By comparison to Great Lent, the Nativity fast may leave us feeling liturgically unmoored. But if we delve into the services of this season, we will find a great wealth of liturgical texts and commemorations that are beautifully and intrinsically tied to the coming birth of our Saviour.
All dates given according to the Church calendar (e.g. Nativity is on December 25th). Liturgical texts quoted from the Menaion (St John of Kronstadt Press, 2nd edition).
Great Lent, the fast that prepares us for the Lord’s Resurrection, Pascha, together with Holy Week lasts a full 48 days. These days are themselves preceded by four preparatory weeks where we slowly introduce Lenten texts into our services and modify our physical diet in preparation for the more stringent abstinence ahead. Every week during this period has a theme, a focus — The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, for example, is followed by a fast-free week to teach us humility in our spiritual struggles and to not view the means towards enlightenment as an end in themselves. Lazarus Saturday (the beginning of Holy Week) is preceded by a full week of texts in the daily services, which describe Christ’s delaying before going to his dying (and then dead) friend Lazarus and the disciples’ reactions to this behavior. All this is to say nothing of the rest of Holy Week , in which we truly envelop ourselves in the final days of the earthly journey of our Lord.
By comparison, the Nativity fast may leave us feeling liturgically unmoored. For one, there is little in the Saturday night vigils of the advent season that explicitly points to the coming feast. And yet, if we delve but a little deeper into the daily services throughout the Nativity fast, we will find a great wealth of liturgical texts and commemorations that are beautifully and intrinsically tied to the coming birth of our Saviour.
A full month before Christmas, we already hear for the first time the words, “Christ is born, give ye glory!”, as the irmoi of the Nativity canon are sung as katavasia on the feast of the Entry of the Mother of God (Nov. 21). In this first ode especially, the Church calls us to rise up to meet Christ, who descends from Heaven to become man:
Christ is born, give ye glory
Christ cometh from heaven, meet ye Him!
Christ is on earth, be ye exalted.
O all the earth, sing unto the Lord,
and chant with gladness, ye peoples,
For He hath been glorified.
These same hymns continue to be sung at all festal matins until Christmas, refocusing our vision on the coming feast as we “sing out with gladness” to the Lord. At the same time, the odes teach us key dogmatic lessons of the impending feast: the Pre-eternal existence of the God-man [the Son Who was begotten of the Father without corruption before time began (Ode 3), Thou…didst send Thine Angel of Great Counsel, Who granteth us peace. (Ode 5)]; the Virgin birth [in latter times without seed became incarnate of the Virgin (Ode 3), incarnate of her who knew not man, O praised and immaterial God. (Ode 4), the Word, Who took flesh and dwelt within the Virgin, issued forth, preserving her incorrupt (Ode 6)]; the fulfillment of the Old Testament prefigurations in Christ [A rod from the root of Jesse and blossom therefrom, O Christ… (Ode 4), The dew-bearing furnace…burned not the youths whom it had received, just as the fire of the Godhead burned not the Virgin’s womb… (Ode 8)]. Hearing these odes repeated at the Sundays and festal services of this season prepares us to greet the Nativity of our Lord with full and true joy, not just as an important man’s birthday, but as the beginning of our salvation.
A few weeks after these hymns’ introduction to the services, another Nativity-themed text appears quite unexpectedly. At Vespers for St Nicholas the Wonderworker (Dec. 6), the Theotokion at “Lord, I have Cried” (the hymn which is sung while the clergy process out to the ambo for the entrance with a censor) is replaced with the following text:
Adorn thyself well, O cave, for the ewe-lamb cometh, bearing Christ in her womb! O manger, receive Him Who by His word hath loosed us mortals from irrational activity! Ye shepherds, piping, bear witness to the awesome wonder! O magi from Persia, bring ye gold, frankincense and myrrh to the King, for the Lord hath revealed Himself through the Virgin Mother! And, bowing to Him like a handmaid, the Mother did obeisance and exclaimed to Him Whom she held in her embrace, saying: “How wast Thou sown within me, and how didst Thou spring forth within me, O my Deliverer and God?
The Church already calls us, a full nineteen days before the feast, to enter in to its mysteries!
This same sticheron will be repeated again on the Sunday immediately before Nativity, known as the Sunday of the Fathers. Together with the previous Sunday (Sunday of the Forefathers), this day commemorates the Old Testament righteous ones who prepared Israel for the coming of the Messiah. But the Sunday of the Fathers specifically calls us to remember those saints who appear in Christ’s genealogy (Matt. 1:1–17, Luke 3:23–38). Matthew’s genealogy is in fact read at the Divine Liturgy on this day. A great concentration of Old Testament Prophets are also commemorated individually throughout December: Nahum (Dec.1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zephaniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), Daniel and the three youths (Dec. 17). With all these services, the Church reminds us of the Old Testament prophecies and prefigurations, of which Christ is the only fulfillment.
Finally, there is a great wealth of spiritual nourishment to be found in the five days of pre-feast for Nativity (Dec. 20–24). In fact, the liturgical services of these days explicitly follow Holy Week as their liturgical model — even down to the melodies to which canons are sung. Triode canons also make an unusual appearance here at the service of Small Compline, again explicitly modeled after the Lenten Triodion texts. This pattern is most clear on Christmas Eve, which emulates both Holy Friday with the Royal Hours and Holy Saturday with a Vesperal Liturgy, at which we hear a greater than usual number of Old Testament readings and sing “As many as have been baptized into Christ” instead of the Trisagion. The end of this Christmas Eve liturgy, much like its counterpart in Great Lent, ends in a spirit of anticipation as we sing for the first time the Troparion of the Feast, Thy Nativity, O Christ Our God, caused the light of knowledge to dawn upon the world… and the kontakion, Today the Virgin giveth birth to the Transcendent One.… In some churches, a candle (the primikiri) is brought out into the middle of the church, representing the star which guided the magi. In others, the Icon of Nativity is placed there.
It should be clear from this brief and incomplete survey that the Advent season is full of hymns and texts leading us to a more full appreciation of Christ’s Nativity. All these hymns and services, combined with the abstinence from food to which the Church calls us in this preparatory season, will aid us in drawing ever closer to the awaited coming in the flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.