Orthodox America

   The Great Winter Festivals of the Christian Year: Their Origin and Meaning

by Priest Alexey Young

In the deep of winter, under the dark stillness of long nights and short, icy days, the Church every year invites us to contemplate a short but majestic procession of feast days and themes having to do with the Incarnation and glory of Jesus Christ, and connected with images of light-especially a star, and the sun.  The Feasts are: the Nativity of the Lord on December 25, and the Epiphany/Theophany on January 6.  And yet, although it seems strange to us today, Christmas or the Nativity, was not among the earliest festivals or holy days of the Church.  In fact, the Church Fathers of the first few centuries completely omit Christmas from their lists of feasts. However, from very early times a whole cluster of feasts were celebrated together as one great winter Feast, on January 6.  This day was called then, as it is now, “Epiphany” (in the Western Church) or “Theophany” (in the East).

The words “Epiphany” (from the Latin) and “Theophany” (from the Greek) both mean and refer to the same theme: the “showing forth” or manifestation of God and His glory.  Thus, ancient Christians commemorated on Epiphany the birth of Christ (because the Star of Bethlehem and the apparition of angels to the shepherds were both considered a manifestation of Christ’s glory), the arrival of the Magi (because their adoration of the Christ Child was a further demonstration of this same glory), and the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan (when the divinity of Christ was publicly proclaimed by the voice of God the Father from heaven).

It was not until the fourth century that the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, began slowly to “separate out” the various historical events that were being commemorated in the Saviour’s life on that one day, Epiphany.

In the Roman empire at that time the pagan festival of Natalis Invicti-the winter solstice-was a solar cult (the culmination of the month-long Saturnalia), that sanctioned drunken and immoral celebrations-much as secular Yuletide and New Year’s Eve have again become in our modern post-Christian age. Because this was an overwhelming temptation to pious Christians seeking to live quietly and soberly, the Church of Rome had, by the year 354, “separated out” the commemoration of Christ’s Birth from Epiphany and transferred it to December 25, thus giving the faithful a holy feast to observe on that day instead of the impious revelries.* Furthermore, the preceding weeks of pagan “partying” (the Saturnalia) were solemnly set aside by the Church as a season of fasting and preparation-Advent.

This had the desired effect: as the Church grew and extended her influence, the pagan celebrations gradually but completely died out.  Primary documentation for all the above comes to us from an old and interesting Syrian manuscript, which reads in part:

“The Lord was born in the month of January on the same date on which we celebrate the Epiphany [i.e., January 6]; for of old the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany were kept on one and the same day, because on the same date [but separated by many years] He was born and baptized. The reason why our Fathers changed the solemnity celebrated on January 6 and transferred it to December 25 is as follows:

“It was the custom of the heathens to celebrate the birthday of the sun on this very day, December 25...and the Christians, too, participated.  When, therefore, our teachers observed that the Christians were inclined to this festival, they took counsel and decided that the true birth feast be kept on this day.”

But the Church Fathers of the fourth century also saw another-a deeper and more beautiful-reason for celebrating Christ’s Birth on December 25. The pagan feast of the winter solstice commemorated the “re-birth” of the sun.  The longest night of the year (December 22) had been reached and now the daylight hours would slowly begin to lengthen. Christ had always been called the “Son of Righteousness”-He who is the “light of the world.”  In this pagan feast the Holy Fathers saw a prefiguring or “type” of Christ: just as the solstice signified a kind of “re-birth” for the sun, in the same way Christ, our spiritual “sun”, was now born in Bethlehem and there was now the possibility that mankind could also be “re-born”.  Therefore the birth of Christ was a fulfillment of the pagan type or symbol. This is beautifully expressed in the Troparion for Nativity:

Thy birth, O Christ our God, has shone upon the world with the light of knowledge.  For thereby those who adored the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee.

In this way Christians were taught that the created material sun-as worshipped by non-Christians-was actually a symbol of that greater, truer, and uncreated light, the Son of God.  Henceforth, the early Christians now applied to Christ alone the old pagan title, “Sol Invictus”-the “Conquering Sun”.  Indeed, we can still see in the second century catacombs of Rome a fresco depicting Christ as “Sol Invictus,” rising into the sky in a chariot, with the sun behind his head!  Our Orthodox forefathers revelled in this wonderful symbolism, using it in their missionary work among the heathens to show still another way in which “all things are fulfilled” in Christ.

Finally, we come to a consideration of the magi and the Star of Bethlehem. Who and what were they, and what do they mean?  The word “magi” is the plural of the Latin, magus (magician), but in the original Greek (the language of the New Testament) the word actually means “wise men.”   It is a much later innovation to refer to the Magi as “Three Kings,” for there is no reason from Scripture to assign royal status to these mysterious men “from the east.”  Scholars tell us that they were probably Zoroastrian priests from Persia or Babylon, and therefore of exceedingly high rank in their own society.

We know them as Saints Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The tradition of the Orthodox Church is that much later-after they had returned home-they were baptized by the Apostle Thomas on his way to preach the Gospel in India.

Their relics were brought from Persia to Constantinople in the fourth century by St. Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine).  From thence they were transferred in the fifth century to Milan and then, finally, to Cologne Cathedral in the eleventh century, where they are still venerated by the faithful.

In our “New Age” way of thinking, some people like to think of the Wise Men as astrologers, thus trying to give divine approval to a practice which has always been sternly condemned by the Church. But the early Fathers preserved the tradition that the Magi, although pagans, were deeply religious priest-philosophers who collected wisdom from wherever they could get it-including the messianic prophecies of the Hebrews (some of whom did not return to Israel after their captivity ended, but continued to live in Babylon and neighboring areas).

In our modern rationalistic-scientific age we also have the faithless idea that the Star of Bethlehem had to have been an actual stellar phenomenon, perhaps a comet or super-nova-something that ancient astronomers would indeed have seen and taken note of.  Many learned articles have been written to show that this is the only possible explanation for the Bethlehem Star.

But this fails to explain how the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was (Matt.  2:9). No fixed star could have so moved before the Magi as to lead them not only to a particular town but a particular place in that town-and neither fixed star nor comet could have disappeared and reappeared, and then stood still.  No, only a miraculous phenomenon can explain the Star of Bethlehem.  In fact, Orthodox Church Fathers have always taught that this star was like the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the camp by night during Israel’s Exodus (Ex. 13:21), or the “brightness of God” which shone round about the shepherds (Luke 2:9), or the light from heaven which shone on the stricken Saul (Acts 9:3).  But in any case, we have come back to the wondrous symbolism of light once again-in this case an amazing globe, as brilliant as a star, which literally “led” the Magi, step by step, to the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ.

Indeed, it was precisely on this theme of celestial light that the Orthodox Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen, enthusiastically preached on Epiphany of 381 A.D., calling this Feast the “Holy Day of Lights.” May this excerpt from his sermon, although uttered more than 1600 years ago, speak to our hearts today:

“Listen to the voice of God!  He says, I am the light of the world.  Approach Him, therefore, and be enlightened!  Don’t be ashamed, since your eyes have beheld the True Light.  It is a season of new birth; let us be born again!

“...Now, we come to another action of Christ, and another mystery.  I can barely restrain myself; I am carried up unto God. I almost feel like John the Baptist as I proclaim these good tidings. Christ is illumined, let us shine forth with Him!

“...How shall we keep this Feast?  Not by pampering our bellies [but] by following Isaiah’s advice: Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean-for God takes great pleasure in the repentance of men and women.   Be like lights shining in the darkness, helping others to find their way. In so doing, we will stand beside that Great Light, and learn the mystery of the illumination of heaven, enlightened by the Trinity more purely and clearly.  Even now, we are receiving in part this Light, the One Ray from the One Godhead in Christ Jesus our Lord; to Whom be the glory and the power for ever and ever.  Amen!”

Fr. Alexey Young