Much of the Christian world celebrates the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ on the Civil or modified Gregorian calendar. However, there still remains a large contingent of Christians who continue to follow the Julian or Ecclesiastical calendar—sometimes referred to as the “Old Calendar”. Many of the Orthodox churches in the Holy Land and in Russia serve on the ecclesiastical calendar. My Church is a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. We are still awaiting the Glorification of the Nativity which occurs on January 7. It must be understood however, that when the 13-day difference in the Gregorian and Julian calendars is considered that January 7 is December 25.
On January 7 we begin to greet each other with “Christ is born! Glorify Him”. If we ponder the Icon of the Holy Nativity we will see the earliest glorifications of Christ. We see in the upper left side of the Icon the coming of the Wise men—they are riding horses rather than camels, as is often depicted in Western art. They have come to glorify Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We also can see the shepherds and Angels who came to the Holy Cave to worship the Lord. In the middle of the icon we see the ray of the Star shining down on the Newborn Baby Jesus connecting Heaven with the Earth. The donkey and the cow symbolized the glorification of Christ from the Old Testament. We see the animals of the old covenant bowing in homage to Christ the long awaited Messiah. The Most Holy Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary is looking away from the Baby Jesus because her Spirit knows the anguish yet to come when Jesus brings redemption to all human-kind by His sacrifice on the Cross. The Mother of God is on a red mat which symbolized the suffering of Jesus and the shedding of His Holy Blood for the salvation of us all. And, of course, the very center of the icon shows the Newborn Babe “wrapped in swaddling clothes”.
The icon then takes on symbols unfamiliar to Western Christians. We see in the lower left corner St. Joseph the Betrothed in a discussion with an “old man”. This old man is the devil who has come to convince Joseph that this was not a miracle birth but that Mary really was an adulteress. This scene shows us that whenever Christ acts for the salvation of the human race the devil is also there to convince us that it didn’t happen. He’s there to cast doubt and distrust concerning the promises of Christ.
And, another interesting scene is depicted in the lower right side of the icon—there are two women caring for a baby. This is a teaching concerning Joseph being the father of several children by a previous marriage, he being a widower when he was betrothed to the Holy Mother of God. One of these women is Salome, the daughter of Joseph and the other a midwife. The two are washing the newborn Jesus, which some see as a prefigurement of His Baptism by Holy John in the Jordan River. It is believed in the Eastern traditions that when Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus traveled into Egypt that they were accompanied by Salome and the other mid-wife.
So, we in the Russian Church, in recognizing that Jesus Christ is God born in the flesh through His Holy Incarnation begin to shout praises to God for His mighty work of coming into our midst as a human being like us in all things but sin. In preparation for the Nativity we fast from meat, including fish, dairy products, wine and oil for a month. Because many important saints are commemorated during this time of the Nativity Fast we are permitted wine, oil and fish on all of the weekends and several of the days during the week. In our parish we will serve the Royal Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th Hours of the Passion) on Thursday January 5; the All-Night Vigil of the Nativity on the Eve followed by the Holy Meal that is still a “fasting” meal. And then on Saturday morning January 7/December 25 we celebrate the Holy Nativity by glorifying Christ as the Holy Church has always and everywhere done since the very beginning of the Holy Church.
We eagerly await the coming of God in the flesh and in an early exclamation I shout with all of you the glorification: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!