Christmas is a time of joy, wonder, and excitement. Of presents and tinsel and cookies and snow. Of warm cozy evenings in front of the fireplace spent with family and friends. For Orthodox Christians, though, it means far more, because it celebrates the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christmas, or the Nativity, as we call it within the Church, celebrates the Incarnation of the only-begotten Son of God. As such, we should prepare ourselves accordingly, so we can welcome Him with pure hearts and contrite spirits.
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The true miracle of the Nativity
The Nativity of Christ is incredibly important to Orthodox Christians. So important, in fact, that we spend 40 days preparing for this feast and celebrate it for two full weeks! The only feast day we celebrate longer than the Nativity is the Resurrection itself. Why does this feast day hold such a special place in the hearts of the Orthodox? The Prophet Isaiah answers that question for us:
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name His name Emmanuel.Isaiah 7:14
With these words, the Prophet Isaiah anticipated the coming of the Savior. This prophecy embodies the longings, hopes, and desires of God’s people as we prepare to receive the One who comes to grant us new life. During the Nativity Fast (called Advent in the West) in the Orthodox Church, we are just like those who, in Old Testament times, anticipated and prepared for the Savior’s birth.
The joy we experience on the feast of Christ’s birth ultimately depends on how well we’ve prepared ourselves to receive Him. We all spend a great deal of time getting ready for Christmas, Orthodox or no. Families devote countless hours to shopping, decorating, and menu planning. They also slave in the kitchen to prepare food for their families and stay up late wrapping gifts their loved ones will find nestled beneath the tree. Important as these matters are, our spiritual preparation is far more critical if we are to catch the true Christmas spirit.
During the Nativity Fast, we must challenge ourselves to think more seriously about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, who took on our humanity in order to reveal God’s love for us.
How should we personally prepare?
As we approach the Nativity, we should reflect on where we are spiritually, and where we would like to be. We must prepare ourselves for the coming of our Savior. We must consider just how important the Nativity truly is to us as Orthodox Christians. The Church maintains the teachings of the Fathers, who stress the importance of five activities when preparing oneself spiritually for the coming of any liturgical Feast:
- Reading of Scripture
- Helping Others
Let’s take a look at each of these in a bit more depth. Then, we’ll touch on some things you can do as a family with your children.
When we pray, we commune directly with God and His Saints. Prayer – whether it is private (by yourself/with your family) or corporate (with others in the Divine services) – helps us cope with the stress of our daily lives. And it is the perfect way to thank God and glorify Him for the many blessings He has given us.
The Nativity Fast is a time for us to focus more on prayer and devote more time to communing with God. We should especially reflect on and give thanks for the gift of eternal life made possible by the birth of Jesus Christ.
Read More: The Power Of The Jesus Prayer
Repentance is the conscious effort to change our lives and turn from those things which create barriers between us, God, and others. During the Nativity Fast, we are offered yet another opportunity to devote time to self-reflection and confess our sins to the spiritual father at our parish. This conversation allows us to reassess our relationships with God and others, and reconcile and reunite with those from whom we’ve grown apart. Our thoughts should turn to the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness which Jesus Christ proclaims and to the new life He offers.
Keep Reading: What Does It Mean To Repent?
When we fast, we not only avoid certain foods and entertainments, but also anything that tends to control us in our day-to-day lives. Fasting is a means of spiritual discipline, a tool to help us put into proper perspective the things we receive from God. To gain control of those things and put them in their proper place, rather than allowing them to control us and become idols. It reminds us of the purpose of our lives: to attain perfect communion with God and enter into the joy of our Lord.
Following the Fasts prescribed by the Church in Her wisdom also provides amazing benefits to our health, allowing us to rebuild our immune system and reduce our risk of disease.
Reading of Holy Scripture
The Holy Bible is the written word of God Himself, which reveals Jesus Christ, the Living Word. Because it records the story of God’s plan for the salvation of His people, the Bible is essential reading for Christians. Especially in preparation for the Nativity!
This is not to say it is the only thing you should read, but it is an essential piece. The Nativity Fast provides an ideal opportunity to read and study the Bible, as well as the lives of the Saints, writings of the Church Fathers, and other spiritually edifying texts, on a daily basis.
While we fast and repent, it is equally important to share our time, our talent, and our treasures with those around us, especially the poor, needy, hungry, and lonely. By being born as a little child in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ shares His love with us; by reaching out to others, we in turn share His love with the least of these, His brethren.
Things to do as a family
While personal spiritual preparation is most definitely important during the Nativity Fast, it is equally important to do things to help your spouse and children spiritually prepare along with you. Here are some things you can do as a family to prepare for this beautiful Feast:
- Display an icon of the Nativity of Christ in your home icon corner. Ask your children what they see in the icon and what those things mean (the cave, the animals, the Holy Spirit coming down from Heaven as light, etc.).
- Set up a Nativity scene that your children can keep in their rooms or in the family room. As you put the scene together, talk about the story of the Nativity and what happened.
- During your morning, mealtime, and evening prayers on Christmas Day, sing or chant the Troparion and Kontakion for the Feast. You can continue to chant these hymns for the Afterfeast as well (the eight days following the Feast).
- Read the Nativity Gospel lesson (Luke 2:1-20). If you have younger children, you can try telling a version from a Bible Storybook. If you have a Nativity scene nearby, consider using it with your children to illustrate the story. You can read this Gospel several times throughout the Nativity Fast, on Christmas Day itself, and during the Afterfeast.
- Attend the Vesperal Liturgy on Christmas Eve or the Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day as a family. This will keep the focus of this Holy Day on Christ’s birth and its importance in our life and salvation.
- After Liturgy, visit a shut-in parishioner or friend. Plan ahead so you can bring Antidoron, the Blessed Bread from the Liturgy, and a bulletin. You could also include a homemade gift from the children.
Questions for personal reflection
Christ is the food and drink that alone can satisfy our real hunger. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we receive Him not just figuratively, but literally. He abides in us. He gives us the power to bear Him to a hungry and thirsty world. What greater thing can we do than prepare to welcome our God, who comes to us as one of us, in meekness and love?
During this time of preparation, read and reflect on these prophecies concerning the coming of the Savior:
- Isaiah 7:14-15; 9:1-5; 61:1-3
- Daniel 9:25
- Micah 5:2,3
- Malachi 3:1
And consider setting aside time to reflect upon the following:
- What does the birth of Jesus Christ mean to you? How does this Feast affect your life as an Orthodox Christian?
- Where do you presently stand in your relationship with God? with yourself? with others? How have you fallen short of being the person God calls you to be? What steps might you take to change the things that need to be changed?
- How might you become a sign of God’s love and presence among those who surround you?
- How might you draw closer to God? In what ways could this improve your relationships with others?
- Who might benefit from your concern and help during this Advent season? during the remainder of the year? What can you do to reach out to others in love?
May we all find the renewal that awaits us during this Nativity Fast. It is a time for a journey of rebirth. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Sprit be with all of you. Amen!