On Celebrating Nativity


Yesterday was Feast of the Nativity – our Orthodox Christmas. As people new to the Orthodox church, we are still learning how to walk between these dates and traditions. Our Protestant families celebrate the 25th of December and we will continue to do this. But along with that is a new celebration on the 7th of January. While December 25th held stockings, gifts, and a special Christmas dinner, January 7th is celebrated completely at the church.  We are celebrating with many others around the world who also celebrate the Nativity on this day.

We began Tuesday evening with a vigil preparing us for the celebration on the 7th. Beautiful troparions reminded us of the importance of this day, along with readings and scripture all pointing to the birth of our Lord.

Wednesday had us up and at the church by nine in the morning for Divine Liturgy. The icon of Mary giving birth, surrounded by angels and midwives was at the front of the church, surrounded by flowers. As I went to the front to venerate the icon I longed to stay longer, standing before that icon, thinking about the birth, remembering and honoring this woman, who all generations will call “blessed.” But the line behind me had grown and it wasn’t the time to stop.

I wish I could describe for you the beauty of these services. The candles casting a golden glow over icons, the hush and expectancy in the air, the choir to the right of the iconostasis, leading us in these words:

How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.
-Kathisma from the Orthros of the Nativity of Christ

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).

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 . O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

I have often missed the Christmases of my youth; Christmas celebrations that contained so much more corporate worship. We always went to church on Christmas, celebrating with the Pakistani Christian minority, singing carols in Urdu at the top of our lungs accompanied by a harmonium. Miss Mall, a Punjabi woman with lungs as large as her personality would begin the songs when we lived in Larkana, others when we lived in Shikarpur. We were dressed in our very best, and “Barra Din Mubarak ho” was on the lips of everyone.

Our new traditions in the Orthodox church remind me of the community gatherings of my past, gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We gather together in our best. We have been fasting together for six weeks, honoring the struggle as a community. We meet with the words “Christ is Born!” and we respond “Glorify Him!”  Who better to gather with than fellow Christians?

Yet in the west, our church celebrations have been replaced by the all important nuclear family. They become individualized, lacking community focus. It is nuclear families that gather, preferring ‘family’ time. But that leads to all kinds of sad. When nuclear families are struggling, when a teenager is not speaking to their parents, when family members decide against going to mom and dads, when divorce divides a family, it leaves people alone on Christmas. Alone to celebrate an event in history that even those who don’t believe acknowledge through the yearly calendar. For so many it has become a day marked by stress, debt, loneliness, and sadness. The individual has replaced the community and we are the sadder for it.

After Divine Liturgy, we eat a feast fit for a king, or at least a bishop. All the cheese, cream, and meat that we have fasted from in the past weeks is on the table in abundance. We fill our plates so high that half way through we laughingly acknowledge that we over estimated our ability through that age-old idiom “My eyes were bigger than my stomach!”

We left the church in the bitter cold of the day, heading into a world that was busy with the day’s work, business as usual. But despite this, the words of the troparion continued to go through my head – “Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom….” 

This is Nativity. This is the celebration of the birth of our Lord.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 14 “Becoming Greek”

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

“So when are you becoming Greek?”

Come again?

I was at our neighborhood restaurant, The Village Grill — a fine dining establishment that serves the food you want most on a Friday night. Pizza, Gyros, subs, calzone, chicken kebab over Greek salad — it’s all there and it’s great.  A small framed news article on the wall from years ago depicts Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both originally from Cambridge, in an interview stating this restaurant is their favorite Cambridge “dining establishment’.  Not only is the food flavorful and comfortable, we always get to talk to our resident Greek philosopher, Theo, the owner.

Theo knows everyone in the neighborhood.

When Theo found out we were attending the Orthodox church he was full of curiosity. He wanted to know more about it. The questions included why? Which one? The Greek church up the street? Theo was baptized in the church as a baby and though he rarely goes, his wife attends every Sunday. She loves the Church.

“You mean when are we becoming Orthodox? When are we being Chrismated?” I said, a bit puzzled.

“Yeah, you know. Becoming Greek. Ya know it’s hard to become Greek. It’s not easy”

The way much of the west understands the Orthodox church is around ethnicity. There’s Greek Orthodox. There’s Russian Orthodox. There’s Bulgarian Orthodox. There’s the Orthodox Church of America. There’s the Russian Orthodox Church of America. When people ask us about becoming Orthodox, they immediately go to ethnicity. They want to know ‘which orthodox?’. It’s valid.

Faith and ethnicity is not a problem unique to the Orthodox church, indeed it rears it’s ugly, divisive head in Christianity in many other ways and denominations.

But since my faith journey is leading me into the Eastern Orthodox church I am naturally concerned and irritated about this issue in the Orthodox church. Because no – I am not becoming Greek, despite the fact that I love Greeks and sort of wish I was one.

And this is what comes to mind as I discuss “becoming Greek” with our friend and restaurant owner.

As a blog post I don’t have either the time or inclination to dig deeply into the history of these divisions. I do understand some of them to have come from the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian diaspora and their desire to preserve their culture, which was uniquely united with their faith. To be Greek was to be Orthodox. And it’s understandable. Much of the way Orthodoxy spread has been through migration of ethnic groups as opposed to an evangelical mission movement. And the more I read, the more I realize this has been written and talked about for centuries.

As I read and study more I am heartened that I am not the only one troubled by ethnic divisions. I am encouraged by these words from Fr John Peck:

“The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch….. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.”

“So what unites the Orthodox Church?”  I ask, looking for answers. Worship of God as expressed through the Divine Liturgy. No matter what language or ethnicity, this will be the same. Holy Tradition and belief that the Holy Spirit sustains this Holy Tradition, building up the Church through the ages. These are the hallmarks that unite what ethnicity and culture tend to confuse.

There is also a distinction that should be made between the beauty of traditions made rich from the influence of ethnicity and culture and the divisions that clothing the gospel in ethnocentric robes can bring. With the first I am more aware of how big and creative God is, how much he delights in culture and ethnicity and how rich and beautiful worship can be. With the second, I am made to feel I don’t belong unless I am Greek (or Russian or Bulgarian — depending on the service)

Christianity is a faith that is available for all people in all cultures at all times. I will stand by that until the day I die. My faith journey is moving me into Orthodox faith and tradition, and I am learning more about Christ’s love for the Church and thus the importance of the Church in my faith through this. It is how God is leading me. And though divisions have come and gone through the ages, the Holy Spirit marches on at the whims of no one and nothing.

If the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the building of the Church, ethnic divisions have not a chance. 

And so “No – I am not becoming Greek.”

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