Focus on the Faith: Advent and the Nativity Fast
The Beginning of Advent
On November 15, forty days before Christmas, the Church begins to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. This time of preparation is sometimes called ‘Advent,’ for advent means the coming or arrival of someone or something. During these forty days, we prepare to celebrate the coming of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, into this world. Jesus came into this world as a little child born as an infant from Mary, His holy mother.
Many faithful people had waited a long time for the coming of Jesus. God had promised to send a Savior to His people, hundreds, and even thousands, of years before Jesus was born on earth. During that long period of time when people were waiting, God spoke to prophets — holy men and leaders among His people — and told them how He wanted His people to prepare for the coming of His Son. He told them that they must repent, change their way of life, make peace with one another, care for each other, and be obedient and faithful to God.
Every year, during these forty days, we also wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus. We repent of our bad habits and try to change our way of life. We think about how we have behaved toward other people, and we try harder to be helpful to our friends, our neighbors and members of our family. We also try to be faithful and obedient to God in all that we do. Through fasting and extra effort in prayer, we try to prepare both our bodies and minds to receive Christ into our lives and homes.
Forty days can seem like a very long time to wait for something; it is more that one month, almost six weeks. We know how anxious we are when a birthday or name day is approaching; we want to start planning a party and inviting our friends. If we are preparing for someone else’s special day, we begin thinking about the kind of gift we wish to give them. As the day draws near, we can hardly wait to begin the celebration. When we stop to think about it, we realize that part of the enjoyment of each celebration is the time we spend getting ready for it and waiting for it. The Church helps us to get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. First, the Church issues an announcement, like an invitation, telling us that the Feast of the Nativity is approaching. Then, during the last weeks of November and the beginning of December, there are more announcements made which tell us what to look for as the feast approaches and how to get ready. These are the days on which some of the announcement are made:
This is the first day of the Nativity Fast, which begins forty days before Christmas. It is a good day for deciding how we should spend these days of Lent, what we should do to try to improve our way of living, and how we should spend our time in order to allow more time for prayer and preparation for the coming feast. On this day, we might mark the special days on the calendar that lead us to Christmas, or, we might begin to make an Advent Calendar or make an Advent Wreath to help us keep track of the days before Christmas. We can also start an Advent Chain of good deeds that can be used to adorn our Christmas Tree.
This day is a major feast which commemorates the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple. It is a feast in honor of Jesus’ mother, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, and it marks the first announcement that is given in the Church of the coming of Jesus. During the Matins service, the words, ‘Christ is born! Glorify Him!” are sung for the first time. They will be sung at every Sunday Matins service until Christmas.
The last day of November is the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. During the services commemorating the life of St. Andrew, the Church adds two more hymns which tell us what will happen on the day of Jesus’ birth.
This day is dedicated to the memory of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The life of St. Nicholas is a good example for us to follow if we want to learn how to care for and help one another. In the services on this day, we hear another hymn which tells us how the whole earth prepares to glorify the birth of Jesus.
The Two Sundays Before the Nativity of Christ (Christmas)
The first of these days is called the Sunday of the Forefathers. The verses from the services on this day tell us how the people of the Old Testament prepared for the coming of the Savior. The Sunday before Christmas is the Sunday of the Fathers. The services repeat some of the same hymns that were sung on the Sunday of the Forefathers. The Gospel lesson read on this day lists all the generations of the ancestors of Jesus who lived on earth.
From the Fathers
“The Twofold Coming of Jesus Christ”
from the Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, 315-386 A.D.
We preach not one coming only of Jesus Christ, but a second also, far more glorious than the first. The first revealed the meaning of his patient endurance; the second brings with it the crown of the divine kingdom.
Generally speaking, everything that concerns our Lord Jesus Christ is twofold. His birth is twofold: one, of God before time began; the other, of the Virgin in the fulness of time. His descent is twofold: one, unperceived like the dew falling on the fleece; the other, before the eyes of all, is yet to happen.
In his first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In his second coming he is clothed with light as with a garment. In his first coming he bore the cross, despising its shame; he will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels.
It is not enough for us, then, to be content with his first coming; we must wait in hope of his second coming. What we said at his first coming, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, we shall repeat at his last coming. Running out with the angels to meet the Master we shall cry out in adoration, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.
The Savior will come not to be judged again but to call to judgment those who called him to judgment. He who was silent when he was first judged, will indict the malefactors who dared to perpetrate the outrage of the cross, and say, ‘These things you did and I was silent’.
He first came in the order of divine providence to teach men by gentle persuasion; but when he comes again they will, whether they wish it or not, be subjected to his kingship.
The prophet Malachi has something to say about each of these comings. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’. That is the first coming.
Again, of the second coming he says, ‘And the angel of the covenant whom you seek. Behold, the Lord almighty will come: but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit like a refiners and a purifier’. Paul pointed to the two comings when he wrote to Titus, ‘The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’. You see how he has spoken of the first coming, for which he gives thanks, and of the second to which we look forward.
Hence it is that by the faith we profess, which has just been handed on to you, we believe in him ‘who ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and his kingdom will have no end’.
Our Lord Jesus Christ will, then, come from heaven. He will come in glory at the end of this world on the last day. Then there will be an end to this world, and this created world will be made new.
Great-martyr Catherine the Great of Alexandria November 24/25*
Life of the Saint
“The Holy Great Martyr Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandria in Egypt, during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305-313). Living in the capital, Catherine received a most splendid education, having studied the works of the finest philosophers and teachers. Young men from the most worthy families of the empire sought the hand of the beautiful Catherine, but none of them was chosen. She declared to her parents that she would only enter into marriage with someone who surpassed her in reputation, wealth, beauty and wisdom.
Catherine’s mother, a secret Christian, sent her for advice to her own spiritual father — a saintly elder pursuing prayerful deeds in solitude in a cave not far from the city. Having listened to Catherine, the elder said that he knew of a youth, who surpassed her in everything, such that “His beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation, His riches were spread throughout all the world “. The image of the Christ produced in the soul of the holy maiden an ardent desire to see Him. In parting, the elder handed Catherine an icon of the Mother of God with the God-Child Jesus on Her arm and bid her to pray with faith to Mary to show her a vision of Her Son.
Catherine prayed all night and was able to see the Most Holy Virgin who told Her Divine Son to look upon the kneeling Catherine before Them. But the Child turned His face away from her saying that He was not able to look at her because she was not yet washed with the waters of holy Baptism and not sealed with the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Catherine returned again to the elder deeply saddened. He lovingly received her, instructed her in the faith of Christ, admonished her to preserve her purity and integrity and to pray unceasingly; he then performed over her the sacrament of holy Baptism. And again Saint Catherine had a vision of the Most Holy Mother of God with Her Child. Now the Lord looked tenderly at her and gave her a ring — a wondrous gift of the Heavenly Bridegroom.
At this time the emperor Maximian was himself in Alexandria for a pagan feast day. Because of this, the feast was especially splendid and crowded. The cries of the sacrificial animals, the smoke and the smell of the sacrifices, the endless blazing of fires, and the bustling crowds at the arenas filled Alexandria. Human victims also were brought — because they chose to die in the fire rather than deny Christ under torture. The Saint’s love for the Christian martyrs and her fervent desire to lighten their fate impelled Catherine to go to the emperor-persecutor Maximian. Introducing herself, the saint confessed her Christian faith and with wisdom denounced the errors of the pagans. The beauty of the maiden captivated the emperor. In order to convince her and show the superiority of pagan wisdom, the emperor gave orders to gather 50 of the most learned men of the empire, but the Saint got the better of the wise men, such that they themselves came to believe in Christ. Saint Catherine sealed them with the sign of the cross, and they bravely accepted death for Christ and were burnt by order of the emperor.
Maximian, no longer hoping to convince the saint, tried to entice her with the promise of riches and fame. Having received a stern refusal, the emperor gave orders to subject the saint to terrible tortures and then throw her in prison. The Empress Augusta, who had heard much about Catherine, wanted to see her. Having succeeded in convincing the military-commander Porphyry to accompany her with a detachment of soldiers, Augusta went to the prison. The strong spirit of Saint Catherine, whose face glowed with Divine grace, impressed the empress. The holy martyr explained the teachings of the Christians to the people and they believed and were converted to Christ.
On the following day they again brought the her to the judgment hall where, under the threat of being tortured on a wheel of spikes and nails, they urged that she recant the Christian faith and offer sacrifice to the pagan idols. The saint steadfastly confessed Christ and she herself approached the wheel; but an Angel smashed the sharp implement, which broke up into pieces that hit the pagans who were near by. Having beheld this wonder, the empress Faustina Augusta and the imperial courtier Porphyry with 200 soldiers confessed their faith in Christ in front of everyone, and they were beheaded. Maximian again tried to entice Saint Catherine, proposing marriage to her, and again he received a refusal. She confessed her fidelity to the Heavenly Bridegroom Christ, and with a prayer to Him, she herself put her head on the block under the sword of the executioner and was beheaded. At her execution, milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood by the Grace of God.”
“Following her martyrdom, angels bore her body to the top of Mount Saint Catherine, The highest peak in Egypt, where they rested until they were translated to the katholicon of the Holy Monastery of Sinai. Here they continue to emit a sweet fragrance, and many miracles are wrought to this day. The veneration of Saint Catherine spread from the East to the West, especially after the translation of a portion of the relics of Saint Catherine to Rouen, France in the early eleventh century. Due to the numerous pilgrims to the monastery in Egypt, gradually there was a change of name: from the Holy Monastery of Sinai to that of Saint Catherine.
In the Monastery there is a marble sarcophagus containing the relics of Saint Catherine. It is located at the south side of the sanctuary in the katholicon. It is the work of a certain stone cutter named Procopius, who took nine years to complete the shrine in honor of Saint Catherine. This shrine replaced the earlier marble chest, which is preserved today in the monastery’s treasury. Inside the marble chest there are two precious reliquaries donated by the Russian Tsar. One enshrines the precious head of the martyr, and the other her left hand. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, during which each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint, in honor of the ring that Saint Catherine received from Christ. These are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.”
Holy Great-martyr Catherine pray to God for us!
*Note: According to the ancient usage, Saints Catherine and Mercurius were celebrated on the 24th of November, whereas the holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria were celebrated on the 25th. The dates of the feasts of these Saints were switched by the Greek sphere of Orthodox Churches at the request of the Church and Monastery of Mount Sinai, so that the festival of Saint Catherine, their patron, might be celebrated more festively together with the Leave-taking of the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos. The Slavic Churches continue to commemorate these Saints on their original dates.
Choir Director’s Corner: Veni Veni Emmanuel
During Advent at St. Nicholas, we sing “Veni Veni” or “O come O come Emmanuel” during the clergy communion for Sunday Liturgies. Not all, but several OCA churches do this in the Diocese of the West. It is a nod to the fact that the Orthodox Church existed in the West before the great schism, albeit with a different liturgical order, referred to now as the Western Rite (We are Eastern Rite by comparison).
“Veni Veni” is very ancient, with some references to it in the sixth century, and existing publications in the eighth. In its original form, it existed as a series of antiphons (with each verse forming a different antiphon) that were used after the Magnificat at Vespers (The Western Rite uses the Magnificat at Vespers, instead of at Matins which is our practice). The Verses were sung in order from December 17th to December 23rd.
The antiphons are referred to as the “O Antiphons” because each verse begins with an “O” (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel). Thus the antiphons were sung as follows:
17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
23 December: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
The verses are sometimes arranged: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia, form an acrostic which spells out ero cras which means “Tomorrow I will Come”, referring to the expectation of the coming of Christ to us.
At some point later, the antiphons were put together into a separate hymn with the refrain that we know today. Some later versions added some verses, which do not reflect the advent character of the hymn. We have removed those in our version, seeking to restore it to the pre-schism version as closely as possible.
Those of us who grew up in Western churches recognize this hymn, like an old familiar friend, just like the Western saints in our commemorations. In singing it, we signal the catholicity of the church: that Orthodoxy is universal, and not just Russian or Greek, just as the need for Emmanuel: God with us, is universal.
Upcoming events this month (Events are subject to change! see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)