7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

Chances are the feeling, meaning, and practices of Christmas have changed for you over time. From childhood to adulthood the way we prepare and understand the Blessed feast of the Nativity has grown. Whatever way we ourselves interpret the season does not change what is at the heart of it! I want to share a portion of St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity of Christ:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. 

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom shows us what the birth of Christ means for the world. It is the redemption of the flesh through God becoming man. By becoming man he “wroughts a clear path out of confusion.” Christ came to be ‘with us’ in a way which was incomprehensible — Our God who surpasses the heavens was humbled to lie in a manger, and became the very flesh He created. 

Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). In the incarnation, God is now “commingled” with us. Our relationship with him as humans forever changes after this moment, and even after the Ascension, when his physical body no longer remains on earth, this relationship remains.

This is overwhelmingly amazing but where do we go from here? How do we continue to realize this in our lives? Through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, receiving communion, and confession first and foremost of course! The Church has given us ways to participate simply and receive the overwhelmingly amazing meaning of this Feast in these constant practices. 

This year I have also put together a list of 7 questions which I am reflecting on this week (I want to stress that this is just a list of questions that I have heard or asked myself and have been helpful for me personally). These questions have been a great help in recalling this truth that St. John Chrysostom expresses in his sermon. There are many opportunities for lengthy reflections in each of these, so it may be helpful to choose just a few to tackle in one sitting! I heard a few of these come up in an Advent Series program with YES North America as well as a spiritual discussion with Fr. Panagiotis Boznos. 

1. How do we see or talk about ourselves?

Christ’s image has been redeemed in us. Does this understanding guide our perception of ourselves? Are we quick to talk ourselves up or be too harsh on ourselves?

2. How do we see or talk about the people around us?

Every single person who has ever lived or will ever live is made in the image of God. How do we treat the people around us currently? How do we talk about those we are close to and those we don’t know as well, too? 

3. When do we feel God with us?

What is a time when you have been aware that God is with you? Where were you? What was happening? Were you with other people…maybe you were in prayer? What other factors were playing a role in your life at that point in time?

4. When is it hard to feel God with us?

What is a time where it was difficult to feel God was with you? What is one word which you would use to describe how that moment felt? What factors were playing a role in your life at this point? Where was your focus? Christ promised that He would always be with us. Even though it felt as if God was absent, looking back, are you now able to see any ways in which He was with you?

5. When we struggle, what do we focus on?

The place we give our energy and thoughts determines a lot of our experience and takeaways from difficult times. When going through a struggle what do you see yourself focusing on the most?

6. When we succeed what are we focusing on?

Are we using a success to raise ourselves up or to benefit those around us and raise up Christ? 

7. In this very moment where do you see Christ?

Take 2 minutes to sit in silence. Screens out of sight, music paused. Maybe go outside! Ask yourself where you see Christ here at the beginning of the two minutes? What did you find? Did you focus on your surroundings, thinking of the people in your life currently, a personal struggle, turn to prayer? 

Our understanding of this upcoming Holiday grows with us, the meaning is always constant. From the first Christmas (the Nativity of Christ) until that one year when you were 7 (and thought the world would end if you didn’t get Heelys for Christmas), until Christmas 2020 (undergoing the stresses of navigating togetherness in an isolated world), God has become man and will be with us always. 

As we come to the end of 2020, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and congratulate all my fellow struggle bus college students for making it through. I love you all! I pray that St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity was useful in better understanding the Feast of the Nativity, and that these questions for reflection were helpful!

Andrew Gluntz

Alethia Placencia

Publications Student Leader

I am a senior at the University of Kentucky studying philosophy and microbiology. I love hiking, staying active, and enjoying great books and food! Above all, I love the family OCF has given me. Whatever your story may be, there is a place for you in this community! Reach out to learn more about OCF or if you would like to contribute to the blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

The Man and the Birds | A Story of Christmas

The Man and the Birds | A Story of Christmas

Hey everyone! It’s me, Ben. I wanted to share with you a Christmas story that was given to me by a role model of mine this past summer. I don’t know the author–though it was popularized by radio host Paul Harvey–and I want to let it stand alone, without any commentary, that you may take from it what you wish.

As always, feel free to comment away with how you experience it, and share it with others, that they can remember the true significance of Christmas this year.

That’s all for me.

-B

The Man and the Birds

The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in.

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Photo via flickr by Mark Westby

So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.” At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Athanasios the Great

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Athanasios the Great

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

According to the Fathers…

It’s not uncommon in our Orthodox circles to start out a conversation with that line. But what do we really mean when we invoke “the Fathers?” It sometimes sounds as if we are relying on a sacred club of automatons who all thought, spoke, and acted in the same way. As if when we say, “the Fathers,” complete and singular authority rests in whatever follows that line.

In one sense, of course, this is true. The Fathers of the Church “are above all those human beings in whose texts we find the witness to orthodoxy and whose authority could secure the orthodox faith in all its aspects.”1  There is a harmony amongst their writings that emerges as one becomes familiar with their writings, their lives, and the contexts in which they wrote. And in this harmony, the authority of the Fathers is expressed.

But harmony is not the same as monotony. Each Church Father (and Mother) is as unique as you and I are, and their surrounding cultures, personal experiences, lifestyles, talents, and even preferences influenced what they said and did and how they said and did it. As children and inheritors of these great minds, it is good for us to take the time to get to know our ancestors as individuals so that when we invoke their authority, we do so having established an intimacy with them, respecting the individual notes they play in the beautiful harmony of the Orthodox Church.

For the next few weeks, we’ll try to do just that: get to know a few of the Fathers whose lives and words have shaped our Orthodox faith. Of course, a few hundred words will never do any of our great Fathers justice, but my hope is that the little of their stories that I share with you will inspire you to get to know them more deeply by asking for their prayers, reading their lives, and exploring their works.

Today, let me introduce St. Athanasios the Great.

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

St. Athanasios (commemorated May 2) was born around 298 in Alexandria, Egypt. A Copt by birth, he received a classical Greek education in addition to a Christian education. He was influenced by the ascetic life of St. Antony the Great and visited him and other desert monks throughout his life. As a teenager, he wrote two of his most famous books: Against the Heathen and On the IncarnationIn the first, he refutes the arguments of the pagans and in the second and more famous work, he lays out the Christian story simply, describing man’s creation and fall and God’s response in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Later, as an archdeacon, St. Athanasios became the foremost name at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea among the defenders of the christological position that Jesus Christ was homoousios or “of one essence” with God the Father. He held this claim in opposition to the Alexandrian presbyter Arius who emphasized the divinity of the Father over the Son, claiming that there was a time before the Son was begotten, thus, the Son must have been created and was of a different essence than his Father and Creator. The Council of Nicaea, to affirm the divinity of Christ, produced the Nicene Creed, the first official version of the creed we recite today in every Liturgy.

After the Council, the controversy of Arianism did not die quickly, and during his time as Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasios was exiled from his see five times for his theological position. During these times, St. Athanasios continued to defend the Orthodox understanding of Christ, and finally, in the last few years of his life, he was allowed to peacefully oversee the Alexandrian flock until his death in 373.

A few of St. Athanasios’ other contributions:

If you’d like to read more, but would prefer a version of English that is from this century, check out On the Incarnation from SVS and The Life of St. Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus from Paulist Press.

Let me leave you with some of this Church Father’s own words on Christ’s trampling down death by death:

The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.2 

St. Athanasios, intercede for us.

1. Chrestou, Panagiotes K., Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers (Rollinsford: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), 14.
2. St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1993), 49.