Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On the Seventh Day of Christmas – The Leavetaking of Christmas

The term “leavetaking” refers to the day when the Church closes one Feast and begins the cycle of another. There are nuances in the services of the Church which can assist you in understanding how this plays out. For example, in the dismissal prayer of the Church services, when the Priest stands at the Royal Gate at the end of Divine Liturgy (or any service) he offers a prayer which begins “May Christ our true God, Who…” (on Sundays –  is risen from the dead).  After Christmas the Priest says, “May Christ our true God, who was born in a cave and laid in a manger for salvation, through the intercession of the Theotokos, etc.” The “Who is” portion of the prayer reflects the Festal period, which lasts from the Feast until the Leavetaking, the Church is currently celebrating. So, today is the final day the prayer will include a reference to Christmas. Tonight during Great Vespers, the Church will switch to references to the Circumcision of Christ, which is celebrated on January 1st.

You might be wondering then, if today is the Leavetaking of Christmas, why does the Church have the 12 Days of Christmas? This is an important question to understanding the calendar of the Church. For the first 300 or so years of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t celebrated like it is today. The Church celebrated Theophany, or the Lord’s Baptism, as the main feast of the “coming” of God into the world since this was the first public revelation of His presence. It was later that the Church began to focus also on His actual birth, but the two were intimately linked. When the Church “links” events you can also understand the connection in the hymns of the Church.

For example at the Royal Hours of Christmas (celebrated normally on Christmas Eve morning, or the Friday morning before Christmas if Christmas falls on a Sunday or Monday) the Church prays the hymn:
Today is born of a Virgin, he who holds creation in the hollow of his hand (three times). As a mortal he is wrapped in swaddling rags, he who in his being cannot be handled. God lies in a manger, who of old established the heavens in the beginning. He is nourished with milk from the breast, he who rained Manna on the People in the desert. He summons Magi, the Bridegroom of the Church. He accepts their gifts, the Son of the Virgin. We worship your birth, O Christ (three times). Show us also your divine Theophany.
This hymn is sung in the same fashion as “Today is hung upon the Tree…” from Holy Friday. The Church links the two events (Christmas to Theophany) by directing our attention from one event toward the other. From the hymns, we see the emphasis of the Church: the PURPOSE of celebrating Christmas is to LEAD us to Theophany, just as the purpose of celebrating the Crucifixion leads us to the Resurrection. This is why we refer to the 12 Days of Christmas, even though we stop saying Christ is Born after today. This is also why the Church DOES NOT FAST during these days until January 5th, the Eve of Theophany.

So, for one last time, Christ is Born; Glorify Him!

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