Resources for the Journey to Bethlehem
Dear Parish Faithful,
~ Fr Steven
'Fasting appears gloomy until one steps into its arena. But begin and you will see what light it brings after darkness, what freedom from bonds, what release after a burdensome life.' ~ St Theophan the Recluse
Visit our special section on Fasting for spiritual insights into why we fast, and encouraging articles about this often misunderstood ascetical practice . . .
Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.
I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.
Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.
— from 'Why We Fast', by Fr. Stephen Freeman, on the OCA website.
Fr. Igumen Sergius, Abbot of St. Tikhon's Monastery, presents the Orthodox teaching on the Incarnation, relying heavily on the mystical theology of St Maximus the Confessor, and showing how our destiny and calling is inseparable from the Incarnation. Video in four parts. First part presented below. Follow link at bottom for remainder.
A Word from the Holy Fathers
~ On the Incarnation ~
Stream and play right on your computer, or download and save to your iPod, iPhone or other device, or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.
Why not set aside a few minutes each day during the celebration of the Nativity for these quiet and profound insights...
The Fathers on the Nativity of Christ - Introduction
What was God to do? - St Athanasius the Great
The Wonder of the Incarnation - St Gregory the Theologian
Glory to God Who has shown Himself to Us - St Ephraim the Syrian and St John Maximovitch
Remembering the Mother of God's Role in the Incarnation - St Cyril of Alexandria
The Coming of the Lord - St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome
(Dec 6) The real St Nicholas is venerated by Orthodox faithful in every land and language. Learn about one of our most beloved saints through this classic text by St Dmitri of Rostov. Numerous rare icons included. (MYSTAGOGY Blog)
(Dec 9) This unique icon of the Theotokos speaking to a sinful youth (who was yet devoted to her and prayed fervently), and leading him to complete repentance and change of heart, is much beloved, and is celebrated also on Jan 25 and May 1. Read the full story of the icon here.
Many other great saints — including some from the twentieth century! — are commemorated during the Nativity Season, and have much to teach us as we struggle to live God-pleasing lives and grow in Christ. Some of the better known ones who should be known by all Orthodox Christians include:
the Apostle Andrew (11/30), Greatmartyr Barbara and St John of Damascus (12/4), Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer and St John of Kronstadt (12/20), the Virgin Martyr Juliana (12/21), and Greatmartyr Anastasia (12/22).
Several of the Old Testament Prophets and many more saints are commemorated during the Fast, and after the Nativity, there is a festal period leading up to Theophany (the Baptism of Christ, Jan 6) and on to the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (Feb 2), which includes St Stephen the Protomartyr (12/27), St Basil the Great (Jan 1), St Seraphim of Sarov (Jan 2), and others.
You can use your parish calendar to locate the saints you wish to learn about, and find them by searching the OCA website, which has the lives and icons of all the saints. The saints incarnated Christ in their lives through their faith. May we follow their example and seek their intercessions!
ANCIENT FAITH CHRISTMAS GIFTS
Conciliar Press is now Ancient Faith Ministries! A unique and wide range of Orthodox Nativity cards, ornaments, crosses, and gifts, featuring many imported items from Greece, Russia and Jerusalem.
Ancient Faith Publishing has also released several outstanding new book titles over the last year, including excellent fiction for teens and young adults, as well as new editions of some recent classics, and beautiful calendars. Secure online ordering...
THE WINTER PASCHA, by Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory...
Fr. Thomas Hopko's classic book of forty meditations for the season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, ending with the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple on the fortieth day after Christ's birth.
In the style of his popular book for the paschal fasting season, The Lenten Spring, the author again draws on the biblical readings and liturgical hymns and verses of the season to illumine the way for believers to follow the Church's days of preparation and celebration for the Coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in human flesh. Only $18, from SVS Press.
DAILY MEDITATIONS for the Christmas/Advent Fast and Epiphany Season, by Presvytera Emily Harakas and Fr. Anthony Coniaris.
Scripture readings for each day along with select hymns from the Matins, Vespers, the Hours of the Nativity, etc. with a brief Scripture verse and a prayer—all selected by Presbytera Emily Harakas. An inspiring meditation by Fr. Anthony Coniaris for each day is included.
This book will help make Advent and Epiphany come alive with meaning. Just one of the many book selections for the Nativity Fast offered by ArchangelsBooks.com.
ST TIKHON'S MONASTERY BOOKSTORE - Unique gifts including jewelry, music, icons, lacquered eggs and boxes, handmade soaps, prayer ropes, and much, much more. Explore the many gift categories at St Tikhon's Monastery Bookstore.
Hermitage of the Holy Cross - Widely known and appreciated for their soaps and bath products, and their unique seasonal gifts, as well as incense, icons, books and more. Proceed to the Hermitage Kiosk for Online Ordering...
On The Incarnation, by St Athanasius the Great - NEW EDITION - The masterful defense of the Christian Faith, written by one of the great Church Fathers in an easy-to-read style aided by a clear, modern translation. Introduction by C.S. Lewis. Read a classic this Christmas! Only $16 from SVS Press.
ST HERMAN of ALASKA ~ His Life and Service - This new, large format publication from St Herman Press (Platina CA) features new information about the life of St Herman (celebrated December 13), and includes the complete Vigil Service for the Saint. 48 pages, with Full-color cover - Only $9.00 from St Herman Press.
PREPARE O BETHLEHEM (hardcover), illustrated by Niko Chocheli
The Orthodox Church's hymns of the prefeast and feast of the Nativity of our Lord celebrate and proclaim in word and song the celestial joy of the incarnation.
These beloved texts, so wonderfully illustrated by Niko Chocheli, are filled with beauty and power. They tell in a touching way of the all-embracing participation of creatures in the Creator's coming. Only $18 from SVS Press. Nativity Greeting Cards also available.
From an article on Monachos.net:
MORE ARTICLES FROM MONACHOS.NET
- The nativity of the Paschal Christ
- The Advent of Love
- St John Chryostom: "He bowed the heavens and came down..."
- On the Nativity Fast: The Preparation of the Soul - A reflection on the nature of fasting as it relates to the Feast of the Nativity, and why Christians fast in preparation for the Lord's birth.
- St John Chrysostom on the Charity of Fasting - An episode of A Word From the Holy Fathers podcast, examining the nature of fasting as a pastoral activity, rooted in the love of God and of neighbour.
- A series of older and newer threads in the Discussion Community focus on themes of the Nativity Fast.
ON FASTING, AND ADVENT TRADITIONS:
Orthodox Way of Life Blog:
Joseph and Mary's Journey to Bethlehem (An Orthodox Reflection using the saints and hymns of the Church)
God Becomes Man! The Greatest Day of All Time (with St Justin Popovich)
The Season to Secure Peace With God (with St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome)
Why All the Fuss About Christmas? (with St Athanasius the Great)
Christmas To A Traditional Eastern Orthodox Christian (with a good history of how the Feast came to be celebrated the way it is today).
Fighting for Christ at Christmas - Combating Secularism (with Fr George Morelli)
How Did Jesus Change Our Way of Life? (with Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)
His Mercy Reigns! (with St John of Kronstadt)
How to Celebrate the Nativity (with St Gregory the Theologian)
The Nativity Story According to Orthodox Tradition
Nativity Epistle by St Justin Popovich
1962 Nativity Epistle of St John Maximovitch the Wonderworker
The Patristic Understanding of the Birth of Christ (St John of Damascus, St Ambrose of Milan, and others)
Reflections on the Nativity Fast (adapted from an article on Monachos.net)
Why the Nativity Fast has been Established
The Nativity Fast
The Christmas Tree and Orthodox Tradition (with Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos)
25 Worthwhile Quotes from Charles Dickens
THE QUESTION RAISED by the NATIVITY of CHRIST
by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Featured in our 2017 Nativity Calendar, available at church.
Let us then look at this crib not as we do when we are small children, seeing only an image of a child’s birth, miraculous, wonderful; let us look at it with an earnest and adult gaze, and see that this crib is an altar of sacrifice, that this cave where He was born is an image of that cave in which He will be deposited, a young man, killed for God’s sake after the agony of the Garden and the agony of the Cross, and let us ask ourselves, "Are we, each of us, a response to love revealed in such a way, revealed to such degree?" Will we find in ourselves a response, or shall we only say, "It was His choice, I have chosen against Him. He has chosen life for me, I have chosen death for Him"... Or are we going to respond to this revelation of love in which the frailty of love is made visible, perceptible to us in the frailty of this little human body deposited on the straw of a crib, respond to the frailty of God by a mature love?
This is the question which, and we now the day of Christmas sets before us have days and months of liturgical unfolding of the year, to grow through it towards a definitive and final answer when we will see love sacrificed on Calvary. We have got this liturgical year to follow step by step, in this year we will discover how the saints of God have responded, and at every step the question will stand before us: “And what about you, what about thee personally, what about us in our togetherness, what is our answer to love?” Amen
Read the full article, with more profound insights, here...
MAKE READY O BETHLEHEM!
'Let Us be Active in Spiritual Preparation!'
. . . Any important great work must be prepared and even our daily activities must be prepared if they are to come to a good conclusion. A skilled painter once told me that the secret to a good paint job is preparation!, preparation!, preparation!. The difference between a good paint job and a bad paint job is preparation. Walls and woodwork must be sanded and scraped, furniture and carpeting must be removed or covered up, taping around the windows and walls or woodwork that should not receive paint must be done so that we have good clean crisp borders. A sloppy paint job is the result of inadequate preparation of the surfaces. There is a principle here that also applies to any human undertaking and is especially applicable to the spiritual life . . .
Probably the first and most basic preparation for participation in the Holy Mysteries is facing the challenge to live lives that are consistent with the prayer of the Church. This is the fundamental preparation for receiving the feasts and the Holy Communion. It is not enough to merely mouth the words. Unless heart and soul and all the powers of mind and body are applied to the keeping of the Gospel commandments, our prayer is empty and we run the risk of having only the Pharisee’s empty feeling of self satisfaction.
The fasts of the Church are times for us to focus on the basics of Christian life, to ponder the commandments and do them and live lives that are consistent with what the Church is praying. On December 25th the Church celebrates the Nativity of Christ and a forty-day fast is given to us that begins on November 15. This fast is a gift given to us that we might enter the feast with clear minds and clean hearts, with a correct understanding of what it is that we are actually celebrating and prayer that is bold and focused. We will not celebrate the feast with maximal joy if our behavior and our prayer are conflicted. The fast reminds us that those who truly live a Christian life have made the Kingdom of God their number one priority.
In the world many families will go to great lengths to prepare for the secular aspects of the feast, but if these preparations do not flow out of the faith and love for the Savior Christ, they will have nothing at all to do with Christ and His Nativity. Parishes will have craft shows, Nativity programs, caroling, and the sale of cherished baked goods. In the home cookies and sweets will be baked, gifts will be purchased, Christmas decorating will be done, remodeling and redecorating will happen, cards will be sent, plans will be made for the meals and parties. If we are expecting guests from out of town, the preparations will be many, depending on how important our visitors are to us. The greater the love the more we will make every effort to make our guests welcomed, comfortable and well fed. In the end the purpose is to show our love and respect and maybe even gratitude (Oh, that we would make as much effort to welcome Christ the Bread of Life into our hearts!).
Read the full text, with specific suggestions to enter into the spirit of the Nativity Fast...
More Nativity Homilies from Archimandrite Joseph Morris, Abbot of St Gregory Palamas Monastery:
- Removing the Obstacles to Faith (2012)
- The Family, the Fast, and Formation of the Soul (2011)
- 'Make Ready, O Bethlehem' (2010)
- The Theotokos, our Teacher and Guide (2009)
The Nativity Icon Explained
To aid us in contemplating the Awesome Mystery and Great Feast of the Nativity, we offer here a description from the iconographic tradition of the Church, perfect for young adults, from the OCA's Wonder Blog.
"Whether the iconographer places Jesus in a manger or on an altar, Christ is always depicted in a cave. Poetically this isn’t just a cave, but rather the empty tomb in which he lay after his crucifixion. Jesus is depicted lying here wrapped in swaddling clothes, clothes that now become his burial shroud..."
Continue this exploration of the Nativity icon by an iconographer, from the OCA Wonder Blog.
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshiped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!
Kontakion - Tone 3
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!
by Father Demetrios Serfes
Every women who bears a child always exults in the joy of the birth, as well as in the joy of having a living mind, heart, and soul within their womb. We must realize that within the Holy Orthodox Church and its teachings there is a clear direction against abortion. This teaching is not something new in the Eastern Orthodox Church, as it evident that in the first three centuries of the early Church, the Orthodox holy Fathers spoke frequently against abortion.
The Holy Rachel wept unceasingly when King Herod had ordered his soldiers in both Bethlehem and Judea to have all the children massacred, from the newly born up to the age of two years old. Ever since this appalling, unlawful act of the massacre of the 14,000 Holy Innocent Infants, it seems that the loving Holy Rachel has not stopped weeping to this very hour, as we continue to see abortions being performed in America and in other countries around the world, often with the approval of local governments. The Orthodox Church cries out against this act of abortion. But is it not true that our ears often remain closed as we are afraid of the truth? We are allowing death to happen, murder, before our eyes! Death of an innocent child!
The weeping for all martyred children by Rachel has not ceased today! It seems that this holy mother and woman continues to weep! Every time we hear about another abortion Rachel weeps again! ...
Read the full text here...
Why do we commemorate the Circumcision of Jesus Christ?
(Commemorated on January 1)
On the eighth day after His Nativity, our Lord Jesus Christ was circumcised in accordance with the Old Testament Law. All male infants underwent circumcision as a sign of God’s Covenant with the holy Forefather Abraham and his descendants [Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:3].
After this ritual, the Divine Infant was given the name Jesus, as the Archangel Gabriel declared on the day of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos [Luke 1:31-33, 2:21]. The Fathers of the Church explain that the Lord, the Creator of the Law, underwent circumcision in order to give people an example of how faithfully the divine ordinances ought to be fulfilled. The Lord was circumcised so that later no one would doubt that He had truly assumed human flesh, and that His Incarnation was not merely an illusion, as certain heretics had taught.
In the New Testament, the ritual of circumcision gave way to the Mystery of Baptism, which it prefigured [Colossians 2:11-12]. Accounts of the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord continue in the Eastern Church right up through the fourth century. The Canon of the Feast was written by Saint Stephen of the Saint Sava Monastery.
In addition to circumcision, which the Lord accepted as a sign of God’s Covenant with mankind, He also received the Name Jesus [Savior] on the eighth day after His Nativity as an indication of His service, the work of the salvation of the world [Matthew 1:21; Mark 9:38-39, 16:17; Luke 10:17; Acts 3:6, 16; Philippians 2:9-10]. These two events -- the Lord’s Circumcision and Naming -- remind Christians that they have entered into a New Covenant with God and “are circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” [Colossians 2:11]. The very name “Christian” is a sign of mankind’s entrance into a New Covenant with God.
An iconographic slide show . . .
The Nativity Icon is rich in its depiction of the mystical events surrounding the Birth of Christ, but the Orthodox iconographic tradition portrays just as powerfully other events detailed in the Gospel accounts. Also shown here are some of the great saints commemorated during the Nativity Fast, and profound icons of mystical realities.