Faith & reason: The cross which falls across the cradle

Christmas has not yet come for the Eastern Church, which celebrates it next week. It will be an altogether more muted affair than that in the West. Andrew Walker, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, explains why.

As Western Christians prepare for Epiphany it might come as a surprise to learn that the Eastern Orthodox Church makes at least as much of it, if not more, than Christmas. This is partly a question of history. Christmas is the last of the great liturgical feasts to be incorporated into the Church's calendar. The Nativity was not celebrated in any major way before the third century, and the 25th of December not generally fixed as Christmas Day until the end of the fourth century. By that time the Eastern Church was already celebrating Epiphany as one of its great feasts, second in importance only to Easter.

Over time Christmas came to equal Epiphany in significance but it never overwhelmed it or shunted it aside. Culturally, also, the Orthodox Church has never capitulated to the consumerism of Western Xmas. St Nicholas has never transmuted into the Father Christmas of Western Europe, or into the Santa Claus of North America.

It is true that bishops in the Russian church will sometimes stand in for St Nicholas and distribute, or at least hand over, presents to Orthodox children after Christmas Day but this is in no sense linked to the notion of a commercial festive season: presents, if they exist at all, are modest and more a gesture of generosity - of Christian largesse - than giving children their "heart's desire". There are certainly local festive customs, such as the eating of carp on Christmas Day, for example, but on the whole Christmas is a thoroughly muted affair compared to its Western counterpart.

But perhaps the really interesting differences between Eastern and Western Christmas are theological. Eastern theology is governed by the Easter Event. The "joy to the world" of Western Christmas is centred in Eastern liturgy on the great Easter shout of "Christ is Risen" and the affirmation of the people that "he is risen indeed". Christmas in looking forward to Easter shares in that joy but also foreshadows the tragedy of the fact that the child born to be king also came to die. Even in one of his famous hymns to the Nativity, St Ephrem (c306-373) writes of the child who will defeat death by death: "Let us thank him who killed death by his dying." And in a famous Russian icon the angel Gabriel carries a cross to the Nativity where it casts a shadow over the manger.

This joy tinged with sadness and sobriety is reflected also in the fact that the great feast is approached through fasting until the day of rejoicing arrives. (In an age of conspicuous consumption we might call this a political statement.) But perhaps the most interesting feature of Orthodox Christmas is that it is an experience that the Church keeps to itself. It is almost as if Christmas is a secret. When the Holy One of God entered the world as a vulnerable mewling babe, only Joseph and Mary, some shepherds, and a few wise men had any inkling what earth shattering event had taken place. God was incarnate in a mystery that was not yet for public unveiling. Indeed as Orthodox tradition puts it there was no room for Mary and Jesus in the inn, so, as human society had rejected the mother literally pregnant with divinity, "the earth offereth the cave to him . . . who from all eternity is God".

And it is against this background of public rejection, of a hushed celebration by the people of God, of a confident confidentiality by those loyal to the Christ-child, that the great celebration of Epiphany makes sense Christmas may belong to the inner life of the Church, but Epiphany is the time when the secret is out, not merely shouted from the rooftops but confirmed from the heavens. As the kontakion for Epiphany says of Christ, "Thou art manifested today to the whole world." This public revelation is not only of Jesus as the God-Man prefiguring his passion by dying and rising again from the waters of baptism, but of God being manifested in triunity as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

At Christmas the Church guards the boy-king from the prying eyes of the merely curious and the enemies of God, but at Epiphany the Church confesses that the man-king is lord of lords whose kingdom is now at hand and whose reign shall last for ever.

Sport
sportGareth Bale, Carl Froch and Kelly Gallagher also in the mix for award
News
Japan's Suntory Beverage & Food has bought GlaxoSmithKline's Lucozade and Ribena
news
News
A tongue-eating louse (not the one Mr Poli found)
newsParasitic louse appeared inside unfilleted sea bass
Life and Style
Out and about: for 'Glee' character Bert Hummel, having a gay son was a learning curve
lifeEven 'cool' parents need help parenting gay teens
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Money
Anyone over the age of 40 seeking a loan with a standard term of 25 years will be borrowing beyond a normal retirement age of 65, and is liable to find their options restricted
propertyAnd it's even worse if you're 40
Arts and Entertainment
Perhaps longest awaited is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with Brazil’s Walter Salles directing and Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen as the Beat-era outsiders
books
Arts and Entertainment
theatreSinger to join cast of his Broadway show after The Last Ship flounders at the box office
Life and Style
fashion'To start singing with Pharrell is not that bad, no?'
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible