by George Aramath
As the clock strikes midnight, everyone gathers around the Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday with joyful greetings and gifts. Time passes away swiftly with all the excitement. And once everyone is in bed, a few hours later, the alarm sounds. It’s time to go to church for Christmas service in the early morning. Why go? What happens anyway?
If one asks a child what they remember about Christmas service, they’ll usually mention the procession around fire. But this service, like all services, has significance that goes beyond the mere actions performed. John Breck writes, “liturgical worship allows us to perceive aspects of reality that go far beyond the limits of the scientifically observable . . . it allows the transcendent light and truth to penetrate into the realm of our personal and ecclesial experience”1 . Since the service brings the reality of Christ’s birth into the present day, the faithful are lead to question how they would react to this birth. And ultimately it guides them to react with praise and thanksgiving.
All throughout the Christmas service, the Church incorporates into it a necessity for change in the lives of the attending faithful. The service begins with a procession. The clergy and the deacons dressed in their vestments carry the Gospel, the Cross, the censer, and lit candles. As the faithful follow, they sing, “The Virgin has begotten the Wonderful; let us go and behold Him”2. The faithful, like the wise men, go in search of the One. The procession ends once everyone gathers outside around a large area filled with palm leaves that were used during Palm Sunday. The opening prayer by the priest testifies to the call of the faithful to this birth:
“Make us worthy, O Lord God, to hallow You . . . to bless You . . . to glorify You . . . to adore You . . . to exalt You with the innocent shepherds unceasingly; to worship You with the discerning wise men steadfastly; and to rejoice in You”.3
The priest, on behalf of the people, supplicates before God to instill in them a reaction like the wise men in Gospel of St. Matthew and the shepherds in Gospel of St. Luke.
Soc Digest As the Gospel according to Luke 2:1-20 is read, the celebrant pauses when the angels bring news of the birth of Christ to the shepherds saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good hope for men”4. At this point, the priest burns the palm leafs, starting a fire around the entire area. Then the people repeat these same words of the angel while encircling the fire. Like the shepherds, the faithful gather to see the birth of Christ. The Church symbolically represents Christ as fire, pointing to several Scriptural texts. For instance, in the Old Testament, Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush5. And in the New Testament, the Gospel according to St. John speaks of Christ’s birth in the following manner: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”6. This fire can also be seen as the star that directed the wise men towards Christ. Regardless of the interpretation, the more important meaning is bringing this event into the present, as Christ is born today. It is not a mere reenactment of what happened thousands of years ago but a present day reality. Christ is born today, in this place, with the gathered congregation.
Once the service proceeds back to the altar, the priest, holding the Cross high, recites the following prayer facing East: “Make us worthy, O Lord, to honor Your birth . . . We beseech You to regenerate us, spiritually, in daily fruitful works that are pleasing unto You”7. After seeing the birth of Christ, the faithful are now called to react to it with change. In other words, if Christ is born within us, we are spiritually changed. Then the priest turns West praying, “Make Your light to shine forth in our souls”8. Facing North, the priest entreats, “Grant us, our Lord, that we may rejoice in Your feast”9, and finally facing South the priest supplicates, “to recognize without any doubt that You are the true God”10. The service ends with “The Blessing of the Four Corners of the World” where the faithful recites the Trisagion ending with “who were born for our sake, have mercy upon us”11. In another words, all of this calls for a reaction of change towards Him.
Furthermore, the Church calls upon its faithful to react to Christ’s birth with a full understanding of His mission; he was born to die. So throughout the Christmas service, the Cross is central. Everything leads up to it, including His birth. Furthermore, the Church guides its believers not only to see His birth, but like the wise men, to move in a different direction than they initially came. “By means of our celebration, we undertake a journey of the soul, whose end is communion with the eternal God. At the same time, God approaches us through our celebration, to give content and direction to our worship, and through it to unite us to Himself”12. This is where one finds meaning in this service. The religious message of spiritual change is emphasized throughout. It is not in the mere attending of the service that one is saved but in the active participation in the actions performed and words spoken/sung. The birth of Christ is made relevant today as it brings spiritual rebirth for the created with their Creator.
1) John Breck, God With Us:Critical issues in Christian life and faith
(Crestwood: SVS Press, 2003), 146.
2) Murad Barsom, Ma’de’dono: The Book of the Church Festivals (Lebanon: Archdiocese of Syriac Orthodox Church, East USA, 1984), 11.
3) Ibid., 13.
4) Luke 2:14.
5) Exodus 3:4.
6) John 1:9.
7) Barsom, 27.
8) Ibid., 29.
9) Ibid., 31.
10) Ibid., 31.
11) Ibid., 33.
12) Breck, 146.
The Jesus of Christmas: Who was the baby
in the manger?
So who was the baby in the manger? The answer to that question is the most important one in all history. For if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, his promise of eternal peace is empty. But if Jesus was who he claimed to be, then our lives can have no meaning without him.
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