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, Christmas means far more, because it celebrates the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christmas celebrates the Incarnation of the only-begotten Son of God.
The True Miracle of Christmas
The birth of Christ, which we refer to as Christmas, 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 Christmas is the Resurrection itself!
Why does Christmas 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 them new life. During Advent (the fasting season leading to Christmas) 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 Advent, 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 prepare?
As we approach the Nativity Fast (Advent), we should reflect on where we are, and where we would like to be, spiritually speaking. We must prepare ourselves for the coming of our Savior, and consider just how important Christmas truly is to us as Orthodox Christians.
The Orthodox Church maintains the teachings of the Church Fathers, who stress the importance of five activities when preparing oneself spiritually for the coming of a liturgical Feast Day like Christmas:
- Read Holy Scripture
- Help Others
When we pray, we commune directly with God and His Saints. Prayer, whether it is private (by yourself or with your family) or corporate (with others at a church service), 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. Advent 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.
Repentance is the conscious effort to change our lives and turn from those things which create barriers between us, God, and others. During Advent we are offered the opportunity to devote time to self-reflection and confess our sins to one of the spiritual fathers 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.
When we fast, we should not only avoid certain foods and entertainments, but we should also avoid anything and everything which tends to control us. Fasting is doing without those things which are not essential for our lives. It enables us to gain control once again of those things which too often control us, and it provides amazing health benefits. It also reminds of what is truly important in life. And that is God and our relationship with Him.
4. Read Holy Scripture
The Holy Bible is the 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. This is not to say it is the only thing you should read, but it is an essential piece! Advent provides an ideal opportunity to read and study the Bible, as well as the lives of saints, writings of the Church Fathers, and other spiritually edifying texts, on a daily basis.
5. Help Others
While we fast and repent, it is equally important to share our time, our talent, and our treasures with those around us, especially those who are poor, needy, hungry, or 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 others.
Our Real Hunger
Christ is the food and drink that alone can satisfy our real hunger. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we Orthodox 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 on this feast? What greater thing can there be for us than to prepare for and welcome our God who comes to us, radiant with humanity, meekness, and love?
During this Advent season, 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 some time during Advent to reflect upon the following:
- What does the birth of Jesus Christ mean to you personally? How does Christmas 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, through prayer, 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?
Read More >> The Teachings of the Orthodox Church