In the Orthodox Church, pastors often encourage people to observe Advent. How do Orthodox Christians observe Advent, and how does it compare to traditions of the West?
The Orthodox Church has a preparatory season in anticipation of Christmas, and the bulk of its observance is concentrated in the week leading up to Christmas. The documents, however, do not use the title “Advent” to define this season. Advent is adopted from the West for convenience, to describe the forty days leading up to Christmas. Historically, Holy Week establishes the pattern for Orthodox Advent. The appointment of the preparatory fast and the intensification of the liturgical cycle in the week preceding Christmas are the hints.
What are the highlights of Advent? How do people observe it in practice? And finally, do the Orthodox confront the same pastoral challenges associated with Advent and Christmas posed to all Christians?
A forty-day fast
The forty-day fast preceding Christmas begins on November 15. In practice, it is not as rigorous as the fast for Great Lent. The main challenge occurs during Thanksgiving, and the fast is lifted on that day, and often for a few days, given the inevitability of leftovers.
The Nativity Canon
The main liturgical feature of Orthodox Advent is the addition of the Nativity Canon to the Vigil service on each Sunday and feast, beginning with the Entrance of the Mother of God into the temple on November 21. The canon is a series of hymns sung during the Matins portion of the Nativity Vigil. In practice, the canon is a popular piece, customarily set to festive music. The hymns themselves are echoes of the Greek patristic tradition, as the first song (Ode 1) begins with the words, “Christ is born! Glorify him!” taken from a homily of St. Gregory Nazianzus. Orthodox are familiar with this phrase because it also functions as the greeting exchanged among people during Christmastide: Christ is born! Glorify him!
Many parishes do not serve Vigils, and those that pray Matins before the Sunday liturgy often have low attendance. Some pastors have therefore affixed the Nativity canon to be sung as one of the Communion songs on the Sundays of Advent.
Two Preparatory Sundays
There are no special readings for Advent to speak of in the Orthodox calendar, but there are preparatory Sundays: the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ, and the Sunday before Nativity.
The Sunday of the forefathers is a robust celebration of the memory of the patriarchs, prophets, and holy people of the Old Testament who prefigured Christ. The people hear about Christ’s ancestors primarily through the appointed hymns of the day.
The Sunday before the Nativity features the appointed Gospel, Matthew 1:1-25. To this day, deacons rehearse the Gospel reading to intone and pronounce Matthew’s genealogy accurately. It is feast of Old Testament Scripture, and includes mention and honor of the three holy youths in the fiery furnace, from the prophecy of Daniel.
The thematic connection between the Sunday of the forefathers and the Sunday before the Nativity is quite clear: both Sundays feature Matthew’s emphasis that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophets and is the legitimate messiah coming from the royal line of David – in all of its messiness.
The forefeast of Christ: December 20-24
The liturgical intensity picks up with the arrival of the forefeast, described by Archbishop Job Getcha as a series of liturgical offices patterned after Holy Week. The services are particularly powerful in the hymnography, as the Troparia and Kontakia refer explicitly to the birth of Christ. The primary troparion for December 20-23:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine; if we eat of it we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.(Orthodox Church in America, web)
In some places, some of the hymns of the forefeast are used earlier in Advent to create a type of Advent service. This practice of using thematic material that exhorts the Church to prepare for the feast is not unusual. It is similar to the popular Passia service of Great Lent, a Vespers typically celebrated on Sundays that features one of the Passion Gospels from the Matins of Holy Friday. Both instances – Advent services and the Passia office – are instances of drawing from the intensity of the Christmas forefeast and Holy Week to intensify anticipation of the feasts themselves.
Christmas Eve is the most intense liturgical day, marked by a rigorous fast. Churches that observe the complete cycle will celebrate the Royal Hours, Vespers followed by the Liturgy of St. Basil, a Vigil, consisting of Great Compline and Matins, and the Divine Liturgy the following morning. (Note that the services change somewhat if Christmas happens to fall on Sunday or Monday). Not all parishes celebrate this entire order of services, but some do.
The Orthodox Church does not have an official liturgical office that is the equivalent of a festival of lessons and carols in the Western Churches. Eastern Orthodox people have a rich tradition of carols, and the liturgical offices of Christmas Eve feature numerous lessons from the Scriptures (especially the Royal Hours and the Vespers with Liturgy of Basil). The Church’s official hymnography continues to be used for the liturgical services. Certainly, carols are sung in Church, usually after the services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and in some places, it has become traditional to insert carols – from both the East and the West – into liturgical soft spots.
Everyone reading this is familiar with the challenges posed to pastors on Christmas – and I’m not talking about achieving a donations objective! People try to attend a service on Christmas Eve, but family obligations, travel, and the business of hosting often prevents people from attending more than one service, leaving pastors frustrated with empty seats on such a solemn feast.
I know of three general responses by pastors in the Orthodox Church, based on a series of conversations and observations over the years. Some pastors serve as many of the offices as they can, regardless of attendance, figuring that people can then choose in accordance with their schedules. Others implore the people to attend everything, and denounce selective attendance as laziness caused by the secularization of Christmas. Another group studies the liturgical order to see if they can modify or fuse services in such a way to bring people to Church. This third group seeks to offer a meaningful Christmas Eve service that includes the Eucharist.
This leaves pastors with a few options. One option is to celebrate the Vespers and liturgy of Basil later in the day on Christmas Eve. If this service is offered at about 4 p.m., the Vigil is bumped to 7 or later (since pastors and musicians also need to eat). Another option is to simply affix the following morning’s liturgy to the Christmas Eve Vigil. This is a long service (about three hours), but it permits people who need to go from one family to the next an opportunity to partake of communion on Christmas. Critics of this option would complain that Christmas Day then has no services.
All of the choices are tough. Delaying the beginning of the Vesperal Liturgy makes evening communion possible, but is likely to draw people from the Vigil. Moving the morning Eucharist to the evening leaves Christmas Day open. The decision, then, must be a pastoral one, where the parish makes a decision on the basis of what is best for their particular people. And, as always, such decisions should take into account the burden placed on musicians who often volunteer and sacrifice time with their own families to lead the singing for the Christmas cycle.
In summary, then, most of the thematic liturgical material that anticipates Christmas is confined to the two Sundays before Christmas and the period of the forefeast. The Church draws from the liturgical hymnography of the forefeast and the feast and moves it to earlier dates of the season to enhance a sense of anticipation and preparation.
Perhaps someday the Church will perform a similar adjustment by scheduling a Eucharist on Christmas Eve, in the evening, so that many more of the faithful can partake of the body and blood of the newborn prince of peace.