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Redeeming the season: season of redemption

10 December 2007

This month’s is on Redeeming the Season — but what is the season and what does it need to be redeemed from?

For Orthodox Christians the “season” is dominated by the celebration of The Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ on 25 December, which is commonly called “Christmas” for short, and the Holy Theophany of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ on January 6, sometimes called “Epiphany”. The “season” is the preparation for this, and the follow-up. It begins on 15 November, with the Nativity Fast and ends with the Feast of The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple on February 2, commonly called “Candlemas”.

The “season” we are concerned with now thus lasts from 15 November to 2 February, and is called by Fr Thomas Hopko “the winter Pascha”, though that seems something of a misnomer, since in the southern hemisphere we are now in midsummer. Orthodox Christians are somewhat divided on the season, however. Some celebrate it according to the Gregorian Calendar used in the West, but others (the majority) still use the Julian Calendar, and so celebrate it 13 days later. Christmas in the Julian calendar falls on 7 January Gregorian, and Epiphany on 19 January.

The season begins with a fast, from 15 November to 24 December. Unlike Great Lent, the fast that precedes Pascha (Easter), the Nativity Fast begins as a fairly relaxed fast, with wine, oil and sometimes fish permitted at weekends and on some saints days in the fasting period, though we abstain from meat and dairy products (eggs, milk, cheese etc) throughout.

A week after the beginning of the Nativity Fast, on 21 November, we celebrate the feast of The Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. This is based on the tradition that the three-year-old Mary was taken to the temple by her parents Joachim and Anna in thanksgiving for her birth. This is symbolic of her preparing to become the Temple in which God comes to dwell among men. The physical building prefigures this typologically, but it is Mary herself that the Temple has prefigured. She is to become “the living Ark which contains the Word which cannot be contained”.

From this day too the Christmas Canon begins to be sung at Matins. The Canon is a series of hymns that follows the pattern of the biblical canticles of Moses, Hannah, Habbakuk, Isaiah, Jonah, the three young men in the fiery furnace and ending with the Magnificat of Mary herself. The hymns of the Canon relate each of these canticles to Christ himself, as the one who fulfils them.

The next important feast in the season is that of St Andrew the First-Called on 30 November. St Andrew is regarded, in both East and West, as in some way the patron saint of Christian mission. But unlike some Western theology, which sees an opposition between “attractional” and “missional”, the essence of mission, in the Orthodox understanding, is both: “Come and see”, says Jesus to Andrew, and Andrew goes to tell his brother Peter what he has seen.

In the West the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s day is called Advent Sunday, with the emphasis on the second coming of Christ to judge the world. But this is not the theme of the Orthodox pre-Christmas season. In the that is the theme of the lead-up to Great Lent, and also at the beginning of Holy Week.

This is followed by the feast of St Nicholas of Myra on 6 December. St Nicholas is known as “the fervent advocate of those who suffer injustice”. He was known for his almsgiving, for giving anonymous gifts to the poor, characteristics still seen in the rather distorted figure of Santa Claus, which represents him in many places.

On the 9th of December we celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic Church calls this the “immaculate” conception, believing that God miraculously intervened to remove the stain (Latin macula) of original sin from Mary. The Orthodox Church does not accept this; not that we believe that she was born stained with sin, but because we do not believe in the maculate conception of the rest of us. has a different understanding of original sin from the Latin Church.

The second Sunday before Christmas is the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, when we remember all the Old Testament saints, and those who prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Noah, Samson, David, Elijah and the prophets, “and all the rest”. But it also includes the Holy Foremothers: Hannah, Judith, Deborah, Ruth and many others. This year the Sunday is on the 15th December, and that is also the special feast of the Prophet Haggai.

The following day, 17 December, is the feast of Daniel and the three young men who were put in the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. There has been quite a lot of publicity given to a film, The Golden Compass, about a young girl called Lyra who resists “the Authority”. And on this day the Church celebrates the memory of the three holy children who resisted the Authority of their day, and who were prepared to risk their lives in doing so.

The Sunday before Christmas is again a commemoration of those who looked forward to the coming of Christ, and the Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy is the genealogy of Christ. Modernity has little time for genealogies, and in reading the Bible they are often things that Western people gloss over. For premodern people, however, they are much more important. The story is told of a group of people who were visited and evangelised by Western missionaries, who finally, after many years, translated the New Testament into their language, and the people rebuked them when they read the genealogies, saying “Why have you hidden the important things from us until now?”

The pre-Nativity period culminates on Christmas Eve where in Great Compline we sing “God is with us”. And on Christmas Day we sing the Troparion (theme hymn):

NativityThy Nativity O Christ our God
has shone to the world the light of wisdom
for by it those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
the Sun of Righteousness
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high
O Christ our God glory to Thee.

The second day of Christmas (December 26) is the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos when we contemplate the wonder of the birth of Jesus from a Virgin. and the twofold birth of Christ, “He who before the morning star was begotten of the Father without a mother is made flesh on earth today without a father from you.”

The third, fourth and fifth days of Christmas are the days of the martyrs: the Holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen, the 20000 martrys of Nicomedia, and the Holy Innocents slain by Herod at Bethlehem. The seventh day is the Leavetaking of the Nativity.

The eighth day is the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and symbolises his fulfilling of all righteousness of the law of Moses, and foreshadows the eternal life of the age to come. It is also the feast of St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (4th century).

The ninth, tenth and eleventh days are the Forefeast of Theophany (Epiphany), the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Jordan. The twelfth day of Christmas, January 5, is the Eve of Theophany, and for the first time since December 25, fasting is resumed.

On Theophany Eve (and sometimes on the day itself) there is the Great Blessing of Water.

This is one of the greatest feasts of the Christian year, and originally Christ’s birth was celebrated on this day, along with his baptism. It was only later that his birth was marked by a separate celebration. There is not space here to describe this fully. Perhaps there can be a later synchroblog about it. But to put it briefly. Christ’s baptism means the opposite of ours, and yet paves the way for ours. We are baptised for the remission of sins. We go into the water dirty, and come out clean. But Christ has no sins that need remission. He goes into the water clean, and comes out dirty. He goes to the very lowest place on the surface of the earth, into the muddy waters of the river Jordan, and takes our sins upon himself. As the priest says, in blessing the water for baptism, “Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons who lurked there.”

“Theophany” means “manifestation of God”, and by being baptised in the Jordan Christ is manifested as the one who hacked Rahab in pieces, and is thus himself the answer to the prayer in Isaiah 51:9-11, and so we sing:

TheophanyWhen Thou O Lord wast baptised in the Jordan
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest
for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee
and called Thee his beloved Son
and the Spirit, in the form of a dove
confirmed the truthfulness of His word
O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself
and hast enlightened the world
Glory to Thee.

The 7th of January is the Synaxis of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John. The 14th of January is the Leavetaking of Theophany. The season ends with the Meeting of the Lord in The Temple. According to St Luke this took place forty days after the birth of the Lord, when the prophetess Anna and the elder Symeon recognised him as the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes through the ages.

The season then, consists of forty days of fasting in preparation for the Nativity, and forty days of celebration afterwards. It can also be said to look a little like suspension bridges such as the one at San Francisco’s Golden Gate, with cables anchored in the shore at either side, reaching the twin high points of the Nativity and Theophany.

The season, then, is the season of the mystery of our redemption. Why should the season itself need to be redeemed?

St Gregory the Theologian says:

Therefore let us keep the feast, not after the manner of a pagan festival, but in a godly way. Not after the way of this world, but in the fashion of the world which is above. Not as something our own, but as that which belongs to Him who is ours, or rather, as our Master’s. Not as of weakness, but as of healing. Not as of creation, but as of re-creation.

In this, Orthodox Christians are countercultural. What people in South Africa call “the feative season” is for Orthodox Christians the Nativity Fast. For most, it is a season of excess, a season of office and works parties, of over-indulgence in food and liquor, with the resulting increase from deaths on the roads caused by drunken driving. But for Orthodox Christians it is a season of sobriety, fasting, and increased watchfulness (nipsis).

Here are links to the other Synchrobloggers:

Swords into Plowshares at Sonja Andrew’s Calacirian
Fanning the Flickering Flame of Advent at Paul Walker’s Out of the Cocoon
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Eager Longing at Elizaphanian
The Battle Rages at Bryan Riley’s Charis Shalom
Secularizing Christmas at
There’s Something About Mary at Hello Said Jenelle
Geocentric Versus Anthropocentric Holydays at Phil Wyman’s Square No More
Celebrating Christmas in a Pluralistic Society at Matt Stone’s Journeys in Between
The Ghost of Christmas Past at Erin Word’s Decompressing Faith
Remembering the Incarnation at Alan Knox’ The Assembling of the Church
A Biblical Response to a Secular Christmas by Glenn Ansley’s Bad Theology
Happy Life Day at The Agent B Files
What’s So Bad About Christmas? at Julie Clawson’s One Hand Clapping

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 December 2007 6:20 pm

    Thanks for detailing the season.

    I am stumped by this statement though,

    ““Theophany” means “manifestation of God”, and by being baptised in the Jordan Christ is manifested as the one who hacked Rahab in pieces, and is thus himself the answer to the prayer in Isaiah 51:9-11, and so we sing:”

    Could you explain?

  2. 11 December 2007 7:49 pm

    Good to find you again, Steve! Wonderful blog!

  3. 12 December 2007 5:02 pm

    Thanks for the great history on the “season”. I am not within the Catholic tradition and was not aware of many of the different celebrations you mentioned.

  4. 13 December 2007 2:39 am

    Andrea Elizabeth,

    I’m not sure what needs explaining — the worship of the Trinity was made manifest because Christ was baptised in the Jordan and the Holy Spirit was sent to crush the heads of the dragons that lurked there.

  5. 13 December 2007 2:07 pm


    It was the Rahab bits that gave me pause. 🙂 I thought she was redeemed (not hacked) by helping the spies and ended up becoming Boaz’s (David’s great-grandfather) mother. Maybe the reference is to a different Rahab?

    (don’t mean to detract from a very helpful post about the Nativity)

  6. 13 December 2007 2:55 pm

    Andrea Elizabeth,

    Yes, I’m sure the Rahab mentioned in Isaiah 51 was a different Rahab! That Rahab was one of the dragons whose heads were crushed!

  7. 13 December 2007 7:34 pm

    Oh, I read the wrong passage in Isaiah, so I didn’t catch that. Thanks!

  8. 15 December 2007 2:56 pm

    Hello, just stoped by the comment section to thank you for the work you have been doing so others can enjoy your blog with a morning cup of coffe 🙂

  9. 18 December 2007 12:02 pm

    Another blog posting, not part of the Synchroblog but that might have had a worthy place in it, is Boycott Nativity plays by Richard Hall.


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