Let Us Celebrate, O People!

Let Us Celebrate, O People!

The prefeast celebration of the Lord’s Nativity begins in earnest five days before Christmas.  The services of each of these days call the faithful to prepare themselves for the festival, and to prepare the festival itself.

Let us celebrate, O people,
The prefeast of Christ’s Nativity!
Let us raise our minds on high,
Going up in spirit to Bethlehem.
With the eyes of our souls let us behold the Virgin
As she hastens to the cave to give birth to the Lord and God of all.
When Joseph first saw the mighty wonder
He thought that he saw only a human child wrapped in swaddling clothes,
But from all that came to pass he discovered the Child to be the true God
Who grants great mercy to the world.

Adoration of the Magi. Fresco by Dionisy and sons, 1500 - 1501.
Adoration of the Magi. Fresco by Dionisy and sons, 1500 – 1501.

Let us celebrate, O people,
The prefeast of Christ’s Nativity!
Let us raise our minds on high,
Going up in spirit to Bethlehem.
Let us behold the great mystery in the cavern,
For Eden is opened once again
When God comes forth from a pure Virgin,

Remaining the same perfect God and becoming perfect man.
Therefore let us cry out to Him:
Holy God, Father without beginning!
Holy Mighty, Incarnate Son!
Holy Immortal, the Spirit and Comforter!
O Holy Trinity, glory to You!
[Vespers of the first day of the prefeast of Christmas, December 20]

Let us celebrate, O people! Let us go up in spirit! Let us raise our minds on high! These are not simply exclamations of enthusiastic piety and emotional devotion for the few strange people who like that sort of thing. They are exhortations and commands which are essential to the spiritual life of all human beings who must hear and obey as if their life depended upon it. Because, in a real sense, it does.

We are created to celebrate the gifts of God, and God Himself. This is our reason for being. It is the substance of our lives. All human sin, including the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, is a failure to celebrate properly who God is and what He does for the sake of those who are made in His image and likeness.

The sinful celebration, which ultimately is no celebration at all but simply sin, is one which excludes God and attempts to rejoice in something other than Him and His presence and action in the world. In other words, it is the celebration of God’s gifts without reference to God the Giver. And its inevitable result, necessarily and organically, is dissatisfaction, distress, depression, and finally death itself.

The Christmas season is a time of celebration, a season of gladness and joy. But many people, including many who consider themselves Christians, are devoid of the joyful spirit of celebration. They find the season irritating and unfulfilling, disappointing and depressing, even admitting at times that they are glad when it is over!  The obvious reason for this is that they are celebrating wrongly.

Some people do not celebrate God and His gifts, including the gift of Jesus Christ, at all.  They celebrate carnal pleasures and fleshly lusts.  They may have a lot of fun, but authentic joy eludes them.  They come to the end of the “holiday season” completely burnt out, while craving more of the same because what they got, whatever it was, was certainly not enough.  And, in any case, it’s now over and gone.

“Whilst praising your Offspring…” (Akathist, Ikos 12)

Others come to the festal season with the firm intention to celebrate God’s gift of the Savior. They are super-serious.  They clench their fists and grit their teeth, determined to keep it “religious” and “spiritual.” But when the season is over they are left empty and dead because they have spent their energies looking at others, condemning their foolish behavior, and becoming miserable because of it. Such people are those who instead of filling the human joys of the season with the divine grace of the Lord, ruin the holy time for themselves and their families and friends by cursing the “secularism” and “commercialism” which has infected the feast, instead of blessing God and enjoying the festival for what it really is.  While berating their fellows for not “keeping Christ in Christmas,” they have actually excluded Him from their own celebration by their Pharisaic self-righteousness and condemnation of their brothers and sisters for whom Christ has come and for whom He has died, whether they know it or not.

Let us celebrate, O people! But let us celebrate properly.  Let us go up to Bethlehem, and not into the houses of others.  Let us lift up our minds to the Lord, and not let them stray into the lives of our neighbors. Let us concentrate on God and rejoice in His mercy and love for the world, even the “secularized” and “commercialized” world where the devil reigns. Let us not ruin the festival for ourselves and for our loved ones because of what others are doing or not doing.  Let us strive to “keep Christ in Christmas” for ourselves first of all, by keeping Christ in ourselves and ourselves in Christ.  Then Christmas will be the God-given celebration which it is, the celebration of God’s Coming in the person of His Son. Only in this way will our celebration be pleasing to the Lord, fulfilling for ourselves, and inspiring for others. For it will then be a living testimony to what a celebration really is when it is what God made it to be.

The world today urgently needs divine celebration. And so do many Christians and Christian churches. For while some are having fun, and others are condemning them for doing so, neither the one not the other is really joyful and at peace.  For no one can be satisfied without the presence of the merciful God who loves His creatures and comes to heal and forgive them their foolishness and sin. And no celebration is truly satisfying without God’s compassionate presence of love.

“Having shed the light of truth in Egypt…” (Akathist, Ikos 6)

Come, O faithful,
Begin the celebration!
Sing with the wise men and shepherds!
Salvation comes from the Virgin’s womb,
Recalling the faithful to life.
[Vespers of the first day of the prefeast of Christmas.]

Let us reject the corruption of passions,
Awaiting the visitation of Christ.
Let us come to our senses and receive knowledge,
The gift of the undefiled Lord
Who comes to be clothed in our flesh,
Refashioning us in godliness.

Beholding Christ, let us be exalted through humility.
Let us abandon earthly passions with zeal for good.
Let us learn through faith not to be proud of heart.
Let us humiliate ourselves in spirit,
That by good deeds we may exalt Him who comes to be born.
[Compline of the first day of the prefeast of Christmas.]

About the Author: Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko (1939–2015) was professor of dogmatic theology and served as dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Alongside his numerous books and articles, Father Thomas was also renowned as a gifted speaker and homilist. This chapter is an excerpt from Fr. Thomas’ The Winter Pascha which is available for purchase from SVSPress.Com. Reprinted here with kind permission from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.