wonderful part of the Orthodox celebration of Christmas is the period
of Christmastide or the 12 Days of Christmas. This is one of those
rare times in the life of the Church where all fasting is suspended,
and the impact of Christ’s Incarnation is on full display.
people have come to understand more and more that the feast of
Christmas was not established as a replacement of a “pagan holiday”
(as is proposed in popular discussion), but is rather an intentional
celebration of the birth of our Lord. Christ’s conception by the
Holy Spirit in the immaculate womb of the Ever-Virgin Mary is on
March 25 (the feast of Annunciation), and his birth is celebrated
exactly nine months later on December 25.
day of the Annunciation was originally celebrated on April 6 in
the Eastern churches, and the totality of Christ’s Incarnation
(birth, circumcision, and baptism) was also celebrated nine months
later on January 6. Once St. John Chrysostom brought the
celebration of Christmas (from Rome) to the church of Antioch, it
soon spread to the rest of the Eastern Sees. Theophany was kept as
the end of this 12-day Christmas feast. (Incidentally, the compound
celebration of Theophany and Nativity on January 6 is still observed
by the Armenians.)
is fast-free, but not for the sake of gluttony. Rather, because we
are celebrating the purification and redemption of creation that is
wrought by Christ’s Incarnation—all foods are sanctified and
acceptable for Christians by the death and resurrection of Jesus
Christ. We give gifts to one another, imitating the magi who brought
gifts to the Savior, the Theotokos who offered Christ as a gift for
the life of the world, and the example set by the real St.
the day after Christmas (Dec. 26), a synaxis—a
bringing together or “gathering”—of all feasts related to the
life of the Theotokos is celebrated. By giving birth to Christ, she
became an instrument of salvation through the Incarnation of God.
(One will rarely see an Orthodoxicon
of Mary where Christ is not present.) Mary serves as the prototype of
a living temple of the Holy Spirit, and those of the Church after
her—both individually and collectively—imitate her in this way.
celebration of Mary is followed by a commemoration of the first
Christian martyr following Christ’s ascension: the deacon Stephen
(Dec. 27). A hymn of this feast tells the story beautifully:
the Master arrived in the flesh; today the servant departs from the
flesh. Yesterday he who reigns was born; today the servant dies for
him by stoning.
a holy martyr, Stephen was a true “witness” (the same word
as martyr in
Greek) of Christ’s Incarnation.
December 29, we remember the horrific slaying of 14,000 infants by
Herod, performed due to his fear and jealousy of the coming Messiah.
In fact, this massacre included the death of his own child. This day
implores Christians to emphatically not be like Herod in our own
attempts to remove Christ from our lives. A life in Christ is a life
of both martyrdom (as shown by Stephen) and submission (as shown by
Mary); in other words, it is a life of humility.
By fearing this humility, Herod “lamented that his power would soon
be destroyed” (Kontakia of the day) and sought to destroy Christ
Sunday after Nativity serves as a commemoration of Christ’s
relatives “according to the flesh.” These “ancestors of God”
serve as the first examples of how we are to both worship and imitate
the Betrothed, the elderly man entrusted with the care of the virgin
Mary, believed in the Lord through an angel and overcame the
temptations of Satan. With the magi of the east, he too bowed down
and worshipped the newborn King.
the king and psalmist is an image of true repentance, providing
the people of God with an abundance of prayers and songs for both our
own repentance and the continual praise of Christ. These psalms also
provide poignant reminders of Christ’s birth, life, death, and
resurrection in the continuing worship of the Church.
James, the “brother of God”—being either the son or nephew of
Joseph from a prior marriage—was the first leader of the church of
the Lord’s disciple, O righteous One, you received the Gospel; as
Martyr, you have unwavering courage; as the Lord’s brother, you
have forthrightness; as Hierarch, intercession.
circumcision of Christ is then celebrated (Jan. 1), not only as a
fulfillment of the ceremonial Torah and the transition of God’s
revelation to mankind (after the fall) from shadow (Heb. 8:5) to
reality, but also for naming the child Jesus (which, as
with Joshua, means “Savior”). We too receive a new name through
the Church in the mystery of Baptism—the Christian fulfillment of
circumcision—following the examples of both Christ and our
forefathers. Through this sacramental act, a Christian’s whole life
is dedicated to Christ through the intercession of Saints (Heb. 12:1;
Rev. 8:4) and the protection of angels (Matt. 18:10; Jude 1:9).
January 3, the holy prophet Malachi is commemorated. Malachi
prophesied from within the Persian court of Artaxerxes that a “Sun
of Righteousness” would enter the world with “healing on his
wings” (Mal. 4:2; ca. fifth century B.C.).
the following day, the original seventy apostles are commemorated
(cf. Luke 10:1-16), being first sent into the world with the Gospel
witness. These men and women remind us that, as we have received the
infant Christ in his Nativity, it is now our turn to share him (as
did Mary) with the rest of the world. We take this message of an
infant King of Kings, along with the good news of his life, death,
and resurrection into all creation (Mark 16:15), just as these first
apostles and disciples of Christ.
finally, we conclude the 12 Days of Christmas with the Great Feast of
Theophany (sometimes called Epiphany) on January 6th. In the
baptism of Christ, by the hands of John the Forerunner, the divinity
of Christ and the full mystery of the Trinity are made manifest.
Theophany means “divine manifestation,” and we are reminded
continually, in the life of the Church and her worship, of this
manifestation of Christ as the God-Man, along with the unique and
incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity. In fact, the abundance
of our rituals regarding the sanctification of this created
order—including within our churches—is a reflection of this
reverence, our veneration is never related to ‘matter,’ but
always to that which it reveals, of which it is an epiphany,
i.e., a manifestation and presence … consecration in
the Church is not a creation of ‘sacred objects’ … but
their referral to
their original and at the same time ultimate meaning. —Schmemann, The
these lines, we sing in the festal hymn:
appeared to the world today, and Your light, O Lord, has left its
mark upon us.
share this light with the darkness of the world, working together
with the Spirit of God in the redemption of creation through Christ.
This Lord entered our world in the humility of a child born to
die—being wrapped as an infant in burial cloths, as depicted in the
Nativity icon—and by his own death triumphed over death itself.
then, the meaning of both the Nativity of Christ and the entirety of
the 12 Days of Christmas is the receiving and giving of Christ, who
is truly the gift and the giver, the one who is received and
the Eucharistic mystery, we imitate the Mother of God in our sharing
Christ with the world. We imitate Stephen in our being a true witness
or martyr for Christ, to a world that would seek to be Herod. We
imitate a life of true repentance as David, and a life of simple,
prayerful obedience like the elderly Joseph. We imitate the Theophany
of Christ with our own manifestation of his light
in the darkness. And we reflect the unity of the three Persons of the
Trinity with our unity, communion, and mutual love as the one holy,
catholic, and apostolic Church.
receive the uncreated light of the Christ-child on Nativity, and are
prepared to share that light with the world by the end of
celebrate the commemorations and feasts of this glorious time of the
year; not only for your own sake, but especially for the life of