Focus on the Faith
ADVENT & THE NATIVITY FAST
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,’ because 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 Most-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 than one month, almost six weeks. We know how anxious we are when a birthday or name day approaches; 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 announcements are made:
November 15 – 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.
November 21 – This day is a major feast which commemorates the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple. It is a feast that honors 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 until Christmas.
November 30 – 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.
December 6 – 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.
Candles in the Orthodox Tradition
“The candles lit before icons of saints reflect their ardent love for God for Whose sake they gave up everything that man prizes in life, including their very lives, as did the holy apostles, martyrs and others. These candles also mean that these saints are lamps burning for us and providing light for us by their own saintly living, their virtues and their ardent intercession for us before God through their constant prayers by day and night. The burning candles also stand for our ardent zeal and the sincere sacrifice we make out of reverence and gratitude to them for their solicitude on our behalf before God.” (St. John of Kronstadt)
What does an Orthodox person, entering the temple, do first of all? Nine times out of ten — he or she buys a candle. Our initial participation in authentic Christian liturgical prayer begins with a small wax candle. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church without burning candles, unless, of course, we have a pandemic ravaging the world.
The Holy Fool-for-Christ Simeon of Thessalonica (XV century), said that pure wax symbolizes the purity and innocence of people offering it. The wax is offered as a sign of our repentance for our obstinacy and willfulness. The softness and malleability of the wax speaks to our readiness to obey God. The flame of the candle shows the warmth of our love to God, and hence the domes on top of most Russian Orthodox churches are in the shape of a candle flame (not an onion!). That flame also represents our Christ as the Light of the World Who will draw all people to Himself. We should not put up a candle just for the sake of ritual, with our hearts remaining cold. The outward action must be supported by an inward prayer, be it even a simple one expressed in your own words.
Candles are integral to our Orthodox worship. The newly baptized and those receiving the Mystery of Holy Matrimony hold candles. The burial service is read in the presence of many burning candles. Believers who participate in a Cross Procession around the temple hold candles and shield the flame from the wind with their hands. There are no strict rules about the number of candles to be offered or any definite place to put them, with this exception: that candles placed at the memorial table are for the dead. To buy a candle is a small sacrifice to God, anoffering which is voluntary and not burdensome. A big and expensive candle does not possess any more grace than a small one.
Those who come to church regularly usually place candles near the icon of the feast or saint celebrated on that day. It is also customary to place them at the icons of the Savior and the Holy Theotokos — offering a prayer for your living friends and relations. If you wish, you can offer a candle at any icon, of any saint where a candle stand is provided.
Sometimes there are so many burning candles on the candle stand in front of an icon, that there is no room to put yours. You should not put out somebody else’s candle so that you can light yours, unless theirs is down to the very end. Just light yours elsewhere. God knows your heart and knows your good intention. Also, if there is plenty of room on the candlestand, don’t place your lit candle directly next to another lit candle, but put space between them. Why? The will last longer, burn straighter, and won’t melt, creating a fire hazard. Do not be embarrassed or upset by somebody putting out “your” candle when the service is over — your offering has already been accepted by God. The candle is no longer “yours” but His. You should pay no heed to foolish tales about the necessity to place a candle “only with your right hand,” or about the misfortunes that will happen if the flame of your candle goes out, or that it is a deadly sin to melt the candle at the bottom in order to fix it better in the candleholder, etc. There are many traditions (one might say “superstitions”) associated with church life, and many of them are meaningless.
Your beeswax candle is pleasing to God. But He appreciates the burning zeal of your heart much more. Our spiritual life and participation in services cannot be limited to putting up a candle. The candle itself will not deliver us from sins, will not bring us closer to God, neither will it give us strength for resistance in the “unseen warfare.” A candle is full of symbolic meaning, but we are not saved by symbols, but by the grace to which the symbol draws us, God’s grace.
Proper Times to Light Candles – As I said before, Orthodox people typically light candles when coming into the churchprior to the beginning of a service, and that is usually the best time to light them. But there are times when candles should not be lit. It is not proper to light candles during the Epistle or Gospel readings, during the sermon, the Little or Great Entrances, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Anafora and consecration of the Holy Gifts, or basically anytime when the faithful are called upon to “stand upright: and “attend.”
Also, it’s good to remember that candles are not playthings, lit or unlit. They are holy things, consecrated to God. Only those children who are old enough and have shown a certain degree of spiritual maturity should be allowed to light their own candles before the icons, but only under the watchful supervision of their parents. If, however, the child makes a game of this, the privilege should be revoked until such time as he/she understands what they are doing. Always stand next to your child as he/she handles the candle because a moment of inattention on the part of the child (or the parent) can have serious consequences. Let us also refrain from sending bored children to “tend” the candlestands. The distraction often created by adults noisily blowing out candles and tossing them into a box is bad enough, but the effect is magnified when the job is undertaken by a child who craves diversion or attention.
Feasts and Saints
Entrance of the Mother of God Into the Temple
21 November 2020
Like the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the feast of her Entrance into the Temple was derived from the Oral Tradition, which is the church’s historical memory. In order to emphasize the person of the Virgin, and her consecration of herself to the service of God, the Church celebrates her as “the fulfillment of the economy of the Creator.” The mystery of this feast, like the Dormition, leads us into the very treasure-trove of the Holy Tradition. The Orthodox Church, due to her 2,000-year link with the people and the events of the New Testament period, breaks the silence of the Scriptures and shows us the amazing and inconceivable ways of God. She shows us how God Himself prepared the world, and prepared this extraordinary young girl, to become the receptacle of God the Word, “the Mother predetermined before the ages.” It is the Church that explains to us, how she who was “preached by the prophets,” is now escorted into the Holy of Holies, like a “Hidden Treasure of the Glory of God.”
The “temple” is the dominant focus of the services and in the icon of the feast itself. The Holy Spirit abandoned the old Temple in the end, yet He conferred upon it a glory unimagined under the covenant of the Law. And what glory was that? The entrance of the Virgin into the Holy of Holies – she who would give birth to “Jesus, made a Hight Priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 6: 20). He who received and welcomed the Holy Virgin, the priest Zacharias, (the future father of John the Baptist,) recognized in Her the new Ark of the Covenant, “the living Ark” which would replace the one that was lost. In the 9th Ode of the Canon for the feast we hear these words: “Beholding the Entry of the All Pure One, the angels were struck with amazement, seeing how the Virgin entered into the Holy of Holies.” The Divine plan of the Incarnation remains incomprehensible to the angels. They themselves will come to understanding only through the Church. Only in and through the Church is revealed “the mystery, which, from the beginning of the world, hath been hidden in God” (Eph. 3: 9-10). Which mystery? It is the mystery of the preparation of the humanity of Christ, the very flesh of God. In the temple in Jerusalem, God’s chosen Maiden prepared herself to later become “the Temple of His Body.” The feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, allows us a glimpse of the revelation of the Mother of God as the new Ark of the Covenant, and gives us the clear understanding of the verse of Psalm 130 sung at the Vespers of the Dormition: “Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou and the ark of thy holiness.”
In the icon of the Feast, the scene first unfolds in the narthex or porch of the temple, near the entrance to “the Holy Place,” the “nave.” The priest Zachariah, arrayed in his priestly vestments, stands before the doors on the first step of the staircase (the fifteen steps or degrees of the temple which correspond to the fifteen “psalms of the degrees.”) Below, the Holy Virgin, outstretching her arms towards Zachariah, starts to climb the steps which lead towards “the Holy of Holies.” At the top, she is seen again, already there, sitting on the highest step, near the door of the “Holy of Holies,” where an angel comes to assist her. It is here, in this earthly heaven, where the holy maiden ascends the spiritual ladder of contemplation, her beginning on the way of union during which she will be “nourished on heavenly bread.” The Theotokos is represented twice on the festal icon. Her features are not at all child-like, but her small size indicates that she is very young. She is already a perfected person and is seen clothed in her traditional maphorion, her outer cloak of reddish royal purple, decorated with the three stars representing her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ.
Behind the Virgin, in the center of the courtyard, Ss. Joachim and Anna move towards the priest Zachariah, presenting their Daughter to him. They are followed by young girls, who with lit tapers in their hands accompany the Virgin on her path to ultimate dedication to God. These young girls, in essence, represent all of us. Like the wise virgins of the parable, we want to be with the Virgin today, holding our lit tapers, contemplating the Mystery of this wonderful feast. There is great grace for us in this holy image, and in this holy contemplation. Glory be to God, Who bestows upon us such a great and soul-profiting Feast!
From the Holy Fathers
“Now, when Righteous Joachim and Anna saw that they had been granted their wish, and that the divine promise to them was realized in fact, then they on their part, as true lovers of God, hastened to fulfill their vow given to God as soon as the child had been weaned from milk. They have now led this truly sanctified child of God, now the Mother of God, this Virgin into the Temple of God. And She, being filled with Divine gifts even at such a tender age, … She, rather than others, determined what was being done over Her. In Her manner She showed that She was not so much presented into the Temple, but that She Herself entered into the service of God of her own accord, as if she had wings, striving towards this sacred and divine love. She considered it desirable and fitting that she should enter into the Temple and dwell in the Holy of Holies.” (St. Gregory Palamas)
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