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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower