Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest
Christmas as a celebration for everyone makes religion a place of hospitality. That being said, I have no doubt that Christmas will always remain a deeply biblical and truly Christian celebration. The whole world celebrates the Feast of the Nativity on 25 December. But a special blessing for the Russian Church and those who know her is that the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars creates a 13-day delay, making Christmas a long holiday of 13 days. So why is it 25 December?
There are two possible explanations for this. One explanation is ideological, the other historical. Both theories, like everything to do with Christmas, are complementary. The first stems from the fact that the Roman Empire celebrated the Day of the Invincible Sun on 25 December in honour of the winter solstice. To replace this pagan festival with a Christian one, the Church introduced into the liturgical calendar the feast of the Nativity, that is, the birthday of Jesus Christ. The main liturgical hymn, a troparion, contains the following words in this context: “Your birth, O Christ our God, shine to the world as the light of reason”.
While acknowledging the validity of this explanation, it is important to remember that the most important Christian feast at that time next to Easter was the feast of the Epiphany, that is, the feast of the appearance of the Saviour to the world on 6 January (19). Today, the baptism of Christ is celebrated on this day, but originally this day was a celebration of the appearance of the Saviour to the world – simultaneously birth, baptism, the arrival of the Messiah and epiphany. A separate feast in honour of the birth of Christ was gradually accepted, and in some ancient Eastern churches (Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian) it remained 6 (19) below the previous date.
The second version of the date of the feast says that at the time of Jesus Christ there was a conviction among the Jewish people that the Righteous One, ie the Messiah and Redeemer, had to die on the day of his conception. Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross was the only date that could be chronologically verified. This was because in the particular year in which Jesus was crucified the Jewish Passover was tied to the corresponding date. The crucifixion fell on 25 March. And nine months counted from the day of the Annunciation, that is, the conception of Jesus from the Virgin by the Holy Spirit, gave the date of 25 December. The development of history, biblical studies, theology and other sciences allows the drawing of such conclusions.
Each event and concept has its own range of understanding. The range of understanding of Christmas by the secular community “swings” from Christmas as the day of the birth of “Jesus Christ” to a symbolic, familial, communal, fairy-tale celebration that has no ideological or religious significance.
In order to get a sense of the rich semantic baggage which theological thought in the fourth and fifth centuries associated with Christmas, we can turn to one of the “theorists” of the Nativity event, the great teacher of the Church of Carthage, Bishop Augustine (354-430). Regarding the nature of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ the Saviour in those days when this feast day was just introduced into the Church calendar, Augustine writes the following in one of his only recently(!) uncovered sermons: “In humility our Creator appeared as creation. He who created us was created for our sake. God, who was before time, became man in time to redeem us from time. The Great Physician came to heal our tumour. From the east of the sun to the west, the human race lay in sickness. It needed a great physician. In the beginning, this physician sent his helpers. But when the people despaired in their waiting, he himself appeared” (Word 32:5).
As in many of his other works, Augustine never ceases to amaze us with his modernity. Here is time and its overcoming; sickness and the inability of human being to heal itself; here is God understood as the true physician. Already the thoughts of the great theologians of that time saw in Christmas not only the commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but also a synthesis of space and time, a reflection of the whole history of humanity through the prism of the relationship between man and God.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, Christmas is preceded by a forty-day period of Lent. It is essentially the same preparatory period in which both the Church and society prepare for the celebration of Christmas. Unfortunately, the 70 years of atheist dictatorship in Russia have eliminated many of the secular traditions of Christmas preparation so it is very difficult for us to understand what the pre-Christmas season was like in the secular, pre-revolutionary society of the Russian Empire.
The Lord comes not in the great city of Jerusalem but in a little cave near Bethlehem he is born. In the event of Christ’s birth, the Magi from the far East – who according to tradition were also kings – come to worship him. They do not even notice that it is a manger surrounded by animals. For the kings see the Lord before them and the whole world becomes his palace, the abode of the great King.
The abolition of all human and invented divine majesty and splendour. In the event of the birth of Christ, the angels praise like children. They claim the praise of the shepherds. Everything happens in reverse order. For now it is no longer the people who call upon the angels as mediators as was the case before. But the angels themselves call upon the people to rejoice.
In the event of the birth of Christ, the night becomes light. The praise of the angels fills not heaven but earth. Not through threats but through love for humanity it glorifies the Creator by singing that henceforth in humanity is the good pleasure of God.
In the event of the birth of Christ one person remains alone. The only one who never understood the changing times: King Herod. He asks the Magi to tell him the secret of the birthplace of the Messiah so that he can “go and worship”. Worship as kings used to worship the King of kings. But the Lord is going away from him. The Lord goes to Egypt and does not want royal worship.
In the event of Christ’s birth all faithful come together to witness with their presence and their joy the truth that God has changed the world. That from now on everything is different. In the event of Christ’s birth, the big has become small. The small, like the bread and wine in the Eucharist, has been transformed into the great. We who are so different and so similar, such limited people, human beings, each of us with our number of years of experience, our biography, are made now endless, without end.
When we celebrate the Lord’s birthday, we should understand this feast as a call. It is not a historical commemoration, nor a beautiful, decorated and impeccably loving one that appeals to every citizen of our planet but instead it reveals the very essence of our own existence.
In the event of the birth of Christ, God is with us. There are so many meanings hidden in the great and saving day of Christmas that today, on the day of the feast, we need to focus on the essentials. God is with us!