As it gets closer to Christmas, we have plenty of opportunities to deal with our inner Scrooge. As drivers and shoppers around us grow impatient and we tick off last-minute items on our to-do lists, we may be far from feeling the “peace on earth” that the Lord came into the world to give us. Not only that, but it may be tempting for us throughout the holiday season to embrace various empty “joys” that the world offers us, rather than holding out for the true joy that only Christ can bring to our hearts.
Happily, in the Church we have help for the struggle! The Church recognizes that we need a guiding star to illumine the path leading us to Bethlehem. On December 20, the Pre-feast of the Nativity of Christ begins. This date also happens to be the day before the winter solstice, when the sun is furthest south in the sky. The Pre-feast of the Nativity thus coincides with the shortest day of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). Following the solstice, the sun gradually appears further and further north in the sky, and the days will become longer. The ancient Romans, and others, held pagan festivals this time of year in honor of the “Undying Sun,” celebrating the rebirth of the Sun-god.
As Byzantine Empire converted to Christianity, however, the Nativity of Christ came to replace the ancient pagan celebrations surrounding the winter solstice. The darkest time of the year thus came to be associated with the brightest of events: the birth of the Lord Christ, who is the Sun of Righteousness. Though there are certain Scrooge-like currents of thought accusing Christians of having simply adopted a pagan holiday and changed the name, this is far from the reality. Rather, we should think of the pagan sun festivals as prophetic signs of the fulfillment that was to come – the true festival of joy that the Savior’s birth brought into our lives. Even in the darkness of the fallen world, there have always been road-signs, as it were, pointing the way to Christ. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psalm 18:1) and the sun itself points to the spiritual reality that we celebrate at Christmas. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!” (Isaiah 9:2)
In the services of the Church, from the beginning of the Nativity fast, there have gradually appeared more and more references to the Nativity. For example, on the Kontakion on the feast of the martyr Boniface, December 19, says, “Thou didst offer up thyself of thine own choosing as a spotless sacrifice to Him that for thy sake, O Saint, shall soon be born of a Virgin Maid, O all-renowned and wise crown-bearer, Boniface.” From the start of the Pre-feast, all the services have the Nativity as their particular focus. At Orthros (Matins) of December 20, we hear, for example, “Behold, the time of our salvation is at hand. Prepare, O cave; the Virgin draweth nigh to give birth. Rejoice and be glad, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, for from thee our Lord is risen up as the sun.” This theme of light coming into darkness is especially strong in the hymns.
The world apart from Christ is in darkness, for Christ is the light, and there is no other. Like attracts like, and the darkness of the world draws the dark elements that have become lodged within us to itself. This is why the days leading up to Christmas can be a great struggle for us. We are often tempted to lose the peace that Christ came into the world to establish. The darkness is unhappy with our quest for the Light; the prince of this world is in dread of the dawning of that Light. So it is no surprise that we increasingly see elements in the world around us that say, in effect, “Bah, humbug!” in response to true Christmas cheer. Only let us not allow that cheerless spirit to creep into our hearts, and let us await with humble love and trembling awe the world-transforming event that is about to take place. And if we will simply endure in that holy anticipation, we will eventually see the Sun arise, and the darkness scatter, and we will hear the Angels cry, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.”