“Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16)
In the month of January and first half of February, our Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates five feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ: The Nativity, The Circumcision, The First Miracle at Cana of Galilee, The Theophany, and The Presentation of Our Lord at the Temple. During the first four centuries of Christianity, the Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany were celebrated together and included all aspects of His coming. They later became two separate feasts. These feasts are not just historical remembrances of events that occurred over 2000 years ago, but rather are events for us to live and experience so we may grow spiritually and evermore perfectly towards the image of Christ.
The Importance of the feasts:
In our daily preoccupation, God sometimes may get marginalized in our life. Therefore, year after year the Holy Church gives us the liturgical feasts as constant reminders so that our Lord becomes the focus and we can feel His mystical presence in our midst. Although all the events that took place while Christ was in the flesh happened at certain historical moments, they are never meant to be celebrated as historical events. Since our Lord Jesus Christ transcends time, they are relevant for all times and become eternal and aimed for our salvation. That is why we will find in many of doxologies of the feasts the word “today”, indicating the perpetual presence of Christ amongst us. We travel with Christ through His journey on this earth, thus sanctifying our time and transforming our life into opportunities to develop and nurture the likeness of God in us. This helps us to achieve illumination and leads to our spiritual growth and maturity, which will in turn lead to our communion with our Lord and our salvation.
The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas):
In the celebrating this feast, we celebrate our salvation through the Son of God, Who became the Son of Man, for our sake, that through Him we become children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. By His Incarnation, our Lord Jesus Christ has brought the entire human race back to God the Fr. and liberated us from the power of sin leading to death. The descent of God the Word to our fallen human condition and taking on our human nature, except sin, opened the gate for our ascent by the power of the Holy Spirit. He sanctified our humanity so that, by grace, we may become partakers of the divine nature. This is what the Church teaches us when we pray the Friday Theotokia of the Midnight Praises, “He took what is ours and gave us what is His.” This is also what St. Peter meant when he wrote, “you may be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4). The Fathers of the Church also affirm this belief. St. Athanasius said, “For He was made man, so that we might be made god”(On the Incarnation, 54). In Oration 38, St. Gregory the Theologian said, “It is this that we are celebrating today: the coming of God to man, that we might go forth, or rather that we might go back to God – that putting off the old man we might put on the New; and that as we have died in Adam so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ…He assumes the poverty of my flesh that I may assume the riches of His divinity.”
It is only through the Incarnation that sanctification of humanity was made possible so that humans can be filled with the Spirit of God and have genuine communion with the Holy Trinity. Our Lord Jesus Christ became one of us to heal and restore mankind. The Church is teaching us from year to year that our life is meant to be in Christ, and that our Lord came that we may be like Him. The essence of our spiritual life and the meaning of our entire life is simply this: we in Christ and Christ in us. Realistically speaking, we must live our Christian faith in a practical way. This can only be achieved through the liturgical life of the Church, through the sacraments, and the life of prayer and praise. For us, as Orthodox Christians, we believe that the highest point of being one with our Lord happens in Holy Communion, when we are united to our God and He dwells within us, which is the incarnation of Christ in our lives. May the mystery of the Incarnation always shine forth from our lives.
The Feast of the Circumcision:
On the eighth day of the Feast of the Nativity, our Lord Jesus Christ was circumcised and given His name, Jesus, which means the Savior. It is written, “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” (Lk. 2:21) Circumcision was a sign of holy covenant between man and God and necessary to become a member of God’s people (Gen. 17). In itself, circumcision is a symbol of purity and represents rejection of the sinful life. Of course, our Lord Jesus Christ did not need purification, yet He was circumcised in the flesh to fulfill the Law and lead us to be circumcised in the heart by the Holy Spirit. In His circumcision, our Lord in His abundant mercy circumcises the sins of our mortal bodies. Indeed, this is an act of divine humility since He, Who is the author of Law, submits to the Law in order to fulfill all that we, as humans, could not fulfill.
In celebrating this feast, we respond to Christ’s calling on us to purify our lives and hearts by eliminating and cutting off all that is sinful and causes our separation and loss of communion with our Lord.
We celebrate the manifestation of God as the Holy Trinity, One in essence and undivided, and the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as testified by the voice of the Fr. and the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
The people came to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan “confessing their sins.” (Mk. 1:5) Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is without sin, had no need of repentance, but in His baptism, our Lord Jesus Christ identifies Himself with us the sinful humans, because “In all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17) Our Lord makes everything, which is polluted by sin and corrupted, pure and holy. We respond to God’s grace not by just dying to sin and renouncing all worldly passions and impious desires, but by having zeal for all good deeds.
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord at the Temple:
Forty days after the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate this feast on which the Holy Virgin May underwent the ritual of purification and offered sacrifices as prescribed by the Mosaic Law. Our Lord was met by Simeon the Elder and Anna the Prophetess (Lk. 2:22-36). Simeon the Elder held the Child and pronounced his prophetic hymn, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” (Lk. 2:29-30) The Holy Church teaches us to pray this prayer every night at the Prayer of the 12th Hour, as well as at the third watch of the Midnight Prayer. We who live in the Church see the Lord Jesus with the eyes of our spirits. Like Simeon the Elder, we too can claim our meeting with the Lord through the Divine Sacraments in the Church and can say that our eyes have seen the salvation of God in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How Do We Celebrate the Feasts?
Our celebrations are different than the world around us. The world celebrates with parties, indulging in food and drink, feasting the eyes and senses, over-spending, etc. On the other hand, we should seek the luxury of the spiritual matters. All celebrations that exclude God or don’t make reference to Him and in which our joy come from things other than God, i.e. the gods in our lives, are considered essentially sinful celebrations. This is why some people find the “holiday season” irritating. Obviously, they are celebrating for the wrong reasons. They may have “fun”, but when the season is over, they are left empty, a few pounds over weight, and maybe with some debts to pay. Yet, at the same time, we should not adopt a self-righteous and “holier than thou” attitude! Let us celebrate our feasts properly by keeping our Lord within us and ourselves within Him. Only then will our celebrations be fulfilling to us, inspiring to others, and most of all pleasing to our Lord. Let us go Bethlehem for it is not just a place on the map, but is mystically present in our spiritual lives. It is the simple places where we find the poor and needy. Let us worship the Lord with the shepherds at the manger, where there is humility and true adoration. With the Magi, let us follow the light of the star, the Sun of Righteousness, and let us offer our gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: pure hearts where our King reigns, pure prayers that ascend to God like incense, and crucifixion of all our carnal pleasures and desires. With St. Joseph the Righteous, let us protect the Child from Herod by defending the poor, the widow, the orphan, and all the images of the Child in our life that need protection from the unjust and the brutal, the Herods of this world. Most of all, with the Blessed Virgin, let us carry the Babe within us and keep all His commandments that we may exalt Him.
Therefore, every event in our Lord’s life is celebrated not only historically, but rather spiritually and mystically. We earnestly entreat our Lord to open the eyes of our minds and sanctify our hearts so we can see and live forever in Him and through Him. To our Lord Jesus Christ, Who for our salvation, willed to be incarnate, circumcised, baptized, and held by Simeon the Elder, be glory, honor, and worship unto all ages.