Monday, December 20, 2004


"Christ is born, glorify Him!" This phrase reverberates around the Orthodox Churches during the Feast of the Nativity. Unlike other Christmas greetings, such as "Merry Christmas or "happy holidays", by this greeting, believers affirm that Jesus, who took on flesh and was born into this world, is indeed the Christ and that it is incumbent upon us to glorify Him. The power of the joyful dignity in the chanting of "Χριστός γεννάται δοξάσατε" could quite possibly only be surpassed in beauty and joy, by the Resurrection Hymn.
It is also indicative of the difference between the western and eastern views of Christmas. Whereas the west's greetings tend to be centered upon the person and their enjoyment of the holiday, (ie. you have a Merry Christmas, be happy,) the eastern view focuses on the incomprehensible, joyous mystery of the Incarnation and the responsibilities of believers flowing from it. Again, as opposed to the apophatic and yet personal oriental philosophies that focus upon a negative self-realisation that does not offer anything to its practitioner except escape and denial of that self from its universal context, the Orthodox view offers consolation, hope and ultimately, liberation. The concept that God can become man, walk among us and consort with us and then through His ultimate sacrifice lead humanity towards eternal life is for believers not only empowering but a source of immense rapture. No other belief system offers such a paradoxical humble and yet exalted position to its deity, no others enjoy such a passionately close and human relationship to their Deity as those believers who worship the Deity who became incarnate in a lowly cave, in Bethlehem for our sakes.
We have all heard the expression "time stood still" and yet how many of us realize that this expression and the image it conveys has entered most languages through the events described in the Protoevangelion of James, a deuterocanonical text describing Christ's birth: "Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion." Such importance is given to the Incarnation that according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the whole of nature stood still in wonder at the enormity of the event taking place, a state coveted by all philosophers throughout the ages: that we may return to the original state of perfection that was intended for us. As St John of Damascus said, “Christ is the only thing new under the sun,” meaning that since the Creation, the only new thing to have happened in this world is that of the Godman Christ.
These days nothing stands still. By the time these words are being read, we will all be scurrying to complete our last minute Christmas shopping, making note of which items we will hopefully be able to bag cheaper at the after-Christmas sales (hence the attraction for Old Calendarists who celebrate Christmas two weeks later?) or stressing about preparing for the Christmas feasting, which invariably involves bolting down vast quantities of meat with the voracity of a starving python and then sprawling on the nearest couch in a state of benign torpidity, slumbering until roused for the next bout of feasting, either on one's own leftovers or those of a relative's. Yet whether one believes or not, in the central message of the Nativity Feast, it is worthwhile to marvel at the significance of a celebration whose message is so universal, as to unite the entire world in a spirit of commonality, destroying man-made differences and barriers. In this sense, the Nativity is the ultimate post-modern event, de-constructing all definitions, identities and obstacles, instead replacing them by an utter, unsurpassable and unadulterated truth, that of Love.
It is also worthwhile to spare a thought for those who will not have a Merry Christmas this year. The poor, the destitute, the outcasts. the lonely and the sick deserve our especial remembrance, for in our world, festivals are enjoyed by those who can afford their 'necessary' accessories. To avoid the well-worn cliché as much as possible though, why not focus on one's immediate environment? This year, don’t let your grandmother, grandfather or aged others sit in a corner silently, their eyes clouded over in reverie as they remember times of old, chewing the same bit of goat over and over again. Talk to them, let them join in the happiness of the day and find out about the Christmases in the motherland and their significance to them. Chances are that you will find the experience much more fulfilling than you would first expect.
Spare also a thought for those who have had their homes destroyed this year and have lost loved ones through the 'intervention' of other 'Christians.' In particular, let us spare a thought for the homeless and destitute Assyrian Christians, forced to leave their homes in Iraq and who now face a grueling winter in the mountains of northern Iraq or across the border in Syria. We should also consider the plight of those wretched Christians left behind in Iraq, Assyrians and Armenians who are currently witnessing the maniac destruction of the churches that they would celebrate Christmas in, owing to the inflamed prejudice and hatred of muslim extremists who have vowed to let no Christian church standing in Iraq, nor any Christian alive. As we stuff ourselves full of Christmas food, let us remember those neomartyrs in Iraq who are stabbed by unknown muslim assassins simply because they are Christians and are left to bleed to death without medical care, as those same assassins have forbidden doctors on pain of death, to treat Christians. Consider also the Palestinian Christians who live in Christ's temporal homeland, dealing with fear, hatred and restrictions every day.
At the same time, it is worthwhile to consider those for whom Christmas will have an especially joyous meaning. For the fourteenth year in a row, church bells throughout Albania will be ringing joyously as the Orthodox in that country celebrate Christmas once more after a thirty year reign of terror which saw all forms of worship banned by the most heinous of totalitarian regimes. On Christmas Day, all vestiges of bitterness will be wiped away as these Christians, without the intervention of any power on their behalf, have through their faith, had their vital privileges restored to them, at the same time that over the border in Kosovo, the few remaining Serbian Orthodox will be cowering in fear. That these times are paradoxical to say the least, is signified by the fact that even as the Christians in Albania celebrate, the Albanian government has moved to close down the schools belonging to the Greek minority.
For the downtrodden and the mighty, the comfortable and the insecure, Christmas brings hope and solace. Why? Simply because it is Christmas. Every year at this time, at a table literally groaning under the weight of provender painstakingly extracted from every single decent delicatessen in Melbourne, a friend remembers her favourite Christmas back in her village. There was no table then, groaning under the weight of anything, save for a meagre bean soup, the family not being able to afford anything more lavish. Yet what made this particular Christmas special was the fact that with the help of an aunt, my friend was able to secure some white butcher's paper and attach it to the rafters, thereby providing a ceiling for the first time that year, making her spartan abode look clean and pretty. And she was happy. Compare this with the complexity of the domestic use of cornices by Greeks these days and one can easily ascertain that cornices or the lack thereof do not impinge upon one's enjoyment of Christmas whatsoever. Indeed, it is postulated by latter day theologians, that one's enjoyment of Christmas is inversely proportional to the size of the cornices in one's home, which is as good enough an argument to spend Christmas in a church, where there are no cornices, as any. For a particularly Greek Christmas, why not attend one of the many traditional Greek carol services taking place or try singing a few yourselves? And if you can, experience the beauty and profundity of the Christmas liturgy for yourselves and delve into its symbolic meanings. You will leave it feeling enriched and well…downright nice.
And should a diatribist appear at your door, triangle in hand, sprouting Christmas cheer amidst invective and thoroughly nonsensical discourse, do the traditional thing and stop up his oral effusions by stuffing his mouth with walnuts and sweets. Until next year then, χρόνια πολλά και του χρόνου.

First published in NKEE on 20 December 2004