Title: The Feast of the Nativity
Subject: The Feast of the Nativity, its hymns, icons, scripture, and history.
Age: 13 + years
Liturgical Time: December 25
Doctrinal Content: Through a slight study of two saints, we see how the Feast of the Nativity came to be celebrated in the Church and connected to Epiphany. In addition, several scripture passages from Vespers, Matins, Royal Hours and the Liturgy of the Nativity are discussed.
Direct Aim: The direct aim is to become more familiar with this specific Feast of the Nativity, its history, hymns, scripture and iconography, and to know the true meaning of this feast, that the event of Christ's birth is not the primary focus of our devotion, rather, it is what His birth has done for mankind.
Indirect Aim: To learn how this feast is related to others celebrated in the church, become familiar with the development of this feast, understand the meaning and preparation of Advent, and to understand how the themes of light and dark have a place in Advent and the anticipation of Christ's birth.
Materials for the Lesson Plan
Note taking is recommended for students.
Icon of the Feast of the Nativity
Bible Verses: (see "Scripture" and "Feast Day Scriptural Readings" for further verses)
- John 1.9
- Colossians 3.4-11
- Luke 14:16-24
Begin with a prayer and welcome the students.
The Festal hymn of the Nativity: "Thy nativity O Christ our God, has shone upon the world with the light of knowledge: for thereby they who adored the stars through a star were taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high, O Lord, glory to Thee."
Many know this Feast of the Nativity as Christmas. Note that in the language of the church, it is the Feast of the Nativity. However it is also known as the feast of the Incarnation. This word represents so much conceptually and theologically for the Orthodox Church. In a sense this feast represents how we approach theology and ministry.
The Feast of the Nativity is connected to the Feast of Epiphany/Theophany. The feast of the Nativity as we have said before was initially celebrated on January 6th along with the Feast of Theophany. This feast, Theophany, is seen by the Church as the first glorious manifestation of Jesus Christ, whereas the narrative and event of His birth have always, specifically in the liturgical tradition, been shrouded in darkness. Thus the connection between these two feasts was eventually made by the Church. The one, His Baptism, was a certain expression of His identity in the world. The other more obscures, but nonetheless a manifestation. And so they have had a connection which until recently was felt amongst the faithful. We too must come to appreciate these feasts as connected. Christmas is the starting point and Epiphany is the culmination, so that we see them as an indivisible liturgical unit.
It may be helpful at this point to note the development in piety that accompanied the influence of two western saints, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century, and St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century. Through their influence, devotion and attention were placed more upon the earthly realities of Christ's birth and of the flesh and blood humanity of this event. We see the introduction of the Crèche and attention to the manger scene as a sign of devotion and focus.
Now it may be beneficial to re-introduce the original and more ancient understanding of this feast which is apparent in the liturgical prayers and hymns of the Church. Namely, that in the Incarnation we experience and recognize the eternal reality, the shift in the reality of human nature. Light has overcome darkness; the night of sin has been obliterated by the Divine presence and radiance. And while this certainly happened with the historical coming of Christ--He was born--the events themselves are not our primary focus and object of our devotion but what this has done for mankind.
In continuing the point above, let me say at the outset that the feast of the Nativity is ultimately a feast of the mystical Body of Christ, the Incarnation. The Apostle states in 1 Corinthians 12.27, "You are the body of Christ and particular members of it." What the Church has to say about this event goes to the heart of what we profess and believe occurred in Christ's coming and the impact this had upon every human being. We state that through the Incarnation an ineffable union, beyond human understanding, was established between Christ and men:
"Beyond the particular historical event which took place at Bethlehem and through which the Son of God took on a visible human body, another event took place that concerns the whole human race: God, in becoming incarnate, in some way weds and assumes the human nature which we all share and creates between himself and us a relationship which, without its ever ceasing to be that between the Creator and his creature, is also that between the body and its members. There is union without confusion. Christmas allows us to become most deeply conscious of what is our true nature, human nature, regenerated by Jesus Christ."
Before speaking of the date for celebrating the Nativity of Jesus Christ, we should back up and speak about the development of the feast in the life of the church. Like many aspects there is both development as well as ancient history. To the first point let us say that the celebration of this feast is first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria around 200 AD. Egyptians celebrated His nativity on May 20. Now sometime before 350 the date for the celebration of Christmas in Alexandria was established on January 6, the same date was fixed as the celebration for the Feast of Epiphany/Theophany. Meanwhile in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, around 380, St. Gregory of Nyssa mentions December 25 as the date for marking Christ's entry into the world. Add to this that Christians in Jerusalem ignored this feast altogether until the 6th century! And even St. Augustine omitted Christmas from the list of first class feasts of the Church! Imagine no Christmas in Jerusalem or Bethlehem!
The whole idea of celebrating Christ's birth was established and determined by the Church over several centuries. Eventually the feast of the Nativity came to be recognized throughout the Christian world and a date for celebrating this was established, December 25. Why December 25? Most likely the Church wished to Christianize pagan feasts that were celebrated in December: The birth of Dionysios at Delphi; the Saturnalia (12/1-12/23); and most especially the Natalis Invicti, the feast of the Invincible Sun, or Winter Solstice. The Church Father, Cyprian, noted that the feast of the Invincible Sun had truly come to pass in the birth of Jesus Christ, the true light and the only invincible one.
The Feast of the Nativity comes at that particular time in the calendar year and the flow of seasons, the time when winter has reached its zenith and the daylight is at its shortest duration. From the time of the Winter Solstice forward, the amount of daylight increases. The Feast also comes at the end of a prolonged period of preparations, the fixed date for the start of Advent in the Orthodox liturgical tradition is November 15. Therefore the amount of time leading up to this feast is surpassed only by the feast of the Resurrection.
This period of time, simply put, is about preparation and expectation for the coming feast. Yet we could say that the primary concept of Advent is; "the coming of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah." Chronologically, we know that our Lord has already come. In terms of Kairos, we know that He is always coming. His entrance into the world is an ever-present reality. Nevertheless, the period of Advent affords us the opportunity to contemplate this event in a more intense and deliberate manner.
The theological importance of the Nativity can sometimes be summed up in saying that through the Nativity God becomes Emmanuel. He is the One who comes to dwell with and in us. This reality is not easily understood nor appreciated, much less lived. Advent then gives us the time to properly prepare for, reflect upon, and enter into this new way of existence. If this theology of coming is perfected in us, then what is contrary or opposed to the Lord Jesus is replaced by Him.
For a moment let me return to a concept I introduced a moment ago in my discussion on the context of Advent. I spoke of the physical calendar and the shortening of days that occurs in the natural world as we approach the winter solstice. We have said that the time of Advent is a time of preparation, expectation, and of reflection and realization of the "Coming One, Jesus Christ." This time of Advent and its corresponding ideas are further informed by the idea of light. Light is a major theme of Advent and of the feast itself. We await the Light that will shine forth. And as we have seen the physical darkness is overcome by light, so also we hope to see the spiritual darkness in our souls be overcome by the Light of all men coming into the world. Read John 1.9 aloud.
Our understanding of Advent and thus of the feast of the Nativity is further expanded by examining the liturgical readings that precede the feast on Sundays. In looking carefully at the Gospel readings prescribed for the Sundays of Advent we see no intentional connection between them and the upcoming feast. In fact only the two Sundays during Advent have readings associated with the feast itself. These readings are to be read alongside the other prescribed readings which in modern usage have been suppressed.
These readings are on the Sunday of the Ancestors of the Lord, we read Colossians 3.4-11, Luke 14:16-24, and Matthew 22:14. (Read these now). On the Sunday of the Genealogy of Christ, we read Hebrews, 11.9-10; 32-40, and Matthew 1.1-25 (Read these now). While this reality forces us to admit that a period of preparation before the Nativity is a relatively late development, nevertheless in these two Sundays the Church provides some additional context for the feast.
First let's look at the Sunday of the Ancestors of the Lord. This Sunday comes two Sundays before the feast, and in it we remember every ancestor from Adam to John the Baptist. Particularly the Church brings to mind figures from the Old Testament and how so many of them operate as a type of Christ:
- Abel, the first martyr and prototype of the Good Shepherd;
- Melchisedek, a type of eternal priest;
- Isaac, sonship and sacrifice;
- Jacob, free election, patient service and conversion;
- Joseph, features of the passion of our Lord and redemption.
In this Sunday the story of Daniel and the three youths is also brought to mind. Two points: A fire that does not consume, just as the Divine Presence and life which now comes to dwell among men, does not consume, and secondly, the three youths in the Greek version/Patristic exegesis are visited by the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, for the Hebrew version and their exegesis angels. Yet the point remains, God is present in the midst of the fire, in the midst of the trials and suffering.
Now let's look at the Sunday that immediately precedes the feast, the Sunday of the Genealogy of Christ. It seems that the Church's intent is to bring everyone into the joy of Christ's coming into the world. The reading from the first chapter of Matthew does not attempt to provide an accurate and exact genealogy. Rather the list contains a list of all sorts of people, each with their own story, and many marked by grave sins. The point seems to be that Christ in coming into the world is connected to everyone and their individual stories. He brings all of them and their sins to Himself and overcomes them. And so we are connected to each sin and each person to the genealogy of Christ, and to the progression of generations, and the process of purification until we can come to Joseph and Mary, who were ready to receive Christ!
Two last contextual aspects to this feast: First, if we are bringing to mind through Advent the coming of Christ into the world through the Nativity, what is often referred to as the first Advent of Christ, then what other event might also be implied? The answer is the Second Coming, the Second Advent, His Second and Glorious Return. Secondly, the day before the feast is Christmas Eve. A peculiar aspect of this feast, also seen with Pascha, is the intensity of the liturgical worship the day before the feast. Like Pascha the services of the day before and the readings are longer and more complete than the actual day of the feast. For example, the Royal Hours read on Christmas Eve and on the eve of Pascha, Holy Saturday, tell within the Biblical narrative the theology of the feast: Systematically the Church reads first the Old Testament prophecy, then the Epistle, followed by the Gospel.
Why this intense day of liturgical activity and prayer the day prior? It seems to be a final push, per se, though the Church lays out all the cards, it spends time in liturgy instructing the people so that when the day of the feast comes, one can enter and celebrate. The instruction ceases and one enjoys the party. It is like a family preparing for their holiday dinner, frantic and busy preparation occurs the day before, cook books are out, recipes checked, linens cleaned, tables set, etc. But when the feast day arrives, it is time to eat and feast!
Display and discuss the icon of the Nativity, pointing out features that speak to you and asking the students to do that same.
At Vespers on December 24, we hear hymns of the fore-feast. In the Kekragaria, we hear that which has been foretold and prophesied has come to pass. God will be clothed with what we are because of His compassion for us. We hear the thoughts of Mary, she wonders how she is to nurse God; her son is her God?! She worships the babe in her arms! How has her womb grown the Redeemer and God? She is to name Him and call Him this name. Remember that she knows who it is that she has given birth to, and He who holds our creation in His hands is held by me.
And on and on this poetry goes throughout various hymns: In the Aposticha we hear this event is a mystery. The hymns literally ask us to use our minds to contemplate the great mystery in the cave, which is itself a dark place. The hymn continues with perfect God and perfect man, and the Biblical events are recounted. Poetically we are called to consider three points:
- He Who Is, becomes that which He was not, a man.
- The Fashioner of all creation takes form.
- Eden must now open its gates again. In being born and taking on our nature, Christ has raised our fallen image.
At Matins of the fore-feast we hear in the sessional hymns that God is incarnate without change but His condescension is beyond comprehension. We are asked to contemplate each group or character in this narrative and act in a like manner. In the Canon we hear of light. In the Kontakion we ponder that humanity offers to God a young maiden, and in a sense humanity offers itself. In the Lauds, the expectation of the ages is now come, and we are to set aside former desires so that we may cling to Him, and we hear more of light.
At Vespers prior to the feast, during the Kekragaria we hear that the reverse of the fall occurs, the flaming sword and the Cherubim draw back, and the Garden is reoccupied. We hear of light, that a virgin has been offered, and we are enrolled in the Kingdom of God; we are made citizens of this kingdom.
Feast Day Scriptural Readings:
Note: The Orthodox Church uses a version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This version is used by the church because all of the New Testament writers used this version. It is a larger version than Protestant or Catholic versions of the Old Testament; it differs in books, numbering, etc.
- Psalms 5, 44/45, 45/46 (Septuagint numbering)
- Prophecy of Micah, 5.2-4; Bethlehem
- Hebrews, 1.1-12; the incarnation of the Son of God
- Matthew 1.18-25; the story of Mary being betrothed to Joseph; his decision to put her away quietly; the visitation of angels to him; the revelation of Who she hold in her womb.
- Psalms 66/67, 86/87, 50/51
- Prophecy of Jeremias: found in the writings of his secretary Baruch, in the Protestant canon, part of the Apocrypha, 3.35-4.4. It is a prophetic poem concerning God's special gift to Israel, a child His beloved who will live among men.
- Galatians, 3.23-39; gift of sonship, the putting on of Christ through baptism, the release from service and subjugation to the law
- Luke, 2.1-20; the narrative of Jesus' birth
- Psalms 71/72, 131/132, 90/91
- Prophecy of Isaiah, 7.10-16; 8.1-4, 8-10; the virgin birth (in the Septuagint but not the Masoretic text)
- Hebrews, 1.10-2.3; the incarnation of salvation and its message for us, how can we escape judgment if we ignore it?
- Gospel, Matthew 2.1-12; narrative of the wise men
- Psalms 109/110, 110/111, 85/86
- Prophecy of Isaiah 9.6-7; the Names, Prince of peace, etc.
- Hebrews, 2.11-18; Christ is like us in all things, we are one.
- Matthew, 2.13-23; flight to Egypt, massacre of the innocents, dwelling in Nazareth
- Psalms 102/103, 145/146
- The Beatitudes
Vesperal Liturgy of the Feast
- Genesis 1.1-13; "In the beginning…"
- Numbers, 24.2-3, 5-9, 17-18; the son who shall tent, the seed that shall set up a kingdom to rule over all, out of Egypt, and crush evil.
- Prophecy of Michas (Micah), 4.6-7; 5.2-4; calling together the remnant of Israel, He will rule forever, coming forth, born on earth, He will shepherd His flock (Septuagint numbering).
- Prophecy of Isaiah, 11.1-10; rod out of the root of Jesse
- Prophecy of Jeremias, as found in the writings of his secretary Baruch, in the Protestant canon, part of the Apocrypha, 3.35-4.4; It is a prophetic poem concerning God's special gift to Israel, a child His beloved who will live among men.
- Prophet Daniel, 2.31-36, 44-45; the interpretation of Nebuchodonosor's dream: A kingdom shall be set up that will last forever
- Prophecy of Isaiah, 9.6-7; the Names
- Prophecy of Isaiah, 7.10-16; 8.1-4, 8-10; the virgin birth (in the Septuagint but not the Masoretic text)
- Hebrews, 1.1-12
- Luke, 2.1-20
Liturgy of the Feast
- Galatians, 4.4-7; "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons."
- Matthew, 2.1-12
Reflections on the Scriptural readings
- What city is Christ born in?
- Rome – riches & power
- Athens – human wisdom and intelligence
- Jerusalem – the city of God
- Bethlehem – poor & humble, ignored by mankind
- Christ's coming is a personal event. It occurs for all but it occurred for me.
- Following the star the Magi come to worship and behold Christ. Likewise if we follow the light of God we too will come to Christ.
- Christ was born in a cave, through a humble birth. Christ thus identifies himself with the disenfranchised and poor.
- We come to the manger and behold a child. Our own relationship with God must be like that of a child, the simplicity of their trust, love, and faith.
- Like the Magi we also offer:
- Gold, to show that our earthly riches are gifts from God and to signify our detachment from them
- Frankincense, adoration and worship
- Myrrh, death and burial of Christ, and our own death and burial of the flesh in order to live in the spirit
Customs and Traditions
Customs and Traditions involved with the Feast of the Nativity include an Advent Fast, which is lighter than that of Great Lent. We fast prior to the feast. This fast grows in intensity until the feast and then the Church prescribes a period of no fasting from Christmas Day until January 5. Prescribed for the fast is a time of increased prayer, increased reading of scripture, attention to the purification of ourselves from sin, and acts of charity.
In addition to the fast, we also greet each other with "Christ is Born! Glorify Him!" It is encouraged to visit the sick from Christmas until Epiphany, singing Christmas carols and the distributing necessities. Customarily goods such as sweet breads are baked and shared. And finally, on Christmas Eve, there is a Manger meal, especially celebrated by people of Slavic heritage.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas
The Year of Grace of the Lord, by a Monk of the Eastern Church, St Vladimir's Press, pp. 70-71.
The Year of the Grace of our Lord, an Eastern Orthodox Monk, St Vladimir's Press, pp.45-ff, what follows until point "5" relies heavily on the thoughts contained in this section of the book.
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