The Orthodox Churches generally start their Nativity Fast about forty days before the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord, which is on December 25 or on January 7. However, we do realize that the Syrian churches have only 25 days of fast before the Feast of the Nativity for the laity. As a rule nothing is heard about such a Nativity Fast in the Western Churches, either in Roman Catholicism or in High Churches of Protestantism.
Fasting has a twofold purpose in eastern theology. First, it is a spiritual tune up or disciplining of body, mind and soul through prayer, self-inflicted suffering of hunger and thirst and other acts of mortifications, which should direct a believer into deep meditation and prayer, and appreciation of the reality towards which fasting is meant to proceed. For a soul that has reached high levels of spiritual intuition, this would lead to deeper union with his/ her raison d’etre, his/ her source of being. And thus fasting will lead the believer into a deeper experience with the reality of the Feast for which the fasting has been stipulated by the Church.
The other purpose is not often discussed by the preacher. This subtle purpose of fasting is not very much highlighted in any sermons in conjunction with the fast; and it is not mentioned as a theme on the day of the celebration of the Feast, because a Feast by its very nature is an occasion of joy, wherein any mention of pain or suffering is out of place. Joy is measured against the intensity of pain caused by the suffering or torture experienced before or after the cause of joy; and it is thus the true nature of joy is appreciated. Thus fasting has another objective, which is to prepare a good Christian for the sufferings and unfavorable conditions which he will be confronted with in a normal life. One could say that fasting also implies the foretaste of this anticipated suffering or torture attached to every occasion of a Feast.
In Orthodox theology this twofold purpose attached to every major Dominical feast is highlighted. Hence we have fasts attached to all major feasts of the Church, such as the Great Lent before Resurrection, Nativity Fast before Christmas, Assumption Fast before the Assumption of the Theotokos, and Apostles’ Fast that culminates with the Feast of the apostles. In certain churches there is an Eight-day fast before the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos (of course this is not recognized as canonical).
The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, which in western countries is called Christmas, is the convergence of all the spiritual and sacrificial activities of the fasting period prior to it. More than any other Dominical Feast, Christmas particularly conveys this dual truth, the truth of ecstatic joy and the truth of tormenting sword; thus there is a problem to Christmas. Christmas is a paradox! What is a paradox? There is a paradox whenever two contradictions meet in confrontation with each other in one and the same reality or event. Christmas is such a reality or event.
During the period Christ was born, Palestine was in turmoil. There was not peace in that region, because the Jewish people were under the oppressive imperial regime of the Romans. They could not freely exercise their religion. They were taxed heavily. They did not have freedom of speech; no one knew when he would be arrested by Roman soldiers for a casual slippage of tongue; it was easy to be incriminated for conspiracy. Although King Herod was partially Jewish, he was not their friend either; he was a vassal buried in his gluttonous life and cared only for himself. Fear lingered everywhere. Every Jew looked for a deliverer like their ancestors in Egypt were anxiously waiting for.
It was to these people the angel announced: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. …. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Lk. 2:10-14).
The angels announce that they do not need to fear anymore. Further it was also a greeting of peace.
This is one side of the paradox. In the same gospel in Chapter 12, Jesus, after thirty years, laid out just the opposite of what the angels had sung: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division (sword)” (Lk 12:51). This is the other side of the paradox, and now the paradox is complete; on one side it is PEACE, and on the side it is SWORD, the antithesis of peace.
On the day of the first Christmas the angels rejoiced, and they declared peace on earth in anticipation of the arrival of the King of Peace. Jewish scriptures predicted it. The nation of Israel was eagerly waiting for a Messiah to establish lasting peace to its people who had been repeatedly subjugated by foreign occupiers who suppressed their freedoms to live according to the Law of Moses. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the entire Judea was in turmoil; and there were agitations to overthrow the foreign rule, and the Roman occupiers in the land were tightening their grips to suppress any rebellion against them. Yes, it was a period of revolt and uprising. The Jewish people definitely needed the intervention by a predicted Messiah to sit on the throne of David to be their own King in order to restore peace as David did a thousand years earlier. However, the Messiah, the Christ who was born in Bethlehem was not an earthly king as the world has come to know about Him; His Messianic role was to redeem humanity from its burden of sin and establish peace by uniting humanity with its Creator.
Ultimately it would require a combat of the spiritual order to crush the temporal order in order to establish lasting peace. It is this battle we observe from time to time in Christian history since the first Christmas.
On the first Christmas day everything was peace. The shepherds rejoiced. The air in Bethlehem was quiet. The manger was quiet and tranquil, except for the joyful praises of Mary and Joseph and for the subtle undertones of their adoration of the Word Incarnate, and for the delicate murmurings of the animals around them.
There is peace everywhere on our Christmas day, and all Christians celebrate it with peaceful jubilations, festive cloths and sumptuous meals. Caroling children sing in neighborhood homes. Churches host caroling groups. Nations exchange messages of peace. Even the soldiers in the battlefield halt their activities, put their weapons back in their sheaths, quiet their marching band, and even forget the presence of enemies in front of them.
Go back to Bethlehem and its surroundings. Some time after the birth of Christ, one could see the entire region weeping and in tears; this is what we commemorate two days after Christmas, the Feast of the killing of the innocent babies. When the swords of the soldiers of Herod were swinging to behead the innocent babies who happened to look like Jesus, the paradox became complete. Thus the innocent infants were baptized in their blood. Two weeks after Christmas, on January 8, the Orthodox Church witnesses another martyrdom, that of Stephen, the protodeacon, full of faith and the Holy Spirit. His life was taken not by a sword; he was stoned to death. He had been “full of Holy Spirit… , saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” He identified with Jesus, which was his crime worth of a death by stoning.
Thus these innocent human beings proved the assertion of Christ who said: “ I came to bring a sword”. There was only one reason for their death: they looked like Jesus. Of the baby boys killed, one might have been Jesus; and Herod killed all of them; he did not want to take a chance of confronting a rivalry in Jesus.
In Christian history we have myriads of martyr who died for Christ; but these holy innocent babies, all less than two years, died instead of Christ. You could call them first martyrs of Christ, but the most thrilling account is that they looked like the Prince of peace, Jesus Christ. All the festivities of Christmas should halt instantaneously when you start to think that if you are Christ-like, the same swords that terminated the lives of those innocents and the stones that killed Stephen, are being sharpened to take your lives.
Yes, Christmas gives us peace, the first part of the paradox, but it becomes a paradox only when the other side is unveiled. Actually it is these innocent babies and the protodeacon Stephen, who trumpet the message of Christmas in a more cogent voice. In other words, Christmas is fundamentally the message not only of peace but also of sword; one complements the other!
The message of Christmas is about a gift; in theological language every gift is grace. Grace is always something given to human being freely, not based on our merits. It is this gift of grace that we receive in Christmas; but it implies sinlessness, the state of innocence acquired through genuine repentance. At this point we, our souls, resemble Christ. By His very nature Christ is what He is; when we resemble Christ it is by His grace; it is a gift. When we resemble Christ, when we become Christlike, we have already become children of God. The Fathers of the Church taught that “God became man so that we may become gods.” After your Baptism and Chrismation you have already become Christlike; you resemble Jesus, by becoming gods, by becoming children of God.
When the angels sang “peace to men of good-will”, it was not meant to men who are cheering and feasting on this day of Christmas. The peace granted is for men who are totally comminuted to Christ, totally transformed and resembled Christ. We experience this peace only when we are at peace with God and God is at peace with us. On the day God’s incarnation is celebrated , on the day the birth of the incarnate God is celebrated, man anxiously smiles at God, and God graciously smiles at him,; they are the points at which the restoration of the similitude of God, which was distorted in Eden, begins to take shape. We begin to assume the resemblance of God, which Adam had been but lost by his transgression. At this Christmas we also should assume God’s resemblance; then the peace granted at the first Christmas will be realized for us, and the sword we are going to confront will be lighter. The privilege of being Christlike, Godlike, is granted only to those who receive Him, not to anybody else. “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1: 11-13); this is the theology of Christmas, elucidated by St. John the apostle, who was very dear to his Master and who expounded true Christology. Yes, we are given the right to become His children, Christlike, Godlike, only when we receive Him. The festivities and sumptuous dinners do not have any significance if we do not shake off the old man of vengeance and sinfulness in us and receive Him as our true Savior, our true Messiah. Thus Christ becomes our peace; no one can take it from us; then we are Christlike.
The moment you become Christlike, our travail to confront the sword starts; that was exactly what the Holy Innocents experienced.
Christians are going to be hunted for being Christlike. Early centuries of Christianity witness the martyrdom of thousands who were Christlike. Since the 7th century after the eruption of and invasion by Islam, Christians, for being Christlike, were hunted and were forced to strip their resemblance of Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God. They had several options under the dhimya system enforced by militant Muslim rulers. One was to become a Muslim by rejecting Jesus, the Incarnate God, and embracing the ultimate prophethood of Mohammed; and many weak Christians gave up their faith and rejected the similitude to Christ. The other was to pay a very heavy tax for their protection in their own motherland, a tax which was enormously heavier than that of Muslim invaders. The third option was to leave the country of their ethnic origin and find asylum in a foreign land; thousands left for other countries which were gracious to receive them and they flourished in their host countries with pride; India was one of those countries. Some of the Syrian communities in South India are descendants of those Syrians/ Assyrians who escaped from persecution in the Middle East. The fourth option was to die for bearing the resemblance of Christ; and thousands perished not being able to leave their own country due to lack of resources to take a trip outside their country.
The pattern was not different in the recent past; thousands of Christians left Turabdin, Iraq and Syria for countries in Europe and the Americas. They proudly, but tearfully, ruminate over their glorious countries their fathers and forefathers naturally inherited, but lost to their invaders. Communism under Stalin banished millions of Orthodox Christians with their hierarchs to Siberia, and there most of them perished without adequate food and medicine in extreme frigid weather. In front of our own eyes we observe the atrocities committed by radical militant Islam against Christians in the Middle East, the demonic immorality practiced against their girls and the plunder that is reducing them to be penniless. Their only crime is looking like Christ, like Jesus, and living like Christ.
All for being Christlike, for resembling Christ!
There is no peace for a Christian in this world. But when he is at peace with God and God is at peace with him, he experiences genuine peace inside him despite the sharpest swords swung around him, severe persecutions that torture him. There are Herods still on the loose in this world; they will continue to hunt him down, and persecute him with their swords. Make no mistake; it is sword that is waiting for you, if you are like Jesus, if you are good Christian, a good Orthodox Christian.
When we become identified with Jesus, our swords may not always come from outside forces who oppose us; swords may come from our own family, our own church, our own community, our own superiors, our own bishops and priests. When we stand for genuine Orthodoxy, the true Gospel of Christ, sometimes by attacking phony and heretical ecumenism, we are observing Christ’s doctrines; and our Christlike image assumes more splendor. At this point those swords will come against us in ways of being ostracized, alienated, marginalized or even reprimanded. In this world it seems that we have to be team-players even when it is against Christ and the faith of the Church, otherwise we will end up paying a heavy price. A true Christian can never be politically-correct; he has to open his conscience to defend the truth revealed to him by Christ. Many priests are unable to do this according their conscience and according to the doctrines of the Church for fear of retaliation, not only by the congregants but also by their hierarchy. No one would leave us alone to live freely with the Christ we have identified.
This is the price we pay for bearing Christ. But our eternal reward for being subjected to these ordeals, whether from outside or from our community, or from our superiors, is our process of deification (theosis) through which is guaranteed our eternal life with the Savior. A good Christian who is Christlike may not be glorified by the world around him; some who are Christlike may be honored because of their position and influence. But a genuine Christian, who is like Jesus, may be persecuted by his own kinsfolk; but even if he does not get any popular acclamation or accolades, or a saint’s funeral, and even if he would seem to rot in an unmarked grave, he would go out of this world seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Always bear in mind: No Herod is a fool; his intention is not to kill you; the ultimate purpose is to destroy Jesus. When the innocent babies were killed, Herod’s intention was to kill Jesus, his rivalry. When Stephen was stoned to death, his persecutors wanted to destroy Jesus. When Islam killed Christians in the Middle East, it was to destroy Jesus. All these martyrs would have been saved from swords if they rejected Jesus from their lives. When the Liberal Radical Left with its modern world view forces you to greet your neighbor with a seemingly innocuous, but meaningless, “Happy Holidays!“ instead of “Happy Christmas!”, the agendum behind it is the destruction of Jesus the Christ! When they kill the Jesus in you, they kill the historic Jesus. Historic Jesus is a rival to all these Herods. They fear Him!
If you bear Christ, adversities are unavoidable; they could be from outside as swords for our destruction, or temptations or sorrows from inside. We cannot enjoy the peace given to us without the swords. In other words, we cannot just accept peace and avoid the sword. If the concept of Christmas is a paradox, we are forced to accept both sides of it. In other words, if you want to look like Jesus, you have to accept the consequences of looking like Jesus.
May the celebrations of the Feast of Nativity enlighten your minds to comprehend the real significance of peace granted to us through Christ and the inevitable sword attached to it!
We wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!
* The author gratefully acknowledges that some of the thoughts behind this editorial have been influenced by Patristic Theologian Walter Burghardt (All Lost in Wonder), a brilliant mind in his field.