A Christmas

Message From

Very Rev. Fr. Gregori, SSJt - Abbot

On behalf of the Holy Synod of the

American Orthodox Church

(North American Orthodox Church)

Why the confusion of dates within the Orthodox Church? Pope Julius I set the December 25 date on or about 336 ad in an effort to provide continuity from year to year and to counterbalance the various pre Christian festivals in competition with the spread of Catholicism. Although many of the Orthodox or Eastern Rite Christian churches have celebrated Christmas on December 25 since the middle of the fifth century, some chose to keep their festivities on the traditional date of January 6 or 7, known also as the Epiphany.

KONTAKION OF VESPERS

 

Today the Virgin gives birth to the One who surpasses all

essences, and the earth offers a cave to God, the Inaccessible One.

Angels sing his glory together with the shepherds: for to us is born

a Child, God in all eternity.

Greetings and Blessings to all, in the name of the Father +, the Son +, and the Holy Spirit +. Amen.

      As we enter this period of celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the coming new year, we should all take time to meditate on what we have done as priests of the Most High and give deep thought as to what we can do to improve how we perform our priestly duties in the coming year, and all the years to come.

      There are several questions we should ask ourselves, and when we do, we should contemplate them and then give ourselves an honest answer, (“unto thine own self be true”), and if we find that we are lacking, then we must make every effort to improve in what ever areas we find short-comings. This is part of the process of reaching our goal of True Orthodoxy which can be a life-long endeavor, but one well worth the effort.

      The first question I shall ask myself is; “Have I done enough to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and to win more souls for the Kingdom of God, or have I used my priesthood as a means of building up my own stature in my community?” Sad to say, I have run across many men who have become priests for all the wrong reasons, the worst of which was to build up their own feelings of self-importance. In this instance, I have often advised them to spend some time in a monastic setting to take time to enter into personal prayer and meditation in order to come to an honest decision as to whether or not to remain in the active priesthood or to either become a monk or return to lay status. Even a lay person can attain to true Orthodoxy.

      The second question I shall ask of myself is; “Have I treated those who sought my counsel, with the true spirit of love and compassion that the Lord showed to sinners, or have I shunned them with a holier than thou attitude?” Many times, priests tend to forget that they too are sinners. Being human, we all fall victim to the temptations of the Evil One, and just because we are members of the priesthood, does not make us immune to the temptations of the flesh and of the world. As my Archbishop, +Joseph Thaddeus, has often stated: “The Church is a hospital for sick souls.” How true this is, and we, the members of the clergy, are the doctors and nurses who administer the cure of forgiveness of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. But, please bear in mind that even doctors become ill and are in need of the same medicines that they prescribe for their patients. It is for this reason that all priests, even those in the hierarchy, are assigned a confessor, a spiritual father to whom they can turn to for their own spiritual healing. The one difficulty that we, as priests face is proper discernment. By this I mean that we should never close the door to any sinner who seeks the Lord, but when one comes for forgiveness, in order for absolution to be granted, the sinner must show true repentance

(a turning away from the sinful acts), if a priest grants absolution, but the sinner does not have the spirit of repentance in his/her heart, then absolution has not been granted

in heaven by God. We do not have the power or ability to read another’s heart, but we can read the actions of others, so if you see that someone is continuing in their sin and shows no sign of remorse, then it is right and proper to put that individual out of the church to prevent the whole church body from becoming infected. However, always be ready to welcome that individual back into the fold if and when they show a change of heart and seek re-admission to the church family. When the Lord forgives sinners,  that persons “slate” is wiped clean and the Lord remembers their sin no more. We, as priests, the representatives of Christ on earth, should strive to do the same, for this is the sign of true forgiveness.

      Finally, I shall ask myself; “What have I done to recruit others to the priesthood?” We are living in a time when we need more workers to toil in the fields of the Lord. Not every man can be a priest, for many are called but few are chosen, but it is up to us to put forth the effort to reach those who may be feeling the call, but may not know how to proceed to answer that call. Even if they become brothers (monks) in one of our Orders, they can do much to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and bring others to the Lord. If you are able to encourage even one person to enter the priesthood or into the holy life of a monastery, you will experience one of the greatest feelings of joy and pride that you have ever felt since the day of your own ordination.

      With each one of these small steps, you will find that you have come ever closer to attaining your goal of True Orthodoxy. Most likely, none of us may ever reach this goal in our life-time, but when we join the Lord in heaven, we will hear the Lord say: “Welcome, for you have done well.” To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom; “Trust in Christ, who called you and set you over his own sheep, that you will gain such assurance from your ministry that when you stand in peril on that great Day, he will receive you into his everlasting habitation.”

      Wishing one and all a very blessed Christmas and a very holy, happy and safe New Year, and may the Lord keep you all in the safety of his out-stretched arms.

On Behalf of the Holy Synod of Bishops, I am;

The Very Rev. Fr. +Gregori, SSJt . - Abbot


The True Meaning of Christmas


The Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ has been celebrated with all solemnity and joy since the very earliest period of the Church.

Until the 4th century this Feast was kept on January 6, when the Church also remembered the Baptism of Our Lord in the River Jordan. It was called the Theophony and was dedicated especially to the manifestation of God in the flesh. ("Theophany" means the "showing forth of God.")

The early Church knew that there was a mystical relationship between the first and the Second Adam, between the one that brought death into the world and the One Who brought life and salvation. According to very ancient tradition, Christ, the "Second Adam," was born on the same day on which Adam, the first-created one, was born--that is, on the "Sixth Day," which corresponded to the sixth day of the first month (January 6th on the Julian Calendar). 

Fighting Errors

In the fourth century many errors were being taught, especially by the followers of Arius. They denied that Jesus was of the same substance as God; they believed that He was only the highest of created beings (a false teaching that has again become fashionable in our own days). According to this error, Orthodox Christians could not celebrate the birth in flesh of God Himself (which is called the Doctrine of the Incarnation 1), but only the birth of a very special creature who was not in reality God,

In order to combat this heresy it was agreed that the commemoration of the Birth of the Son of God should be separated from the Feast of His Baptism: the Church intended by this to make even clearer the truth about the incarnation 1. Many different dates were suggested for the celebration of Christmas, but in order to remove a temptation from the Christians of that time it was decided to use December 25th. The Romans had a pagan festival on this day called dies natalis Solis invicti - ..-a celebration of the return of the sun to summer, as if renewing itself. The Romans used this day as an excuse for unbridled merry-making and immorality (much as it has again become in the 109th, 20th and into the 21st century). Since the Church had already decided to establish a separate Feast-day for the Nativity of Christ, December 25th was chosen in order to preserve the faithful from the temptation to participate in pagan revels. The Church Fathers also wanted to make use of the symbolism of the sun on that day, thinking to ennoble or elevate the pagan feast to a Christian understanding because Christ is often spoken of in the New Testament as the "Sun  of Justice,” “The Light of the World,” etc. (The fact, that the early Church deliberately chose a pagan feast for the celebration of Christmas has been confused in the minds of many modern sectarians--viz., Jehovah's Witnesses--who do not understand the authority of the Church, and are themselves latter-day Arians.) 

The True Meaning of Christmas

By establishing the Feast of the Lord's Birth on December 25, the Church did two things; first, she clearly rejected pagan ideas about life, death, birth, etc., and showed that Christ had come to replace those lifeless and G1oomy teachings, even the false idea of reincarnation; secondly, the Church confessed her undying faith in a great dogma: that God had taken flesh from a woman and come to dwell among and save men.

In the center is the cave in which the Saviour was born; the two animals fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (1 3): “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me”. Surrounding the cave, the whole of creation offers what it can in thanksgiving to the new-born Saviour: "Angels their song, the heavens a star, the Magi gifts, the shepherds wonder, the earth a cave, the wilderness a manger, and we the Virgin Mother" (from Christmas Vespers). At the bottom are two details handed down in iconographic tradition: two women wash the Child and St. Joseph is tempted to doubt the Virgin Birth by the Devil disguised as a shepherd. 

 At the same time, by means of special hymns and prayers on this day, Orthodoxy instructs the world in ways of holiness and morality, wishing to kindle in the hearts of' people a determination to be reborn from a life of sin to a life pleasing to God.

As one writer explains: "Not in glory and magnificence, but in poverty, wretchedness and humiliation does the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth appear in the world; not a luxurious palace, but a humble cave, receives the Kin g of those who reign and the Lord of those who rule. By this we are shown the greatness of humility, poverty, meekness and simplicity, and the ruinous-ness of pride, riches, vainglory and luxury .... By this it is suggested to us that the Lord receives all and everyone: He is pleased by unlettered simplicity, when it is united to faithful fulfillment of one's calling, to purity Of conscience and life; and He does not reject human wisdom, when it knows hew to submit itself to illumination from above and make use of its learning for the glory of God and the benefit of one's fellow men" (Orthodox Word, Vol. 3, //16-17, 1967). 

The Spirit of Christmas

Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in a manner directly opposed to the way in which it is kept by the world. While western countries are involved in weeks of partying and eating, from Thanksgiving on, Orthodox Christians are deep in a preparatory fast of 40 days. We do not participate in Christmas parties before the Feast itself because we are trying to understand what it must have been like for the righteous ones of the Old Testament, who waited so many generations for the coming of the Messiah. This fast period is of very early origin and was universally known at the time of the great Church Councils. We do not break this fast from meat and dairy products until after receiving Holy Communion on Christmas Day itself, although the Feast actually begins with Divine Services after the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, since the Orthodox Church still observes the Julian Calendar which is 13 days behind the civil calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th according to the latter; after the world has removed its tinsel, then Orthodox Christians are able to meet the Feast of the Nativity in peace and true spiritual joy much more akin to the first Christmas in Bethlehem.

The celebration of the Birth of Christ begins at nightfall on December 25 and continues for three days. With the exception of Pascha (Easter), it is the greatest of all Church Feasts; St. John Chrysostom calls it "the mother of all feasts."

On this day we also celebrate the memory of the Three Magi (who later received baptism from the Apostle Thomas) and the simple shepherds who were the first of the Chosen People to learn of the Birth of the long awaited Messiah.

The second day of Christmas is dedicated to the honor and memory of the one from whom our Redeemer took His flesh: the Most Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, whom Orthodox call by the dogmatic title Theotokos ("She who gave birth to God"), and for whom all true Christians have had reverence, love and feelings of closeness since the beginning of Her Son's ministry.

(Based upon an article in Orthodox Word, Vol. 3, #16-17, 1967.)

[1] The word "incarnation', as applied to the Birth of Christ is worthy of a special note: the dictionary defines the word as "a manifestation or the act of making manifest in bodily form." It comes from the Latin incarnare, to make flesh: in- (to cause or make) + carn- (from the stem, caro, flesh). Our word "carnal" comes from the same root, as does "carnage," "carnival" (festival of flesh), "carnivorous", etc. So, God, Who is pure being and pure spirit, took flesh from a woman, uniting Himself to human nature, and made His tabernacle among men in a human body.

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