Monday, December 11, 2006

Advent and The Two Sundays Before Christmas in the Melkite Byzantine Tradition

For Latin Rite Catholics and most western Christians, Advent is a season of preparation with a focus on repentance and anticipation for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It is marked by the four Sundays that precede the Great Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). As a season of repentance, it shares certain features with the season before Easter. Like Lent, the Gloria is not sung, and the liturgical color is somber, generally purple although rose is prescribed for the third Sunday, and the lectionary texts feature readings that contrast the second and glorious coming of Christ with His humble birth in the manger. Thus, there is a unity of theme and liturgical movement in Advent that is at once coherent, simple and obvious.

In contrast, Advent in the Byzantine Rite is complex. It differs in length, focus and practice from the season as celebrated in the West. In fact, considered as specific season, the Byzantine Advent can be viewed as somewhat confusing, if not incoherent. The reason for this requires some examination.

For Byzantine Churches, Advent is a time of fasting and abstinence. The Eastern Churches always precede a feast with a fast. This reveals why we call those great celebrations, like Christmas, Easter, etc. "feasts" in the first place. It is a “feast” precisely because a) it is an important celebration, and b) the celebration itself includes the expectation that people will actually feast.

To make the festive element clearer, fasting in advance of the feast is a spiritual discipline that reminds the faithful of their dependence on God. It allows time for reflection on our need to repent (which may be the subject of a future entry … what repentance means in the Byzantine Tradition). It also serves to promote solidarity with all people since fasting foods are essentially the food of the poor – simple grains, vegetables, etc. During a fast, the rich eat the food of the poor and the king shares table with the downtrodden. And the celebration of a feast is the occasion for everyone to feast like a king, so to speak.

However, the length and liturgical continuity of Advent in the Byzantine Tradition reveals little coherence. Unlike the Roman Church, Byzantine Advent begins on 15 November, forty days before the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas). In truth, the season itself doesn't have an official name; it is variously called "the Nativity Fast", "Christmas Lent", or "St Philip's Fast" (whose feast is celebrated on 14 November). It lasts forty days as an obvious parallel to the forty day fast before Pascha (Easter), but whereas Great Lent has manifest liturgical features that indicate its theme and purpose, Advent seems strangely lacking in focus.

A common mark of seasonal unity in the Liturgy is the Kontakion. These hymns, often called “sessional” actually function as ‘seasonal’ markers within the liturgical year. A Kontakion may be appointed in advance of an important celebration to alert us that it is coming. Certain Kontakia also continue to be used for a period after a feast. Yet, the Kontakion of Preparation for the Nativity of our Lord seems to be the only unifying liturgical element to the Byzantine Advent season. Other seasons have special antiphons, etc., but not Advent. The hymns of the Menaion reveal no special seasonal focus but relate specifically to the particular saint or saints commemorated.

What's more, there is not quite the uniformity of color as found in other liturgical seasons. The liturgical colors are red, then blue, then red again. The red reflects the number of martyred saints on the calendar during this time period. The blue is for the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, which is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine Tradition.

These changes in liturgical color would prima facie seem to contrast the Advent fast from the season preceding it, the “Sundays after Pentecost”, which features the color green. But some Byzantine Churches account time after the Feast of the Cross (14 September) as “Sundays after the Feast of the Cross.” This is significant because red is the liturgical color for the Feast of the Cross (which is actually a fast, but that’s another story). And in fact, red remains the principle liturgical color from the Feast of the Cross until Christmas, with the exception of particular days when other colors are seen as more appropriate (like the blue for the Feast of the Virgin). So there doesn't appear to be a direct relation between the liturgical colors of red and blue and Advent as a season.

Further, as a time of fasting and abstinence, there is great diversity among Byzantine Christians as to the specifics of any required abstinence and the severity of the fast itself. Some Eastern Christians begin a strict fast on 15 November, others get serious around the first of December, and others wait until mid-December.

In the Melkite Church, fasting and abstinence is prescribed to officially begin on 10 December (although technically this year – 2006 – it began at sunset on the evening of the tenth since fasting is inappropriate for the Lord’s Day). And while some see this as a modern ‘liberalization’, I suspect it is the key to understanding what Advent really is in the Byzantine Tradition. I also suspect that the Melkite practice reflects an older more authentic tradition than the forty day practice.

This Melkite Tradition is connected liturgically to the only particularly seasonal elements of the Byzantine Advent cycle. The two Sundays after 11 December are specifically devoted to preparing us for the great Miracle of God born in the flesh. They are called the Sunday of the Forefathers (the second Sunday before the Nativity) and the Sunday of the Genealogy (the Sunday before the Nativity). These, along with the services particularly connected to Christmas Eve, are the only celebrations during the Advent Fast that in any specific way relate to or even refer to the Nativity of Christ. Thus, they are the only truly seasonal celebrations within the season.

The first of these special days, the Sunday of the Forefathers, speaks of the people of the Old Testament and the preparation for the coming of the Savior. Likewise, the Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday of the Genealogy, features the Gospel reading that lists all the generations of the ancestors of Jesus. Combined, the two Sundays direct us to anticipate the Feast of the Nativity and remind us that far from being a myth, the God of our Faith reveals Himself to us in the reality of human history.

The earliest date the Sunday of the Forefathers can possibly occur is 12 December. It seems more than coincidental that the Melkite Fast begins on 10 December. I posit that the current Melkite practice reflects an older expression of the Tradition. It reflects an Advent season that truly seeks to prepare us for the Great Feast of the Nativity. It does not parallel the forty days of the fast of Great Lent, and I believe this is historically significant.

Feasts related to the birth of our Lord (Christmas, the Circumcision, etc.) and the beginning of His ministry (Theophany) arose later in the history of the Church than those feasts related to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. From the beginning the Church saw the Passion, Death and Resurrection as central events in its liturgical life. Feasts related to Pascha show the greatest elaboration of hymnody and clear traditions related to preparing for it. This undoubtedly reflects not only their significance but their antiquity.

The two Sundays before Christmas reflect the extent to which the Byzantine Church developed a liturgical season in anticipation of Christmas before the Schism. Whereas in the West, there was no fear against allowing liturgical seasons to evolve after the Schism, the East clearly sought to resist changes in liturgical practice. Thus, although in the East custom (later to be viewed as Tradition) somewhat followed the West in establishing a longer season of preparation before Christmas, the evolution of hymnody and other elements that would give it coherence never evolved. Furthermore, once a period of fasting had been established there was a strong tendency to avoid change, particularly if it amounted to a 'shortening' of the fast, as this might be viewed as a concession to human weakness.

In current Melkite practice, those who have been influenced by theologians in the Orthodox Churches tend to lean towards the 15 November start of the Christmas Fast, while those who tend to gravitate towards the 10 December date do not. I believe that both options (if you will) are equally valid.

Clearly the forty day fast is a late adaptation. Yet this does not prevent those who choose to do so from beginning their Advent on the earlier 15 November date. However, this also reveals that those who wait for the 10 December date are not merely following recent trends or showing lack of commitment. They are following an older expression of the tradition and, perhaps, beginning their preparation for Christmas in a somewhat more intimate manner due to the close proximity of the feast to the start of the fasting period.

While affirming the benefits for those who begin their preparation for Christmas on the earlier date, the dynamic spiritual life of the Melkite Church allows the earlier authentic custom to remain the norm, and thus neither the celebration of the Nativity nor the Triumph of Pascha are confused nor become stultified. Each retains an appropriate focus and temperence. The Advent Fast can be kept as a short season that indicates the surpise of God's Nativity in the world, and the preparations for Pascha contribute to our reflection on the great Mystery of God loving us so much that He was willing to die for us.

So Whether you begin your Nativity Fast on 15 November or 10 December, let the days of the Advent Fast be marked by fasting, abstinence, special prayers and devotions to our Lord and the Theotokos (“Birth-giver of God”). Incarnate your prayers with acts of charity to others, and give thanks to the Lord whose love for us is so great that He came to live amongst us!

Maranatha! Come, Lord!

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