Faith & reason: The cross which falls across the cradle
Saturday 03 January 1998
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.
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