Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Uncreated Star of Bethlehem

Five years ago I alluded to this, but I’ve just seen concise discussion of it from no less than the Father of the Church St. John Chrysostom, and from certain Old Testament prophecies ‘in its Light.’

It also makes me think of how some non-Orthodox “got saved” by God….  The Apolytikion (a hymn) given on this page brings home the point.  The Magi are commemorated as Saints on Dec. 25.  (Recall that Orthodoxy commemorates the Magi’s Adoration of the Incarnate YHWH not on Jan. 6 but at Christmas; our Great Feast of Theophany [Epiphany] focuses on His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner [Baptist].)  OrthodoxWiki mentions the memory of their eventual baptism by St. Thomas the Apostle to the Indo-Iranians, and service to The Church as Bishops.

What about the mentions of an angel?  Readers of this blog may recall our discussions of the uncreated Logos-Angel from many Old Testament theophanies … highlighted in the writings of Greek-American theologian Fr. John S. Romanides (†2001) … so this need not be a problem, especially because Orthodoxy reminds us that the Divine Hypostatic Logos is not circumscribed by His Incarnation, ie, not ‘completely contained’ in or limited by His Human Body.  Could He appear as Infant and “Angel” at the same time?  Unusual perhaps, but I don’t see why not, although I must confess I haven’t seen this explicitly discussed anywhere yet.

One Web source I read said Western European pagans, even before Christianization, appreciated this, as it were their ‘cameo’ appearance at the very beginning of Christianity’s New Testament.  Similarly, I can say that even as a blond Western Catholic child here in the States, I was fascinated by and appreciated my family’s small wood-and-hay(?) Nativity set featuring non-Mediterranean-looking “kings”: a blond, an African, and an East Asian!*  I also read that extracanonical accounts ‘internationalizing’ them are quite old indeed.  Well, they do “represent the Gentiles,” and foreshadow many more of our ancestors’ conversions to the Faith….  For some reason I thought of the “White” one as some aged King of England — I didn’t know then that that title and State didn’t exist during Christ’s life on Earth!

I couldn’t leave this off without a plug for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s “Christmas Star” (or another picture of it).  One night during college, around 1985-86, I was driving around town lost (though sober)** and someone told me I almost knocked it down or something!  It sits atop Wyandotte Hill/South Mountain, one of Penna.’s many long, skinny, relatively-low,*** ridge-like mountains, that divides the Lehigh Valley from the main Philadelphia area, as well as from my undergraduate school campus just south of Bethlehem.

And, twelve “kings”?  Catholic priest / sociologist / novelist Andrew Greeley’s Russian (Orthodox) lay student / artist / mystic / beauty / love interest in his 1997 Christmas / spiritual classic Star Bright! (available here) alludes to a 12-magi tradition, without many details except to say something I haven’t encountered personally in Orthodoxy yet, that “We Russians know there were 12 kings” (or words to that effect).  But an English translation of the apocryphal Syriac Revelation of the Magi has recently come out, and it names twelve.  Furthermore, if one Amazon reviewer reports correctly, if you have any Western European ancestry, you may have one or more Magi in your family tree.  How’s that for Gentile foreshadowing?!  Other reviews lead me to doctrinal caution about the Revelation [Apocalypse??] of the Magi, but also hint (seemingly unknowingly) at o/Orthodox Uncreated Energies Theology perhaps.  But some of the kings named by the Armenian reviewer have names or associations I might have encountered a long time ago while tracing my Norman Irish ancestors (Hibernicized McCoogs) into traditional medieval West European royal and noble genealogies … the kind today’s experts say are dubious, but were part of our cultures for most of the last thousand years if not longer … and geneticists now say we might all share in some way.  (Something like some Assyrian kings back there too, being Semites, traditionally then Kin of God!)  (This is another review I saw of it, from a Catholic perspective.)

PS: Many Years to Fr. Greeley!  Glad to see he’s doing better some!  Thank God!

(*–The one with the wind-up music box playing “Silent Night.”)

(**–If you can read and comprehend this without getting a headache, you’re a better driver than I was!)

(***–Compared to, say, the Adirondacks, or the Rockies.)

…available here!

On the site of the University of Michigan’s newspaper.  It’s just a few minutes, but includes BEAUTIFUL Russian choral music (in Church Slavonic, I presume), as well as service excerpts, and a few words from a priest about ‘Christmas in January.’  (Crank the volume, because it’s really low on the video.)

The sociologist and novelist, not the boxer … though he’s always been a fighter too!  Over the weekend his coat got caught in a taxi door in the Chicago area and he was dragged a bit, suffering a skull fracture.  (I’m sure he’s wondered since then if coats should be made of such strong stuff!)  He’s critical-but-stable in a Lutheran hospital’s surgical ICU.

His fiction as well as nonfiction have helped me learn about my Irish and Catholic background(s) in ways my working-class status couldn’t otherwise afford — no bagpipes or jigging growing up, no trips to The Old Country….  If anyone stood a chance of keeping me in the Catholic Church, it would’ve been he.  As I was returning to it in ’98 after 7 years among the Quakers and Mennonites, I asked him in an email, “What if I don’t agree with everything the Pope says?”  He responded, “Who does?”

Intriguingly, in recent years the religious resurrection of formerly-Communist Eastern Europe caught his attention as a sociologist of religion, and formed the backdrop of at least two of his novels — The Bishop Goes to THE University, about the apparent locked-room murder of a Russian monk at the U. of Chicago (it’s always apparent, isn’t it?!); and the stellar Star Bright!: A Christmas Story, which latter you must buy and read — meditatively — before the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, especially if you’re American, Irish, and/or of Catholic background!  Fr. Greeley’s information about Orthodoxy isn’t perfect, but passable.  Star Bright! is not a murder mystery, but one of the blossoming romance between a Chicagoan Irish Catholic college Russian Studies major and an artist and art history major from Russia, a mystical young lady raised there without religion in the final years of Communist rule, who embraced Orthodoxy as a teen, ie, just a few years prior.  I imagine she’s a stand-in for her entire country / church, though sadly, an American Russian Studies major certainly isn’t, for our country, yet.  Atypically for Greeley, although the girl is “luminous,” the boy is not described as great-looking, which he pointed out to me when I chided him once for making most of his good characters good-looking and his evil characters ugly.  Also, this novel contains almost no sexual material — just one mild, and as always sincere, grope above the waistline, IIRC, as well as evocative allusions to an alleged tradition of “Christmas love,” around which the novel turns.  No violence, but some US Irish Catholic family holiday conflict; as one character complains, “It’s too bad Christ had to be born at Christmas!”  IMHO a true Western-style spiritual classic, though of a lay, not clerical / Religious, orientation … and an acceptable little dip into Russian / Orthodox faith too.  The pair even visit a traveling exhibit of Alaskan and Siberian Orthodox artifacts, complete with references to Saints Herman and Innocent of Alaska, serenaded by a recording of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir: I believe this is the coffee-table book based on the actual exhibition, put together for the 200th anniversary of the 1794 Valaam Monastery (Russia) mission to Native Alaska that formally brought Orthodoxy to the Americas to stay.

As for The Bishop Goes to THE University (a Blackie Ryan mystery), my most memorable line comes from Bishop Blackie’s boss, Sean Cardinal Cronin of Chicago, after attending the monk’s lengthy funeral liturgy (probably liturgies): “Three hours, Blackwood!”  His Eminence was not amused!

O Holy Father, heavenly Physician of our souls and bodies, Who hast sent Thine only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to heal all our ailments and deliver us from death, do Thou visit and heal Thy servant, Father Andrew, granting him release from pain and restoration to health and vigor, that he may give thanks unto Thee and bless Thy holy Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.  (From the service of the Orthodox Mystery of Anointing.)

IIUC, some say one of the reasons for the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the West starting in the 1580s, and in favor of the Orthodox New Calendar or “Revised Julian Calendar” starting in the 1920s, was that with the movement of the astronomical Vernal Equinox with respect to the ‘official’ – or what we industrial moderns might call standardized – Vernal Equinox of March 21 (Old Style), is that otherwise Easter or Pascha would, after many, many years (40,000 or something?), “catch up with Christmas” or Nativity.

But I’ve just realized this is not true.  Unless it’s changed by human action, the Great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord will always be on December 25.  It so happens that, unless the Easter / Pascha rules are changed, *it* always falls from March 22 to April 25 inclusive, according to the calendar with which it is being computed – Gregorian for the West, “Julian” for the East (which is why sometimes Orthodox Pascha comes in May according to the New or Gregorian calendars).  And unless changed by some ridiculous human action, April 25 will never catch up with December 25!

What may happen, given alot of time, is that Orthodox Pascha will catch up with Gregorian and New Calendar Nativity/s.  But that’s the fault of the adopters of those newer calendars, right?!*  (Speaking objectively, that is!)

In that time frame though, we would see Pascha in Northern Hemisphere late Fall, and Nativity in NH late Summer or something.  But as an English priest said, Orthodox aren’t really worshiping the seasons.  And besides, Southern Hemisphere Christians are already celebrating these major feasts in different seasons from the North!

A trace of this movement is already seen in New Calendar jurisdictions (like my own, the Greek Archdiocese of America), where the Apostles’ Fast leading up to the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, is currently 13 days shorter than in Old Calendar jurisdictions and parishes – ie, shorter than it used to be – and some years is eliminated by a later Pascha.  In 2100 this will increase to two whole weeks.  Furthermore, while currently Orthodox Pascha usually comes one, four, or five weeks after Western Easter (otherwise, on the same day), in the 25th century it will add *six* weeks to the mix, AD 2698 will be the last year they coincide, and in 2725 it will come *two* weeks later for the first time – illustrating the general long-term thrust as being later than the Western dates.

(*–In the ’20s there was a proposal to change how Orthodox compute Pascha along with the New Calendar, that would remove this risk.  But no Orthodox Synod wanted to change Pascha.)

As you might suspect, this isn’t exactly what it sounds like.

If the old Catholic Encyclopedia had their history right a century ago – for instance, their pieces about Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – then besides Pascha, the earliest big Christian feast was around January 6.

(I’m not a professional historian, but ISTM the CE catalogs alot of fascinating historical data, including about the Early Church. They have a potentially-misleading Rome-centrism, they buy into alot of the early-PC “pagan influences” theories about certain practices in Christianity, and they really don’t understand alot of the Orthodoxy, Eastern or Western, about which they report. But often from their ‘bricks’ an Orthodox might be able to build a more reasonable picture of aspects of the past than the CE itself does. Even I try.)

It seems Jan. 6 (on whatever calendar) commemorated the many manifestations of Christ’s “glory” or Divinity, from His Nativity to His Transfiguration, including not only His revelation to the Magi but also miracles during His ministry – healings, the changing of water to wine at Cana, feedings of thousands, the raising of Lazarus, etc. The CE doesn’t have a truly satisfactory reason as to the choice of this date. As they indicate, this date went by many related names, such as Theophany, Epiphany, Manifestation, Apparition, Day of Light, etc. Interestingly, this multifaceted Feastday is still echoed in the Latin Liturgy of the Hours – in particular the Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons on the day itself, as I experienced as a teenager studying for the Latin priesthood and religious life.

(In Orthodox liturgy as in Judaism and many other ancient cultures, every day begins with Vespers [Evening Prayer] the night before, and ends at the beginning of Vespers that evening. But in the Latin Church, only Sundays and major feastdays begin the night before, and paradoxically, they continue through the ‘evening of,’ so they have two Vespers services, First and Second Vespers [or Evening Prayer I and II]. Several Latin services of the hours include Gospel Canticles, ie, hymns/poetry from the New Testament. Morning Prayer – what English-speaking Orthodox call Matins or Orthros – includes the Benedictus or Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of St. Luke 1: 68-79, and Evening Prayer includes the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary from Luke 1: 46-55. The Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons are recited or chanted before and after these Canticles, IOW, twice each service. And feastdays have antiphons that talk about the feast being commemorated.)

This is even though, as is well known, the Latins came to emphasize Christ’s first revelation to non-Jews, the Magi, shortly after His birth, over all other aspects of the Jan. 6 feast. Also, the name Epiphany ‘stuck’ in the West as its official designation, from Greek meaning a manifestation, although it is also well-known in Spanish as Dia de los Reyes, the Day of the [Three] Kings, and in English as Little Christmas, the end of the twelve-day Christmas celebration of Christ’s Nativity which begins December 25. (Although in recent years some local Latin Churches have been allowed by Rome to move Epiphany to a nearby Sunday, for many it remains a huge feast on whatever day of the week it falls.)

The CE says Christians in Rome tended to go along with the local Solstice-time celebration of the Sun (god)’s birthday, and so their leaders decided to make it, for them, a celebration of the birth according to the flesh of the Sun of Justice, the Dawn from on high, the one and only Lord, Jesus Christ. And the idea spread East, although Orthodox services for Dec. 25 include both the Lord’s birth and the visit of the Magi. “Christmas” of course is the name for the Dec. 25 feast in English, meaning “Christ Mass” or Liturgy; similarly, churches or cathedrals dedicated to Christ and called “Christ Church” in the English-speaking world generally mark their patronal feastday on Christmas, and Greek men named Christos, their nameday. Many other languages continue to call it Nativity: Spanish Navidad, Italian Natale, etc. The main Greek word is Gennesis, which can mean begetting or birth (‘generation’), which – I could be corrected on this – I believe is why in Orthodoxy we often see it referred to in full as “the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ According to the Flesh,” to distinguish it from His begetting by God the Father from all eternity, even though I don’t believe the word nativity could ever be mistaken by English-speakers for anything other than His birth according to the flesh.

Meanwhile the East came to emphasize the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan among the older multiple Jan. 6 manifestations, and the name Theophany generally stuck, Greek for the revelation of God, although sometimes Orthodox call it Epiphany. The West came to mark a separate Feast of the Baptism of the Lord shortly after Jan. 6. Theophany is considered a huge feast in Orthodoxy, while the Lord’s Baptism is not, in Latinism, though as already noted, Epiphany in much of Latinism still is. This causes some confusion for Latins, who believe that for the Orthodox the Magi are extremely important, because Latins associate the Magi with Jan. 6, Orthodox Theophany. Ironically, if you don’t get to an Orthodox parish for the services held before the actual Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, the only Gospel you’ll hear at Nativity IS the Magi Gospel, since the birth narrative comes earlier in the day’s schedule of multiple services.

Speaking of holiday excess, as the CE notes – see under “Popular merry-making”! – it’s always been a complaint of some Christians about other Christians at this time of year, even in ancient times! One thing I didn’t know is that Latin Advent, the period currently set-off by the four Sundays before Dec. 25, used to have a fasting practice, though like the Orthodox Nativity Fast or Philipovka (because it starts November 15 after the feast of St. Philip the Apostle), not as strict as the Great Fast/Lent. Though in some times and places Advent began at the Fall Equinox, in September! And once, because of the 12 Days of Christmas’ partying getting out of hand, a further fast was imposed then! The thing is, Orthodox “feasting” is advised not to become a license for overindulgence and debauchery, enslavement to the passions we’ve just spent an entire season working to free ourselves more from. But Latin Advent now is limited to a liturgical season, with service prayers and readings emphasizing waiting for the Lord’s coming(s) into the world and people’s hearts and lives – much more developed in that sense than Orthodox practice, although Orthodox hymns in church occasionally evoke preparation for Nativity. Western Advent is a fall/winter Lent without the fasting. Orthodox sometimes call their fast the Advent Fast.

How Orthodox handle near and dear Heterodox “feasting” during their Advent is often an issue and a question, especially for recent converts to jurisdictions that try to maintain something of the traditional Orthodox Fast for the full 40 days, throughout U.S. Thanksgiving Day (for New Calendar Orthodox), workplace and organization (pre)Christmas parties, etc. But I recall that for thousands of years for most Christians and their forebears, that is, north of the Tropics, this period has fallen between Fall harvest and Spring planting, an agricultural down-time often used for extra cultural and social activities, including packing-on calories and body-fat together for the long, cold winter. “Old habits die hard!”

Then there’s the shopping-madness. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” says the Lord, according to St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. But of course, amid would-be recipients’ expressed demands, our pressure on ourselves in their regard, and the rage of traffic, parking lots, and store aisles, it doesn’t necessarily feel blessed in the preparation! Sorry, I don’t have any new solutions for that one!

Hey, check out the latest in the ongoing production of what may indeed be shaping-up as an “epic motion picture” as Hollywood says, the biopic of the REAL St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Asia Minor, VERY Orthodox Father of the First Ecumenical Synod (at Nicea), Miracle-worker, philanthropist, defender of teens’ chasteness, rescuer of the storm-tossed, etc etc etc! Here’s the main page, click through till you see “Updates,” and go there. (The website has two versions, so I won’t prejudge which “Updates” link you’ll want to follow.)

Recent highlights include a mini web-documentary, and a moving photo-montage with new music from the sountrack.

This was my first post on it, and this was my second. I just hope I won’t have to shuffle up to Buffalo from Philly to see it – hoping for Xmas ’08 – lake-effect snow and everything!!!

Out-of-season, but not in all ways, since I’m here ‘talking about Orthodoxy’ and all… and Neo-Pagans are always somewhere around! I’m not sure about all the alleged facts on this page, and take strong exception to one Commenter’s endorsement of the genocide of the Aztecs no matter what they are alleged to have been doing. But the general thrust of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s article and many of the responses is helpful for me. And yes, I’m still drafting my own “faith journey,” but I’m afraid it’s gonna be terribly ‘cerebral’! 😉

(Not that anyone’s asked…! Or needs to…. I think the blogosphere is like the saying I once heard: “Some people can speak at the drop of a hat; he brings his own hat!” And no, it wasn’t about me… then!)

(Oh, and about Pagans… maybe that’s one reason they’re called Neo-Pagans? But there are some who claim to be “Orthodox Pagans,” though I haven’t studied them at all, just saw it on a T-shirt once, I think at a Louisville Irish Fest at Bellarmine College – er, University! – in Kentucky about a decade ago, over with the Society for Creative Anachronism folks; maybe that should tell me something?!! Of course, Fr. John Romanides would say pre-Judeo-Christianity IS “religion,” and the Gospel – Old Testament and New – is its CURE…. Maybe a different perspective, different topics of discussion, different contexts, etc. Or maybe that’s just the kind of thing to expect from a half-pagan Irish Catholic/ Native American “both/and” Orthodox like me!!! 😉 )