If a Roman Catholic walked into our dining room at dinnertime during the last week before Christmas, he might be a bit perplexed. Yes, there would be the familiar Advent wreath with its four candles...but there'd also be two additional candles lit, making a mysterious total of six. What's with the extra candles?! he might wonder.
My father was a practicing Roman Catholic for the first 40 years of his life. Then, when I was about 4, he discovered the Byzantine Catholic Church. Feeling God's call, our whole family switched to the Eastern rite. But with so many beloved Advent practices left over from our Western heritage, our preparation for Christmas became a unique amalgamation of traditions.
Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the Eastern Church's Philip's Fast starts two weeks before the West's Advent. Thus our family keeps the Advent wreath, but adds two candles for the two extra weeks. At meals we sing Byzantine hymns during the beginning of the fast, but during the final week carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We set up our Western-style nativity scene and tree, and then on Christmas Eve sit down to a traditional Slavic meal of sauerkraut and mushroom soup.
Personally, I love the hodgepodge. We breathe with both lungs of the Church and share the best of two worlds. Today--since I'm guessing most of my readers are more familiar with the Western side of things--I'd like to share a bit of Byzantine hymnography for this final week before Christmas.
Like Advent, the Eastern Philip's Fast is a time of preparation. Through our hymns, we remind ourselves of the miracle about to take place. Just read this text, from the prefestive troparion of the Nativity:
Bethlehem, make ready,
Eden has been opened for all.
Ephrathah, prepare yourself,
For the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb has become a spiritual paradise
In which divinity was planted.
If we partake of it,
We shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.
In a single hymn, we cover the redemption of the old Adam, the prophecies about Bethlehem and Ephrathah, the Incarnation, and even a hint of the Resurrection at the very end. The prefestive troparion clearly places Christmas in the wondrous context of all salvation history.
This is also the theme of the Emmanuel Moleben, a short prayer service that can be said during Philip's Fast. Near the end of the service, the priest recites a long "kneeling prayer" (so called because it's one of the few occasions during the year when Byzantines actually kneel!). It too recounts the crucial place Christmas holds in the true epic of our salvation (emphasis added):
O God and Father, the Almighty One, you created the human race in your image and likeness, and when we fell through disobedience, you promised to send a Savior. When the fullness of time had come, your favor rested on your only-begotten Son, and he was born of the Virgin Mary. Thus, what Isaiah the prophet foretold was fulfilled: "Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Emmanuel, which means 'God with us.'" His birth filled all creation with light; he gave us the baptism of repentance, and restored our ancient dignity. Now most compassionate Lord, you bring us to these honored days of the Christmas Fast that we may do battle with the desires of the flesh and draw strength from the hope of resurrection. Receive us, then, as penitents and forgive our wrongdoing, those done knowingly and unknowingly, through malice and through weakness. And may our prayers our fasting, and our works of mercy rise up before you as incense, as sweet spiritual fragrance, that in the company with the Magi and the shepherds we too, with pure hearts, may be found worthy to bow down before the Nativity of Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To him, together with you and your all-holy Spirit, belong glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and forever. Amen.
Christmas is both an arrival and a turning-point, a culmination and a beginning. The long-promised Savior is now visible to the world, but His mission is only just begun. As for us, Eastern and Western Catholics alike, the Christmas Fast is not quite over. Keep battling, soldiers! The King is almost here.