Call it the reversal of the Christmas order. Long before the 25th of December, most people work themselves into a celebratory mood, mixing reverent songs about singing angels and the “new-born king” with ditties paying homage to Santa Claus, his elves and legendary reindeer.
Christmas lights, mesmerizing toys, dreams of a white Christmas and the jingling of silver bells define the holiday just as much as shepherds and wisemen worshiping the Christ Child.
There’s not much left for the climax of the Christmas season except the opening of gifts, a scrumptious feast to top all feasts and, for those who favor the traditions of their ancestors, a Christmas Eve candlelight service.
Then it’s all over. The lights and decorations are put into storage; the trees are taken down; the yuletide spirit goes into hibernation; the focus is on the new year just around the corner.
Meanwhile on Kodiak Island and other parts of Alaska, many Orthodox Christians prepare for their Christmas celebration, which occurs Jan. 7.
The difference in dates is due to the Orthodox use of the Julian, rather than the widely used Gregorian, calendar in observance of Christmas. Incidentally, there is a growing sentiment amongst Alaska Orthodox to celebrate Christmas on the day that most Christians do.
Regardless of what calendar they use, the Orthodox have a different approach to the Advent season preceding Christmas Day. It does not begin with celebration, but anticipation for the news that “today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One.”
During the weeks preceding Christmas (more commonly known as the Nativity of Jesus Christ,) the Church engages in a Lenten fast. Services, held in a church with subdued colors and music, contains Old Testament readings that hearken to the forefathers and prophets who eagerly awaited Christ’s coming, said Father John Dunlop, dean of St. Herman’s Seminary.
These prophets, who are the heroes of Israel, “bear that hope for thousands of years” until the “perfect person,” chosen by God to bear the God-Man, arrives on the scene. This person is the Virgin Mary, the “most perfect person that history has ever produced,” Dunlop said.
She is the “flesh and bone of Israel (who) grows out of the traditions of Israel,” Dunlop said. “She is the only one in history who is worthy or capable to give birth to the Messiah.”
Rather than consuming rich foods and attending festive Christmas parties before the feast of Nativity, the Orthodox, at least in theor, are “unburdening ourselves of those things, rather than taking them in,” said Dunlop.
The fast is “about transformation, about ruling our passions, our falleness within ourselves,” Dunlop said. “Fasting and prayers are medicines that help to heal the passions, whether it’s pride or anger or” anything else.
The Nativity season lasts for at least several days, highlighted with services and, particularly in Alaska, the pageantry of starring, a tradition that comes from the Ukraine.
“I’ve noticed that, here in Alaska, the celebration (of Nativity) continues with a kind of joy and vigor that goes on for weeks after the (Christmas Day) feast,” Dunlop said.
That joyful vigor is tempered by the harsh reality that the “new born king” came to serve and save a hostile world. Nativity services, even though joyful, allude to the shadow that hovers over Bethlehem, the City of David, that today is still a place of violence, Dunlop said.
At the time of Christ’s Nativity, the screams of wailing mothers resounded throughout the streets as King Herod’s henchmen, in ISIS fashion, massacred their babies hoping that one of them would be the Christ Child.
The babies are commemorated during the Nativity season.
On the second day of Christmas, Orthodox Christians honor St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, whose execution by stoning was ordered by Saul, who later was converted and became known as Paul.
There is a subdued celebration during Nativity, a tension between worshiping what St. Paul calls the “inexpressible gift of God” and the realization that this world is still in the grip of the Evil One.
In the Christmas story of St. Luke’s Gospel, there are several indications of hard things to come, noted Dunlop.
“When Christ is brought into the temple, his parents are told that, ‘This child will be for the rising and falling of many’ (indicating) opposition and hatred of him,” said Dunlop. Mary is told by Simeon that “a sword will pierce your side,” a foretelling of Christ’s crucifixion.
Artistic depictions of Christ sleeping in a crib prefigure his death.
“The cradle is like tomb,” Dunlop said. “There are hints to his passion and opposition.
“Some people rejoice at Christ’s birth, but he’s staying outside the main inn. He’s rejected by those in worldly power. Herod seeks to kill him. A lot of opposition is stirred up.”
Dunlop said that, when the Orthodox faithful sing “Rejoice O Virgin” in the Nativity services, it is assumed that the Nativity is her time of rejoicing, “but she will be standing at Christ’s cross at the end of John’s gospel. The same person who is rejoicing at his birth will also be there for his passion, crucifixion and, ultimately, his resurrection.”
The angelic news of “peace on earth, good will toward men” has not yet been consummated in all of its fullness. We live in the “pause” between Christ’s resurrection and his glorious and terrifying Second Coming when he will restore mankind to its original beauty.
During this pause there is war, murder, disease and other atrocities.
Yet, the Kingdom of God is amongst us, said Dunlop, alluding to the words of the late Father Alexander Schmemann.
“The Kingdom is already here, but not yet; it’s already present, but not yet consummated,” Dunlop said. “When we begin the Liturgy we say, ‘blessed is the Kingdom.’ The Kingdom is here with us, but not fully until Christ will be all in all.”