Roy­al Hours are read and the Divine Litur­gy of St. Basil is served with Ves­pers. At these ser­vices the Old Tes­ta­ment prophe­cies of Christ’s birth are chant­ed, empha­siz­ing the prophe­cy of Mic­ah which fore­tells Beth­le­hem as the birth­place of the Sav­iour, and the prophe­cies of Isa­iah about the appear­ance and char­ac­ter of the Messiah:

The Lord him­self will give you a sign. Behold a vir­gin shall con­ceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which trans­lat­ed is, God with us (Is 7:14–15).

God is with us, under­stand all ye nations, and sub­mit your­selves, for God is with us (Is 8:9).

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is giv­en; and the gov­ern­ment shall be upon his shoul­ders, and his name shall be called Won­der­ful, Coun­selor, the Ever­last­ing Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his gov­ern­ment and peace there will be no end (Is 9:6–7).

The Vig­il of Christ­mas begins with Great Com­pline, high­light­ed once again by the solemn chant­i­ng of God is with us and the words of the prophe­cy of Isa­iah. At Com­pline there is also the singing of the Tropar­i­on and Kon­takion of the feast along with the spe­cial hymns glo­ri­fy­ing the Saviour’s birth. There are also the spe­cial long lita­nies of inter­ces­sion and the solemn bless­ing of the five loaves of bread togeth­er with the wheat and the wine of which the faith­ful par­take and the oil with which they are anoint­ed. This part of the fes­tal vig­il, which is done on all great feasts, is called the litya (in Greek, the artok­la­sia or the break­ing of the bread).

At the begin­ning of the Christ­mas Matins, which togeth­er with Com­pline form the Christ­mas Vig­il, the six mati­nal psalms begin as usu­al with the words; Glo­ry to God in the high­est and on earth peace, good will among men (Lk 2:14).

At the Christ­mas ser­vices these words of the angel­ic song are nor­mal­ly sung with great solem­ni­ty rather than being chant­ed as at the dai­ly ser­vice. The Christ­mas Matins pro­ceed as usu­al. The gospel read­ing from Matthew (1:18–25) tells of the birth of Christ, and all of the hymns and vers­es glo­ri­fy his appear­ance on earth:

Christ is born, glo­ri­fy him. Christ is from heav­en, go to meet him. Christ is an earth, be ye lift­ed up. Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing out with glad­ness, all ye peo­ple. For he is glo­ri­fied. (First Ode of the Christ­mas Canon)

The Christ­mas Litur­gy begins with psalms of glo­ri­fi­ca­tion and praise. The tropar­i­on and kon­takion mark the entrance with the Book of the Gospels. The bap­tismal line from Gala­tians 3:27 once again replaces the Thrice-Holy. The Epis­tle read­ing is from Gala­tians:

But when the time had ful­ly come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adop­tion as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spir­it of his Son into our hearts, cry­ing, “Abba! Father!” So through God, you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (Gal 4:4–7).

The Gospel read­ing is the famil­iar Christ­mas sto­ry from Matthew (2:1–12), and the litur­gy con­tin­ues in the nor­mal fash­ion. A spe­cif­ic two-day cel­e­bra­tion fol­lows, ded­i­cat­ed to Mary the Theotokos and St Stephen, the First Mar­tyr. The peri­od of Christ­mas rejoic­ing extends to Epiphany dur­ing which time the Christ­mas songs are sung and fast­ing and kneel­ing in prayer are not called for by the Church.

The feast of Christ­mas is for­mal­ly enti­tled the Nativ­i­ty in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Sav­iour Jesus Christ. At Christ­mas we cel­e­brate the birth as a man of the Son of God, the one who togeth­er with the Father and the Holy Spir­it is tru­ly God from all eter­ni­ty. Thus, we sing in the Church.

Today the Vir­gin gives birth to the Tran­scen­dent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unap­proach­able One! Angels, with shep­herds, glo­ri­fy Him! The wise men jour­ney with the star! Since for our sake the Eter­nal God is born as a lit­tle child (Kon­takion).

The feast of Christ­mas was not a sep­a­rate Church feast for the first four cen­turies of Chris­t­ian his­to­ry. It was cel­e­brat­ed with Epiphany in the one great feast of God’s appear­ance on earth in the form of the human Mes­si­ah of Israel. The Nativ­i­ty began to be cel­e­brat­ed as such on the twen­ty-fifth of Decem­ber in order to off­set the pagan fes­ti­val of the Invin­ci­ble Sun which occurred on that day. It was estab­lished by the Church quite con­scious­ly as an attempt to defeat the false reli­gion of the hea­thens. Thus, we dis­cov­er the tropar­i­on of the feast mak­ing a polemic against the wor­ship of the sun and the stars and call­ing for the ado­ra­tion of Christ, the True Sun of Right­eous­ness (Mal 4:2), who is him­self wor­shiped by all of the ele­ments of nature.

Thy Nativ­i­ty, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wis­dom! For by it, those who wor­shiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Right­eous­ness and to know Thee, the Ori­ent from on high (Lk 1:78, trans­lat­ed as Dawn or Day spring). O Lord, glo­ry to Thee! (Tropar­i­on).

Thus, the feast of Christ­mas is the cel­e­bra­tion of the world’s sal­va­tion through the Son of God who became man for our sake that, through him, we might our­selves become divine, sons of God the Father by the indwelling of his Holy Spir­it in us.